Fear, Terror and the Spoils of Power: Youth Militias in Zimbabwe

Fear, Terror and the Spoils of Power: Youth Militias in Zimbabwe

It is when fear becomes part of the social fabric of society that the spoils of abused power become most lucrative. Amidst reports of decreased levels of physical violence in the run up to the 31 March election in Zimbabwe some claim that here at least ZANU-PF is making a difference. But this 'new' level of violence is only relative to the horrific tempest that was unleashed in the run up to and aftermath of the 2002 presidential elections. At the same time it is far more a symptom of the overriding apathy and uneasiness with which millions are now living, than any indication that people are more secure.

At the heart of this climate of fear are the graduates of the Zimbabwe National Youth Service or youth militia, as they have become known. These youth have a variety of local names. The ZANU–PF militia", the "Border Gezis", the "Green bombers" and the "Taliban.1 Despite recent efforts, under massive pressure, to down play the role of the militia, and absorb them into existing state security apparatus, their impact on society has been formidable and the ongoing effects of their campaign of intimidation and harassment continue.

The national youth training was launched in Mount Darwin in the first week of August 2001 with 1000 recruits.2 During the last few months of 2001, youth militia training intensified throughout the nation, and by January 2002 was widespread in all provinces. By the end of 2004, it is estimated that around 22 000 boys and girls had passed through formal militia training in the five main camps, with more trained in less formal, often very primitive camps at district level.3

A majority of these graduates are now reported by government to have been incorporated into the country's security services, with a few joining the civil service. According to reports a total of 16 600 graduates from the national youth service, have so far been absorbed by the government's security organisations which include the police force, the army and the secret service. The decision to employ soldiers as officials at polling booths in the upcoming election casts deeper shadows over the role the incorporated youth will play in extending their control.

The individual psychosocial trauma of those who fall victim to the militia extends also to those who graduated from the camps, victims themselves of somebody else's abuse of power. But this is only part of the effect of the militia campaign. The deep communal trauma that now characterises the social fabric of Zimbabwean society has created a climate of collective fear that closes down any opposition and ensures an acceptance of obedience and a dependence on authority.

When it was launched in 2001 the youth militia were presented as a helpful way of channelling the energy of youth and creating opportunities to empower and mobilise. In a speech by Vice President Simon Muzenda at the graduation of over 2,000 youth at Dadaya training centre in the Midlands he described the National Youth Service as follows.4

"The national youth service training programme is a Government nation–building programme that has been designed to correctly inform our youths of their history and more importantly to equip them with skills that enable them to survive the socio–economic challenges facing Zimbabwe as a previously colonised developing nation. It is Government's commitment to ensure that the programme is morally and financially supported since its benefit to the nation far outweighs any cost one would think of.

The modules delivered to youths during the training demystify what many of our youths have been misled to believe, that Africans and their culture are inferior to other inhabitants of this earth, more so to Europeans."

But the reality is far closer to a system that has used crude propaganda, violence and intimidation to indoctrinate youth into thinking that their own impunity and abuse of power is part of the struggle to protect ZANU-PF and Zimbabwe from foreign influence. The sole source of information available to youth in the camps was a photocopied history manual called "Inside the Third Chimurenga".5 The manual consists entirely of speeches made by Robert Mugabe glorifying ZANU-PF heroes and vilifying all opposition as part of a neo-imperial onslaught.

As early as January 2002, army sources confirmed that while the director of the National Youth Service, David Munyoro, was a civilian, the unit was at that time run by a military man, retired Brigadier Boniface Hurungudu. At the same time, the Border Gezi Training Centre was run by colonel Josphat Shumba of the Zimbabwean army, who is a former director of Military Intelligence; out of the 30 instructors heading the youth militia training, 15 were either serving or retired army officials while others were war veterans.6

Also in January 2002 Amnesty International released a memorandum aimed at raising issues of concern with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in advance of their meeting of 13 to 15 January 2002. The memorandum outlined major incidences of violence perpetrated by youth militia. It includes a list of 7 MDC members brutally killed between 20 December 2001 and 1 January 2002.7

In all cases the murders involved gangs of militia, often accompanied or led by war veterans.

Other examples of violence recorded in the report include torture and the destruction of property, including the burning down and/or vandalising of homesteads in various parts of the country. In addition there have been widespread reports of roadblocks set up to search for civilians not carrying ZANU-PF membership cards. Those found without cards were usually severely beaten or robbed of their identity cards, thus effectively disenfranchising them.8

A press release from Amnesty International released in April 20029 contains further evidence of sexual abuse on a large scale. Amnesty International officials interviewed militia rape victims themselves, and also received documentation of rape and sexual abuse from human rights organisations, including Amani Trust and the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers' Association. The latter claimed that around 1,000 women were believed to be held in militia camps, for sexual purposes. In Masvingo, reports were received of farm workers being raped by militia while their husbands were forced to look on. In some instances, men were forced by militia to sodomise each other.

Following widespread reports of human rights violations in Zimbabwe, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (African Commission) at its 29th Ordinary Session held in Tripoli from 23rd April to 7th may 2001 decided to undertake a fact-finding mission to the Republic of Zimbabwe from 24th to 28th June 2002.10

According to the report, released only in 2004, there was enough evidence placed before the Mission to suggest that, at the very least during the period under review, human rights violations occurred in Zimbabwe. The Mission was presented with testimony from witnesses who were victims of political violence and others victims of torture while in police custody.

On the youth militia the AU Commission admitted, "Reports suggest that these youth serve as party militia engaged in political violence." It went further to propose, "… that these youth camps be closed down and training centres be established under the ordinary education and employment system of the country." The Africa Commission further commended that the Zimbawean authorities study and implement the Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Africa adopted by the African Commission at its 32nd Ordinary Session held in Banjul, The Gambia in October 2002.

The report also addressed the issue of the politicisation of the police force. The incorporation of poorly trained militias into the security services appears to act directly against these recommendations, "Every effort must be made to avoid any further politicisation of the police service. The police service must attract all Zimbabweans from whatever political persuasion or none to give service to the country with pride. The police should never be at the service of any political party but must at all times seek to abide by the values of the Constitution and enforce the law without fear or favour. Recruitment to the service, conditions of service and in-service training must ensure the highest standards of professionalism in the service. … There were also reports that elements of the CIO were engaged in activities contrary to the international practice of intelligence organisations. These should be brought under control."

In the run up to the 31 March elections there is increasing pressure on SADC member states, SADC itself and the African Union to acknowledge that this climate alone is in direct violation of the SADC Principles and Guidelines governing elections. The Zimbawe Solidarity and Consultation Forum, a network of progressive South African civil society organizations including youth, women, labour, churches, human rights and student formations noted at its recent 3rd Zimbabwe Solidarity Conference11 that "the overwhelming evidence of the use of torture, intimidation, beatings and harassment to control the political space and marginalise opposition makes it clear that the forthcoming March 31 elections will not be remotely compliant with the SADC Principles and Guidelines governing elections."

There is a growing concern that SADC governments might try to reach a pragmatic agreement on the election pronouncement in the hopes that this will bring some kind of stability to the region. This will enable the militia and the security forces to continue using fear and terror as tools of control. There is every possibility that after 31 March ZANU-PF will be able to point to more votes at the polls and claim this as an indication of support for its policies. The securing of a two-thirds majority would be the icing on the cake. Using violence, propaganda and an iron fisted control of the electoral process ZANU-PF will have been able to manipulate itself into a position of absolute power.

But the psychosocial trauma will continue to brew and the roots of conflict in Zimbabwe will grow stronger and deeper. A social, economic and political crisis will continue to haunt the region for decades to come. The survival of the values of our own liberation as enshrined in our constitution, the credibility of our newly created regional and continental institutions, designed to protect and empower, and the security of youth everywhere, demand that we speak out and take action.

The time to act for change is now, the struggle for freedom continues.


1 National youth service training – "shaping youths in a truly Zimbabwean manner" An overview of youth militia training and activities in Zimbabwe, October 2000 – August 2003 by THE SOLIDARITY PEACE TRUST 5 September, 2003.

2 The Zimbabwe Independent, 2 August 2001: "War veterans to take charge of national youth training", is the source of information in this sub–section.

3 Daily News online edition, 14-Dec, 2004Youth militia creep into security services.

4 The Chronicle, Bulawayo, 23 February, 2003: "Government committed to national youth service".

5 Inside the Third Chimurenga, by President Robert G. Mugabe, Department of Information and Publicity, Harare, December 2001.

6 Daily News, Harare, 30 January 2002: "Army behind youth training".

7 Amnesty International, January 2002: Memorandum to SADC on the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe.

8 SADC Parliamentary Forum Report on Presidential election March 2002; Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum Research Unit: "Briefing Paper No. 1: Pre–Election Danger Signals of Large–Scale Disenfranchisement".

9 Amnesty International press release, 5 April 2002: "Zimbabwe: Assault and sexual violence by militia".

10 Executive Summary of the Report of the Fact-finding Mission to Zimbabwe, Report by The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (African Commission) 24th to 28th June 2002.

11 Conference statement, 3rd Zimbabwe Solidarity Conference, Tshwane, South Africa, 25 February 2005.

Richard Smith is the Programme Manager of the Peacebuilding Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in Ceasefire Anti-War News, 1 March 2005.

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