( dpa ) - Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has handed out millions of US dollars worth of imported brand new agricultural equipment, vehicles, generators and cattle in what critics said was a massive vote-buying exercise ahead of elections this month.
Simultaneously, the state media reported Sunday that 84-year-old Mugabe, seeking to add another five years to the presidency in his 28 years of rule, had signed into law new legislation that demands that all public or white-owned companies ensure that the majority shareholdings in their businesses are owned by blacks.
Presidential elections on March 29 - to be held simultaneously with parliamentary and local government elections - pit Mugabe against his former finance minister, Simba Makoni, trying to win large-scale defections from Mugabe's ruling ZANU(PF) party, and pro- democracy leader Morgan Tsvangirai of his faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Already churches, human rights organizations and Western diplomats have warned of "ominous signs" of attempts by Mugabe to rig the poll.
On Saturday, according to the ruling party-run Sunday Mail, Mugabe presided over the distribution of 300 40-seater buses, 500 tractors, 20 combine harvesters and a range of other modern farming machinery, as well as 50,000 ox-drawn ploughs and thousands of other peasant farming implements, 5,000 electricity generators, 3,000 mills for grinding maize, 680 motorcycles and 100,000 litres of diesel.
Mugabe said at the ceremony that the goods were part of an agricultural mechanization programme that would "consolidate the gains of our land-reform programme," a reference to the lawless and violent eviction of over 4,500 white farmers and 300,000 farmworkers' families from 2000.
The seizures were followed by a crash of what was regarded as Africa's most robust agricultural industry that supplied food to scores of famine-stricken African nations.
The newspaper did not say who received the goods, but in two similar handouts last year - where 25 million US dollars worth of farm equipment was distributed - the recipients have been identified mostly as cabinet ministers, legislators and ruling party bosses. Human rights groups say they have evidence that the manual implements were given out in peasant farming areas only to people who could produce ruling party cards or chant ruling party slogans.
"Your vote will ensure you benefit from the agricultural mechanization programme," Mugabe said last week.
"This has more to do with vote buying than with agricultural production," economist John Robertson said.
Local press watchdog the Media Monitoring Project Sunday referred to "the now endemic ruling party donations" meant to influence voters into supporting Mugabe.
No mention has been made of the cost of importing all the goods, or where the effectively bankrupt government found the hard currency. Zimbabwe, in 1998 with the second highest GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, is in its ninth year of economic catastrophe, with inflation running at 100,000 per cent, the currency worth just one ten- thousandth of what it was a year ago and GDP down 70 per cent of its value.
The value of the equipment and vehicles was "heavy stuff," Robertson said. "They must have paid cash because no-one anywhere in the world will give us credit."