The police and party seem powerless to act against violent youth militias demanding protection money from citizens and businesses.
In searing heat last Friday, traders stood about as the "al-Shabaab" took down their names. The scene was a new market in a township in Kwekwe, a mining town in central Zimbabwe, and the local Zanu-PF militia, which has named itself after the militant Somali group, was deciding who would get a stall.
On a wall near the market a sign warned the market's tenants: "Alshabab youth power – beware."
For a "protection fee", the Zanu-PF youths allow people to take up stalls in the market, which bustles with vegetable vendors and metalworkers.
"We don't know each other," shouted one of the militia members. "We do this so we know each other."
Refusal to pay the fee means being put out of business and the police appear powerless to act. When the group recently beat up traders and shut down stores, the militants were only briefly detained by the police.
According to a local councillor, Terrence Dube, members of the militia are also involved in illegal gold mining. Recently, they dug up the local cemetery, but no arrests were made.
"Al-Shabaab" is only one of many such youth groups aligned to Zanu-PF taking root in urban areas in Zimbabwe and taking over control of poor townships.
Zanu-PF had deployed the youth militias to seize control of rebellious urban centres, but now the party appears to be losing control of the gangs, which fund themselves through extortion.
It began in Harare, where the Chipangano group took over the capital's largest township, Mbare, in the name of Zanu-PF. The outfit quickly dismantled the structures of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the township and helped to increase the numbers at Zanu-PF rallies by shutting down markets to force people to attend meetings.
For a while it worked for Zanu-PF; the MDC was being pushed out of the areas it won in elections and senior party officials also took a cut from the militia's extortionist activities. But now Chipangano has spun out of Zanu-PF's control and the party is scrambling to try to crush it.
The group has engaged in clashes with soldiers and police over control of taxi ranks and markets.
The fights have been a major embarrassment to Zanu-PF, but the party appears clueless about how it can regain control of the militias.
Reign of terror
Zanu-PF's secretary for administration, Didymus Mutasa, recently ordered Amos Midzi, party chairperson for Harare, to end Chipangano's reign of terror, saying its activities were "damaging the image of the party".
Midzi responded that he knew nothing about the group, but Mutasa told him publicly that "if you tell me that you don't know that group, I will tell you that you are lying … I want to know why you are not ending it."
Just days after Mutasa's order, police said members of Chipangano shot at police officers who were trying to shut down illegal businesses run by the outfit in a Harare suburb.
Police questioned Zanu-PF Harare youth leader Jimmy Kunaka, widely believed to be the leader of the group. Like most Zanu-PF officials, he has denied any links to Chipangano.
"I'm a [Zanu-PF] provincial chairman. I operate within the structures of Zanu-PF. These allegations that I lead this group are being made by agents of the MDC who are trying to tarnish my image," he said.
The militia has formed cartels that have taken over taxi ranks, pushing out police and city council officials. They demand a "protection fee" from taxi operators and those that fail to pay up are beaten and driven out of business. The cartel is part of a wider network that controls much of township life, from allocating market stalls to deciding who occupies flats.
Precious Shumba, a community organiser with the Harare Residents' Trust, said: "While these individuals started off being assured of Zanu-PF protection and, by extension, protection from arrest, prosecution and subsequent incarceration for human rights violations, they have transformed from being mere pawns in a political game to becoming masters of their own territories, gaining in financial muscle."
Violence and extortion
Piniel Denga, MDC MP for Mbare, said Zanu-PF did not have the political will to stamp out the militias.
Human rights groups said Chipangano's methods of extortion and violence were being exported to other parts of the country, where Zanu-PF is finding it hard to control militia groups operating in its name.
Other groups have emerged in other parts of the country and all are accused of violence and extortion. New groups have been reported in the Zanu-PF strongholds of Chinhoyi and Marambapfungwe. According to a report by the Zimbabwe Peace Project, comprising human rights activists, the militia bases are being revived in Hurungwe, a district that experienced violence in the 2008 elections.
Nobody knows for sure who leads Chipangano. A recent report in the state-owned Herald only said the group was "believed to be aligned to some party officials".
Kunaka denied that he was head of Chipangano and claimed he had protected taxi operators when the MDC-run council wanted to drive them out of business.
Mugabe was a genuine African leader
"The council wanted to replace kombis [minibus taxis] with buses from India. They should be thanking me, not accusing me," he said. "Anybody who claims that I have been violent should come forward. Nobody has ever come forward."
Kunaka said he joined Zanu-PF when he was 13. He vowed he would die to keep Mugabe in power and oppose any attempts to replace him.
Recently he told the Financial Gazette that, unlike former South African president Nelson Mandela, Mugabe was a genuine African leader.
"That story that he [Mandela] was in jail for 27 years is not true. He was not in jail. He was kept in luxury, eating nice food. That's when he sold South Africa," he told the newspaper.
Kunaka claimed that one of his mentors was Tendai Savanhu, a local businessperson and Zanu-PF official, who some people have alleged bankrolls Chipangano. Savanhu has denied any links to the Mbare group.
This week Savanhu, who has failed in several previous attempts to be voted Mbare MP, appeared in the state press donating goods to residents living in Mbare's council-owned flats, which are controlled by Chipangano.
Mugabe shakes a leg in a bid to woo the born-frees' vote
The upcoming election in Zimbabwe must be considered a close contest by Zanu-PF officials – and the youth vote must be the big prize. Why else would President Robert Mugabe, that model of old-school decorum, appear in yet another music video, dancing awkwardly next to a bunch of young men with mohawks?
Two years after his voice was used in music videos singing his praises, a new video is now on repeat on state television.
The plan is to bridge the huge gap between the 88-year-old leader and the young, urban voter. But with his co-stars leaping enthusiastically around him, Mugabe manages only a few reluctant, wooden moves, his grey designer suit out of place next to the bandanas and mohawks of the Born Free Crew.
Shot in Mugabe's office in the capital Harare, the video shows him standing to attention while the singers salute him. They then surround him, dancing and throwing their arms around his shoulders as if he was one of their own. When they finally coax him into a dance, he carefully, if seemingly reluctantly, kicks one leg and then another, wearing a wide grin.
The Born Free Crew has even named a hairstyle after their hero. It is a mohawk but with the word Gushungo (crocodile) – Mugabe's totem – shaved on one side of the head. According to one member of the crew, DJ Anusa, the group's debut CD, packed with Mugabe praise songs, sold more than 3000 copies at the Zanu-PF conference in Bulawayo in December.
Beyond the groups of youth militia it deploys against its opponents, Zanu-PF struggles to find genuine support among the young. The party's nationalist rhetoric finds
little purchase among the born-frees, people born after independence in 1980.
A new strategy is to dole out start-up money for businesses run by youths. About $1-million is available for each of the country's 10 provinces under Zimbabwe's indigenisation programme.
Zanu-PF's Chris Mutsvangwa, a former director of the country's infamous Central Intelligence Agency, believes the "empowerment" strategy will result in youths turning to Zanu-PF. "Zanu-PF goes for the real thing. Your wealth is the basis of your prosperity. If you control wealth, the future of the youth is assured," he said.
More than 62% of Zimbabwe's population is younger than 24, according to official statistics. However, civic group Youth Forum says only 18% of voters in the 2008 elections were aged between 18 and 30. Young Zimbabweans have mostly stayed away from politics.
"This fact has also been buttressed by a negligible youth turnout at various meetings that were meant to capture people's views on the new constitution during the course of 2011," the forum said.
The Election Resource Centre, a voter-education group, recently launched a campaign called the "First Time Voter Generation" in a bid to encourage youths to get more involved in the upcoming polls.
"Our biggest challenge is to convince the youths that their being unemployed and their failure to get access to clean water and medical services could be a result of their failure to use their opportunity to choose their leaders during elections," said the centre's director, Tawanda Chimhini.
Mugabe has warned that youth unemployment posed "a potential threat to national peace and stability". Desperate for change, urban youths have tended to back the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Zanu-PF's attempts at prising that urban youth vote from the MDC have been colourful, if nothing else. They have included placing Mugabe in pop songs, a Gushungo clothing line and even quoting dead United States rapper Tupac in his campaign posters.
But there is little evidence it is working. The elderly Mugabe finds it hard to connect with the young and Zanu-PF's Youth League chairperson, Absolom Sikhosana, is believed to be in his 50s.