The Zimbabwean government plans to increase the number of its youth training camps that critics say turn young people into militants for the ruling Zanu PF party. The program has been folded into a government structure and new funds are being earmarked for the expansion.
Four more youth training camps are set to open in 2005, bringing the total to ten nationwide. Minister of Youth, Ambrose Mutinhiri, recently told the state-controlled daily newspaper, The Herald, that some of the centers, which had closed down for lack of funds, have been refurbished and will re-open shortly.
Mr. Mutinhiri also said the National Youth Service Unit has been transformed into a full government department and will be funded out of the ministry's budget. Until now, the program has been funded through a grant.
The National Youth Service was established a year after the 2000 parliamentary elections the government almost lost to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The government says the program is necessary to inculcate patriotism, national consciousness and national orientation.
The curriculum includes military training and survival skills. Although it is not compulsory, youths who have undergone the six-month training in the camps get preferential access to government and other public institutions.
Critics of the program say the youth are being turned into a militia for the ruling ZANU-PF party. Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, the chairman of the Solidarity Peace Trust, a human rights non-governmental organization, described the youth training scheme as "a paramilitary training program for Zimbabwe's youth." He said, the clear aim of the program is to, in his words, "inculcate blatantly anti-democratic, racist and xenophobic attitudes".
Nelson Chamisa, youth secretary for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, says while his party subscribes to the idea of instilling patriotism in Zimbabweans, the government is going about it the wrong way.
"You don't need to train people in the camps, people have to inherit a sense of patriotism, it is a culture, a practice," he said. "You don't inculcate a sense or a culture of patriotism by beating up people but you do so by teaching values at family level ensuring that at least we have certain programs at very elementary level where people are taught about what it means being a Zimbabwean, the values, the principles and the unifying thread of who we are."
A report compiled by the Peace Solidarity Trust accuses graduates of the camps, known as the Green Bombers because of their uniforms, of a number of human rights abuses of those seen as opponents of the ruling party. Violations listed in the report include murder, rape, torture, arson, mounting of illegal roadblocks to punish those without Zanu-PF party cards and disruption of MDC rallies.
Despite the negative attention the program continues to attract, Mr. Mutinhiri says it is there to stay.