British couple to sue Tanzania over farm deal that 'ended in death threats'
Fight at the international arbitration court comes as UK promotes private investment in east African country
Tanzania's president Jakaya Kikwete met David Cameron at Downing Street earlier this month. Photograph: Reuters
Sunday 20 April 2014
A British couple aim to take Tanzania to an international arbitration court after they were forced to flee following what they say was a campaign of harassment and intimidation, including death threats.
If it goes to court, the case could prove embarrassing for the UK and Tanzania at a time when the British government is promoting private investment in the east African country.
Sarah Hermitage and Stewart Middleton bought the lease to Silverdale farm in the Kilimanjaro area from Benjamin Mengi, a businessman, in 2004. Hermitage, a solicitor, and Middleton, an agronomist with extensive experience in Africa, planned to make the 216 hectares (533 acres) of prime farmland their home and business. Silverdale employed about 150 people to grow green beans, baby corn, seed maize and coffee beans.
The following year, Mengi disputed the acquisition of the lease of £67,474, paid in two instalments, claiming that the assignment of the lease agreement was "null and void". The couple say Mengi began threatening them, damaging their property and intimidating their staff.
"It was state harassment, not a dispute," said Hermitage. "There is no doubt in my mind they would have killed us, and I want my government to hold them to account … He had no intention of letting us have that farm."
Asked why the couple were suing Tanzania rather than Mengi himself, she said: "We're not bringing a lawsuit against Mengi because the Tanzanian courts have failed to protect us or afford us justice. This is part of our claim against Tanzania. The Tanzanian courts, police and other authorities have not only failed to protect us and our employees, but actively assisted the harassment campaign to drive us from our farm and the country. Our claims are not about a private dispute with Mengi but about Tanzania's failure to respect its obligations to protect foreign investors, including from corruption, threats and violence."
As Hermitage and Middleton prepare to take their multimillion-dollar case to the international centre for settlement of investment disputes at the World Bank, the UK is pressing ahead with commercial ties with Tanzania. Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzanian president, met David Cameron at Downing Street in early April as part of a trip to talk up his country as a destination for British companies.
This followed a visit in November to Tanzania by Justine Greening, the international development secretary, when she and Mizengo Pinda, the Tanzanian prime minister, announced a "high-level prosperity partnership" to encourage closer bilateral commercial ties.
Sir Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet in Kent, whose constituents include Hermitage and Middleton, has lobbied successive Foreign Office ministers for Africa over the years and is incensed that the British government is encouraging British companies to invest in Tanzania despite what happened at Silverdale.
"We should not be promoting foreign investment there. My constituents have had their entire livelihood taken from them with complete impunity," said Gale. "The Tanzanian government has been reluctant to act – it won't or can't do anything. Africa needs good farmers. Stewart was one of those. He has a lot to offer. He was providing livelihoods – all that has gone and been vandalised."
In response to Gale's queries, in 2009, the Tanzanian high commissioner in London claimed that the "police investigations did not find any evidence of threat on their [Hermitage and Middleton's] lives" and "police and anti-corruption bureau investigated the allegations but none was proved true".
Various British high commissioners have sought to press the couple's case, but Gale believes the Foreign Office should have done more.
When Gale brought up the case in a parliamentary question in February, Mark Simmonds, the minister for Africa, responded: "The British government has raised the case of Silverdale farm at the highest levels on a number of occasions. I raised the issue with the Tanzanian agricultural minister on 24 October last year and have done so with the Tanzanian foreign minister on numerous occasions. We will continue to discuss the investment climate in our conversations with the Tanzanian government."
Hermitage and Middleton have also found a stalwart supporter in Edward Clay, the former high commissioner to Kenya, who famously spoke of gluttonous Kenyan officials "vomiting over our [donors'] shoes".
Clay wrote several letters to Greening's predecessor, Andrew Mitchell, on the couple's behalf, and is critical of the international development committee (IDC) for not flagging up Silverdale.
"IDC's job is scrutiny of the aid budget in the interests of the British taxpayer, not to promote aid willy-nilly," said Clay. "In assessing aid's utility in Tanzania, IDC members' access and authority in Tanzania could be used to promote redress of abuses of British investors."
In another twist to the saga, Benjamin Mengi's brother, Reginald, a media magnate, brought a libel case against Hermitage in the UK in 2012 in connection with Silverdale. Reginald sued Hermitage in the high court after she had written and made public five blog posts and two emails concerning an alleged defamatory campaign waged against her and her husband during their legal dispute with Benjamin Mengi. Reginald Mengi claimed that he "was not responsible, not accountable and not answerable" for the editorial content of newspapers controlled by his company, IPP Media.
In a ruling in Hermitage's favour , Mr Justice Bean said: "I find that the campaign in the Guardian and Nipashe [newspapers owned by IPP Media] facilitated Benjamin's corruption of local officials and intimidation of the Middletons and thus helped Benjamin to destroy their investments and grab their properties; and that Mr [Reginald] Mengi, since he either encouraged or knowingly permitted the campaign, was in that sense complicit in Benjamin's corruption and intimidation. The allegation is thus substantially true, and justified at common law."
Mengi did not respond to requests for comment from the Guardian.