CHIKOMBA – It is game on in many parts of the country where United Nations-sponsored inter-party football for peace matches are helping ease grassroots political tensions.
With cooperation from wobbly coalition government partners, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has pumped the top dollar into a concept which eased conflict and child abuse in countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Angola and Bosnia.
The sport for peace project is gaining a foothold in many of Zimbabwe’s politically volatile communities ahead of a watershed general election. Coalition principals agree their four-year union is fast inching towards its sell by date, but are haggling over actual timing and reforms necessary for a credible poll.
And they agree that violence has to be stamped out.
Hence from Murewa to Matabeleland, grassroots officials from the Zanu PF and the two MDC parties in the shaky coalition are donning party T-shirts and tussling in football matches across dusty soccer pitches in some of Zimbabwe’s remote areas.
The football skills are hardly up there.
Comical moves by community party officials trying to play a Lionel Messi and refereeing that makes Howard Webb a saint are the order of things at such events as conflict-weary Zimbabwe tries to find a formula out of successive election-related violence.
In a soccer mad country where national team success is thin, folks only get to watch the good football on television.
But at least these amateurish MDCs/ Zanu PF football matches are bringing good out of Zimbabweans, in spite of their long history of State-sponsored internal strife.
Well, everywhere else except here in Chikomba.
UNDP and Jomic attempts to use soccer to erase the fear factor are falling through the cracks in this Mashonaland East Constituency, which has recorded some of the most gruesome political violence since 2000.
A recent attempt to lure Zanu PF youths into Jomic programmes at Masasa Secondary School through a soccer match and small stipend failed spectacularly.
The place is blazing hot.
But residents tired of inter party fighting enthusiastically turn out to watch the rare spectacle of Zanu PF youths battling it out with the two MDC formations in a friendly soccer game.
Not much business goes on at the nearby Masasa Business Centre.
A grocery shop and few other ventures are struggling to survive in a sign how rural businesses are going under as harsh economic conditions persist four years after the formation of the fragile “unity” government.
Loud music from a dingy, tiny Hozheri Bar tries to breathe life but the few patrons here are more interested in the match’s kick off time.
Organised by the Jomic northern region youth desk comprising all three governing but constantly fighting parties, the event has roused the interest of the community.
And it all looks promising at first. Tsvangirai and Ncube’s teams are already in their kit and warming up.
Party officials driving all terrain Jomic vehicles are regularly on the phone and they assure us they are talking to Varaidzo Mupunga, the Zanu PF Jomic regional liaison officer.
“Varaidzo says they will be here shortly. She is actually in Chivhu getting some of the players,” an MDC official tells us.
Then it becomes a waiting game with Zanu PF nowhere in sight; except Varaidzo is still making promises over the phone that her team will pitch up.
As the hours tick, there is rejection all round that this UNDP project is just about to flop in one of the areas where peace initiatives are needed most given the history of political violence.
And then — after eight hours of waiting — there is a glimmer of hope.
“Zanu PF is here,” shouts one official and indeed a Jomic vehicle troops in with Varaidzo and several party officials on board.
There is no soccer team in sight.
“Guys we tried our best to get a team together but the youths have flatly refused,” announces Varaidzo after a round of greetings and hugs with the MDC officials.
“You know we didn’t sleep trying to ensure this match happens but the youths have genuine concerns,” chips in Zanu PF national youth secretary for security John Mushayi.
An air of camaradie exists between the officials across the parties and bottles of water and drinks go round as they huddle for a “closed door meeting” on the way forward.
Yet, Varaidzo and her MDC company appear unable to get their warm ties at the top rub on their youths who are usually used as the shock troopers whenever an election beckons.
“As youths we have withdrawn our participation in these programmes because our colleagues are using them as a platform to campaign for their parties. Moreover they are abusing Jomic vehicles for the same purposes yet we know Jomic is non-partisan,” Mushayi later tells the Daily News.
He says MDC Jomic focal person Lovemore Kadenge, who is eyeing the Chikomba East parliamentary seat, has effectively turned the Jomic vehicle into a party campaign resource.
“We are committed to peace but we cannot fold our hands while our opponents are using the peace initiative to penetrate our strongholds. We have written to Jomic to express our displeasure but they have not responded so we are withdrawing until this is resolved,” Mushayi says.
The MDC formations are however far from convinced by this explanation and are furious.
Piniel Denga, the provincial chairperson for Tsvangirai’s MDC denies that his party is campaigning using Jomic programmes and resources.
“Kadenge is from this area so maybe they sometimes see him with his relatives or just helping fellow villagers with transport but he is not abusing the Jomic vehicle,” Denga says.
Denga, who is eyeing Chikomba Central after abandoning his Mbare Constituency, claims Zanu PF youths are too ashamed to face people “whose houses they burnt” in the previous elections.
“Zanu PF is just being malicious … they are not sincere about peaceful co-existence. The reason why they have boycotted is mainly because they can’t face the people they victimised so much in 2008 and they would not want these programmes to continue.
“In Wedza for example, they refused to put on their party regalia during a peace match because they don’t want to be seen to be part of the peace efforts since the programmes demystify their political modus operandi,” Denga says.
Officials from Ncube’s MDC claim Zanu PF youths are under instruction from their superiors to withdraw.
“They have realised that the peace-building programmes could help defuse tensions,” says Mugove Kandarasi, the party’s provincial youth chairperson.
“Their youths are enthusiastic about the programmes but they have been told by their leaders not to participate by the roving rebels in their party who are against any programme that actualises the peace that our principals, including President (Robert) Mugabe, are preaching,” Kandarasi says.
Such excuses count for little to dozens who had gathered here.
In the sunset, disappointed locals, turn back to the mundane chores on a day that started with so much promise.
With little economic and agricultural activity, Chikomba is a calm place rarely offering residents much activity.
But, as previous episodes between the legislative elections in 2000 and the 2008 presidential runoff have shown, Chikomba can be far from quiet, especially when elections are due.
According to organisations such as Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, Chikomba usually resembles a war zone during elections, with Zanu PF fanning the violence.
Such was the horror that locals tremble when peace initiatives such as the soccer match fall through the cracks ahead of what is widely viewed as a do or die general election which could be 89-year-old Mugabe’s last.