Scores of members of Zimbabwe's feared youth militia descended on business in central Harare on Thursday demanding that business proprietors purchase portraits of President Robert Mugabe for US$60 apiece and display them, or face eviction.
Business owners and workers in and around Market Square and the Gulf Complex said shop owners threatened by the ZANU-PF youth quickly bought out portrait stocks.
Zimbabwean, Indian, Nigerian and Chinese entrepreneurs said they were displaying the portraits of Mr. Mugabe in their shops as ordered by militia who said that the intention was to ensure that business owners would respect the president's leadership.
A Harare shop supervisor who asked not to be identified told VOA most businesses in the western parts of the city center bought the portraits as the youths demanded.
ZANU-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo said he could neither confirm nor deny the activity of the youth as he was not in the capital when reached by VOA.
ZANU-PF Education Secretary for Harare Province Last Mbizvo said he was leading the campaign to "urge all businesses ... to buy and display portraits of our president who is a special person for all citizens since he has liberation war credentials."
Political analyst Hopewell Gumbo said such actions by the pro-ZANU-PF militia indicate the former ruling ZANU-PF has begun campaigning for the next elections.
Economic commentator Masimba Kuchera said ZANU-PF should stop intimidating businesses. "We expect these businesses to turn around the country's economy and not spend time admiring President Robert Mugabe's portrait," said Kuchera.
Reports of pro-ZANU-PF youth militia forcing Harare shop owners to purchase portraits of Mr. Mugabe raised questions for some as to whether the line between honoring the head of state and blatant politicking has been crossed.
Business people said it was not uncommon for a store to display a picture of President Mugabe, but previously such portraits were provided free by the Information Ministry.
Critics said coercing merchants to purchase and display a portrait went too far – not to mention the involvement of the youth militia, deeply implicated in political violence during the 2008 elections in which at least 200 people, mostly opposition members, died.
For perspective, VOA reporter Tatenda Gumbo turned to political analyst John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe and John Mufukare, Executive Director of the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe. Mufukare said the government has provides portraits of Mr. Mugabe, so any form of paid distribution could only be described as extortion.