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Youth programme stirs controversy

The National youth training programme is becoming inexorably controversial following allegations that it is being used to harass opposition sympathizers.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Officially launching the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) bid for the 2005 parliamentary seats in July President Robert Mugabe appealed to graduates of the controversial national youth training programme to ensure his party smooth passage in securing majority votes. "I place all my hopes in your campaigning skills," Mugabe said. "You have the means of securing of party victory."

Mugabe's speech, although innocent in outlook, was highly criticised especially in opposition circles. It was felt that Mugabe had condoned violence as graduates of this programme, with camps scattered all over the country, have gained notoriety in the
countryside due to the terror campaign they have unleashed on opposition supporters since its formation in 2000.

Their reign of terror, which included murder, rape torture tactics and assaults, on members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is said to have secured Mugabe victory in the closely contested 2002 Presidential elections.

But Deputy Commandant Nkiwane who runs a camp northwest of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city in the southern parts of the country does not share this view. He swears the camp he runs in northwestern Zimbabwe is above political allegiances.

Nkiwane's camp is in Matebeleland province, an area occupied by the Ndebele people who have continually snubbed the majority Shona tribe run ZANU-PF because
of the post- independence differences that resulted in Mugabe unleashing a Korean trained army unit that caused untold atrocities and resulted in the death of over 20 000

On paper, the 90-day programme is meant to instill a "sense of responsible citizenship among the youth". Zimbabweans between the ages of 14 and 30 are prepared
for "the world and for work in their country".

From his makeshift office in a secluded former army barracks, Nkiwane maintains that recruits are merely given an understanding of nationhood, culture and gender tolerance - as well as some lessons in post-colonial history that they may not have received
at school.

This updated syllabus could include the assertion that neighbouring "Botswana is claiming our land up to the Khami Ruins" (just outside Bulawayo), because Botswana says the landmark was named after Sir Seretse Khama - the country's first post-independence president.

Mozambique, on the east, is also accused of trying to seize the land around Odzi River, in southeastern Zimbabwe, to enlarge its territory.

Nevertheless, since the programme's inception in 2000 and the deployment of the first trainees in December 2001, it has been dogged by a welter of criticism and demands for its disbandment. The main complaint is that it is simply a ruse by the ruling party's
government to brainwash hapless youths, and turn them into a militia for terrorising the opposition.

The Solidarity Peace Trust, a grouping of southern African church groups, points out that the need for national service was never formally debated in Parliament and that there is no legislation controlling its implementation.

The trust also notes that school leavers are denied access to tertiary training and civil service posts, including those in teaching and nursing, without proof of their having completed the national service.

Following the implementation of controversial land reforms four years ago, Zimbabwe has suffered extreme hardships, including food shortages and triple-digit inflation. Unemployment is hovering at the brink of a regional catastrophe, as unemployed Zimbabweans are invading neighbouring countries in search of jobs.

Tavaka Nyoni was part of a group of 1 000 trainees that graduated in July last year at the Border Gezi Training Centre, a camp in northern Zimbabwe named after the deceased Cabinet minister who formulated the programme.

He says recruiters from various branches of the government - including the army, air force, police and national parks department - made regular visits to select trainees who could join their ranks.

Representatives from nurse and teacher-training colleges also selected trainees, some of whom were taken away before they finished the programme.

Although Nyoni has since secured a government job, he does not have much praise for the youth service. "Most people go there just to build up their lives," Nyoni says. "You'll be desperate for a job. You'll be having no choice."

He describes the training as "half-military" with much emphasis being placed on drills -- although he was not trained to use a gun. Physical exercise and national history formed the biggest components of the programme.

"The bad things they don't mention," he says. "They don't talk about the (opposition) MDC, but mention that Britain is imposing sanctions and we have to defend our country. The way they talk to you, it's like they want you to be on their side."

The Solidarity Peace Trust believes that the national youth service programme merely pretends to be a training scheme that imparts useful skills and patriotic values to the youth.

"The reality is a paramilitary training programme for Zimbabwe's youth with the clear aim of inculcating blatantly anti-democratic, racist and xenophobic
attitudes," it says, adding, "The youth militia is now referred to by government as compulsory."

The group has catalogued atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the national service trainees in the run-up to presidential elections in March 2002, and concluded that trainees were used as instruments to maintain ZANU PF's hold on power by whatever means necessary - including torture, rape, murder and arson.

It estimates that by the end of 2002, about 9 000 young men and women had passed through training in the five main camps, which are mostly former army barracks. Up to 20 000 youths may have trained in less formal surroundings, often primitive camps at district

Nevertheless, bad publicity, reports of acute food shortages in the training camps, alleged sexual abuse and the ridicule to which trainees are subjected have combined to reduce the attractiveness of the training programme.

David Munyoro, permanent secretary in the government ministry responsible for the programme, dismisses criticism of bias towards the ruling party, saying only whites could have reason to complain. "What is wrong with a programme that tries to give you an identity of your country?" argues Munyoro.

He also claims that enlistment is purely voluntary: "We need to design it in such a way that one feels he's not a man until he's gone through it."

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