Zimbabwe’s notorious youth service revived ahead of election season

With anti-government activism on the rise, ZANU-PF sets its sights on winning the critical youth vote in 2023.

Zimbabwe’s infamous National Youth Service (NYS), dubbed the Border Gezi Youth Militia or Green Bombers, is set to be resuscitated ahead of the country’s 2023 national election campaign season. This is a worrying development considering that the programme is alleged to have unleashed terror on civilians not aligned with the ruling party, particularly during the last two decades of Robert Mugabe’s rule.

The youth service was established in 2001 and closed after six years due to chronic funding shortages. A decade later, the youth minister and nephew of Robert Mugabe, Patrick Zhuwao, resurrected the programme. Within a few months, however, Zhuwao fled into exile following the military takeover that ended his uncle’s presidency in November 2017.

Fast forward to April 2021, when the cabinet approved a proposal to introduce a National Youth Training Programme. Spearheaded by former Olympic swimmer and Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation Kirsty Coventry, the initiative is a two-way partnership between the ministries of youth and defence and war veterans.

During a media briefing on 13 April in Harare, Information and Publicity Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the programme was ‘vital and urgent to instil a culture of honesty, patriotism, hard work, discipline and volunteerism’ amongst the country’s young men and women. The government aims to attach trainees to health and education departments to gain practical work experience.

Like its predecessors, the programme is expected to service the security sector and the ruling party

In the past however, NYS members had mandatory military training. They were allegedly used for political purposes, especially in rural and peri-urban areas, and linked to election-related violence, including sexual abuse and torture.

As early as 2003, analysts argued that NYS trainees were exposed to murder, torture and rape as both victims and perpetrators. Like its predecessor, the revived programme is anticipated to primarily provide boots on the ground for the security sector and ruling party.

The information minister defended the move, saying it would enable Zimbabwe to meet its obligations towards the youth under the SADC Revised Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan, the African Youth Charter and the UN Youth Strategy 2030. Given its notorious history however, the new NYS has little in common with these regional and international strategies.

A national youth programme should develop young people’s socio-economic skills to prepare them for entry into the job market. The militaristic nature of Zimbabwe’s past effort steered youth towards work in the army, police and prison services. It was a missed opportunity to build the country’s labour force.

The new NYS could undermine youth development if young people are again used for political ends

In contrast, the youth programmes of Zimbabwe’s neighbours such as South Africa and Namibia, avoid strong ties with defence departments because of the risk of ‘militarising’ youth on a large scale.

Zimbabwe’s revived NYS could undermine youth development if recruits are again used for narrow political ends under the veil of non-partisan training. Intimidation by groups of young people in the town of Bindura in Mashonaland Central has already been reported. According to the Zimbabwe Peace Project, residents were warned to 'join ZANU-PF before it is too late.’ An NYS centre could also be established at a former military base in the town.

A youth empowerment organisation in Harare told ISS Today that young people feared a NYS certificate could become a requirement for work seekers, especially in the public sector. The country is already facing chronic job shortages due to the failing economy and the devastating impact of COVID-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, youth activism has been on the rise in Zimbabwe. Scores of protestors have been arrested and prosecuted for public displays of discontent fuelled by government’s attempts to amend the constitution. Influential youth-led activist groups such as the Zimbabwe National Students Union are becoming increasingly vocal on civic issues, calling for authorities to adhere to democratic principles.

Youth activism is bound to be unsettling for the authorities as the national election cycle approaches

Such activities are bound to be unsettling for the government as the national election cycle approaches. Watchdogs like the Zimbabwe Peace Project already fear that human rights violations are on the rise as campaigning begins.

According to the 2012 census, young people made up almost 54% of the country’s eligible voters. This means the youth vote is vital for the ruling ZANU-PF party to win elections in 2023. In past polls, voter registration among young people has been low, as have actual votes cast.

The opposition and civil society in Zimbabwe have been expecting the political space to shrink ahead of polling. What they didn’t anticipate was the government’s return to the dangerous game of youth indoctrination in the form of the NYS.

Thousands of young Zimbabweans are struggling to survive amid unemployment and destitution. It seems they must now also prepare to resist being used in what could become a violent and controversial poll.

Muneinazvo Kujeke, Research Officer, ISS Pretoria

This article is funded by the Training for Peace Programme.

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