04/03/2017 06:01 GMT | Updated 04/03/2017 06:02 GMT

Is Mugabe Plotting To 'Unleash Terror' Ahead Of The 2018 Elections?

President Robert Mugabe speaks to supporters gathered to celebrate his 93rd birthday at Matopas near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, February 25, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has called for the reintroduction of the National Youth Service (NYS), a move seen by the opposition as a plot by the veteran leader to "unleash violence" ahead of the 2018 presidential elections.

Speaking during his 93rd birthday celebrations in Matopo last week, Mugabe, who has been endorsed as Zanu-PF's candidate for next year's vote, called for the resuscitation of the project whose members critics viewed as his "storm-troopers".

Local media quoted the nonagenarian as saying: "There must be national national youth service, I don't know why we have slowed on this one. We certainly must start the national youth service programme."

The youth service programme was launched at the start of the millennium and it coincided with the advent of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) whose leader Morgan Tsvangirai then posed a sterner challenge to the ruling party and Mugabe's stranglehold on power, critics noted.

'Shining amour'

The "Green Bombers", as members of the NYS were derogatorily referred to by critics, were viewed as Mugabe's "shock-troops" used ahead of all elections to intimidate and instill fear among opposition supporters, as most of the political violence was attributed to them and war veterans.

The programme later collapsed due to lack of funding amid local and international criticism, as graduates were accused of gross human rights violations against the opposition.

But with Mugabe having fallen out with a faction of the war veterans, the Green Bombers could be seen as his "shining armour" in the fight to win the elections.

In an interview with News24, Rashid Mahiya, the executive director of Heal Zimbabwe Trust, a peace building and conflict transformation organisation, said he believed the reintroduction of the national youth service was not only a threat to communities already living in fear but also a disservice to, and abuse of the country's young people who remained trapped in poverty, unemployment and general lack of opportunities.

"If indeed it sees the light of day it will be the most selfish, brutal and dishonest instrumentalisation and abuse of the country's largest demographic by the government," he said, pointing out that the Green Bombers left a well-documented history of unmitigated violence, torture and political persecution of ordinary citizens, opposition politicians and their supporters.

Mahiya said Zimbabwe youths needed jobs and "not some brutal military training to defend politicians from the free will verdict of the electorate in 2018".

'Traumatised by brutality'

Instead of reintroducing the national youth service, the government should, through the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission recall all youths who went through the training in previous years for rehabilitation, he added.

"A lot of them [Green Bombers] are traumatised by the brutality they were forced to mete out on innocent citizens, the murders they committed, the rape and all the inhuman treatment they went through in the camps where young women were abused. The only responsible thing to do is provide opportunities for rehabilitation, truth telling and reparations."

Reason Wafawarova, a Zanu-PF functionary who was instrumental in the founding of the NYS in 2001 before relocating to Australia, told News24 that the programme had since fallen prey to partisan political interests' machinations within Zanu-PF.

"The NYS as reconstituted in 2001 was a revival of a typical National Youth Service programme modelled around the Israeli, Botswana and Ghana models, with moderations to suit the Zimbabwean context," said Wafawarova in an interview.

'Dangerous attempts'

"The idea was to instil in the youth a sense of national pride, patriotism, voluntarism, and self-sustenance (entrepreneurship).­ I would not know to what extend the programme has been politicised this day, but when I was part of that programme, there were dangerous attempts to hijack the programme for partisan interests, and we fiercely resisted some of these attempts."

He attributed partisan interests to turn the Green Bombers into what was largely viewed by critics as an appendage of Mugabe and Zanu-PF election machinery, mostly to "pure ignorance by some instructors and other workers who had the misimpression that they had been hired for a party programme".

"Some of it was deliberate interference by some people with personal political interests. We resisted by constantly reminding trainees and staff that we were carrying out a national programme, and that our aim was to make sure that key national institutions were manned by people with Zimbabwe at heart. That was the message we always sent to everyone but it was not easy," he said.

Wavawarova was adamant the NYS would always remain relevant if carried out properly and for national ends.

Wafawarova was the deputy director in the department of NYS. -- News24