PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe, one of the oldest presidential candidates in history, is building his re-election plank for next year’s polls on the youth, despite a poor record on a key issue for the demographic — employment creation.
Mugabe, who will be 94 next year, is actively seeking the youth vote after spectacularly falling out with a significant faction of veterans of the 1970s war of liberation.
The war veterans have been a key cog in Mugabe’s election machinery since 1980, but their importance grew in 2000 as his ZANU-PF faced its stiffest challenged from the labour-backed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Demobilised war veterans teamed up with their counterparts still serving in the military to mount a terror campaign that cowed the opposition and secured Mugabe successive, yet disputed, electoral triumphs.
That has changed, with notable military figures openly siding with disaffected war veterans pushing for Mugabe to step down for one of his longest-serving lieutenants, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Ever the political grandmaster despite his advanced age and reported health problems, Mugabe has made his move, using the youth to outflank his internal rivals. He will address his fifth rally inside two months this weekend, in his home province of Mashonaland West on Saturday.
Mugabe’s calculations are not without basis: 75 percent of Zimbabwe’s population was born two years into the country’s independence, making up the biggest voting bloc, which has no sentimental attachment to the 1970s war. Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s election campaigns have, up to now, been anchored on their contribution to the struggle for liberation.
Often derided by Luke Tamborinyoka, Tsvangirai’s spokesman, as “an analogue President in a digital era”, Mugabe seeks to confound his critics by scoring big with the youth next year.
But his bid to entice the youths to vote for him faces immense challenges, not least burgeoning unemployment, estimated to be running upwards of 90 percent. Another problem is that demographic is notoriously ballot-shy.
Analysis of Zimbabwe’s voter register used in the 2013 election by the Research and Advocacy Unit found that while the youth make up 41 percent of eligible voters, only 14 percent of them are registered to vote.
The 2018 election could be the one where, tired of voting with their feet (in any case, an emigrant’s options continue to narrow as the world is not the welcoming ‘global village’ it sought to be at the turn of the century), Zimbabwe’s young turn up to vote.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF are by no means oblivious of that.
Defying his age and reported ill-health, Mugabe has taken to the hustings a year ahead of the polls and while his rivals are still wrangling over a mooted coalition to take him down.
“Our institutions, the universities have lots of young people, let us not ignore them,” Mugabe exhorted his youth league in Lupane last week, making a tilt to a key demographic.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 100 000 students enrolled in technical colleges, teacher training institutions, vocational colleges and universities.
Annually, the colleges churn out tens of thousands of graduates who struggle to find formal employment.
This is a reality that Mugabe and ZANU-PF, who boldly promised to deliver two million jobs by 2018 in the last election, will have to grapple with.
The closest Mugabe has come, during his ‘youth interface rallies’ to addressing youth unemployment has been his constant exhortation for young people to be “entrepreneurial.”
“We don’t want to hear people complaining that we don’t have jobs,” he said in Masvingo on June 30.
“Be enterprising, be a self-helper and not wait to get help from others…”
The opposition will dismiss Mugabe’s opportunistic entrepreneurial drive at its peril. Almost incredibly, ZANU-PF has managed to create a social base out of desperate unemployed youths, who turn to the party for regular alms.
ZANU-PF has been luring this bloc with promises of residential land and mining claims as well as ‘youth loan funds’ that are often announced around election time.
The ruling party is frantically working towards the establishment of banks specifically targeting women and youth.
Recently, government announced it had secured a $100 million loan from China, to be doled out to artisanal miners, said to number an astonishing 1,5 million.
Small scale miners are growing in clout and are now estimated to contribute about 43 percent of the country’s gold output, which exceeded 20 tonnes last year. To this potential voting bloc, add thousands of young tobacco farmers earning thousands of dollars annually from the crop, and you have a formidable counter-weight to opinionated, networked urban youth who frequently deride Mugabe as old-fashioned on social media.