Zimbabwe's National Youth Service
Graduates of Zimbabwe's National Youth Service training programme parade at the official birthday celebrations of President Robert MugabeREUTERS/Howard Burditt

Zimbabwe's political opposition has expressed fears of a "bloody" 2018 election campaign after it emerged President Robert Mugabe had urged for the reintroduction of the National Youth Service (NYS) programme.

As the 2018 general election closes in, Zimbabwe is entering a period of acute risk of mass atrocities, according to the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.

Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party, which has been in power since the country gained independence from the UK in 1980, has repeatedly repressed political opponents and is accused of using mass atrocities against civilians to consolidate power.

Addressing guests at his 93rd birthday celebrations last week in Matobo, Matabeleland South Province, Mugabe said the training programme, which was established in 2001, was necessary to instil national pride and discipline among the nation's youth.

Known as the "Green Bombers", the NYS graduates were accused of human rights abuses and brutal crackdowns against opposition activists and supporters, particularly in the run-up to the 2008 elections.

Human Rights Watch previously said Mugabe's Zanu-PF-led government was responsible, at the highest levels, "for widespread and systematic abuses that led to the killing of up to 200 people, the beating and torture of 5,000 more, and the displacement of about 36,000 people" during the 2008 elections.

The NYS programme was discontinued a few years ago due to lack of funding.

"These young thugs are the storm troopers of the Zanu-PF regime. They are the modern-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler's Gestapo. The whole idea is to intimidate and unleash violence on the innocent and toiling masses of Zimbabwe, particularly in rural areas," Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) opposition party spokesman Obert Gutu is quoted as saying by NewsDay newspaper. "When Mugabe once boasted that he has got degrees in violence, he wasn't joking. He was damn serious."

Speaking on the behalf of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), Jacob Mafume, referred to the NYS programme as a "watered-down version" of the Fifth Brigade - an elite unit of specially trained Zimbabwean soldiers accused of being implicated in the 1980s Gukurahundi killings of an estimated 20,000 in Matabeleland.

"This is a murderous programme in which youths are indoctrinated to be violent and abusive. It is a watered-down version of the Fifth Brigade targeting the whole country. People will be beaten, killed and abused by those youths," Mafume, said.

Mugabe's one-time ally and deputy, Joice Mujuru – who launched her new party, Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF) in March last year – said Mugabe's administration should invest in infrastructure development and job creation instead of fabricating "merchants of violence".

Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party confirmed Mugabe as its candidate for the 2018 elections, in spite of his age. Several opposition parties are currently reported to be in talks for a grand coalition and are expected to back a single presidential candidate.