Zimbabwean former vice president Joice Mujuru launched a new political party on Tuesday in a direct challenge to veteran President Robert Mugabe’s all-powerful ZANU-PF, as speculation increases over his succession.
“Today is a historic day,” said Ms Mujuru in announcing the launch of her Zimbabwe People First party at a press conference.
“This is a day of significance in our country’s political history.”
Mr Mugabe, who recently turned 92, has ruled since independence in 1980 during an era marked by vote-rigging, mass emigration, accusations of human rights abuses and economic decline.
He is expected to stand again for election in 2018, but jockeying over who will take over has intensified due to his advanced age and speculation about his health.
“The scourge of corruption needs to be totally uprooted,” Ms Mujuru said.
“We urge all our war veterans, police, army and intelligence services to defend the constitution.”
Ms Mujuru, the widow of Zimbabwe’s first post-independence army general, was fired from Mugabe’s government and the ruling ZANU-PF party in December 2014.
Her ousting came after a campaign by the president’s wife Grace denigrating Mujuru and accusing her of fomenting party division and plotting to topple Mugabe.
Ms Mujuru responded to questions about Grace’s accusations by saying: “I am now swearing before you that I am neither a witch nor an assassin.”
Ms Mujuru, 60, enjoys some public popularity in Zimbabwe, but faces a huge task to establish her new party in the country’s tense political scene.
She was a guerrilla fighter during Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation war before rising to become vice president in 2004.
A former ZANU-PF stalwart, she served in several Cabinets under Mugabe and was seen for many years as his favoured choice of successor.
Her husband, Solomon Mujuru, died in a mysterious house fire in 2011.
Ms Mujuru signalled her intention to form a rival party last year by releasing a manifesto that opposed Mr Mugabe’s key policies including indigenisation laws that compel foreign firms to cede majority stakes to locals.
ZANU-PF has been riven by factional fights over Mugabe’s succession although party figures have sought to downplay any splits.
Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Ms Mujuru as vice president, is now viewed as the likely next president, with Grace Mugabe, 50, also a possible candidate.
The president turned 92 on February 21 and held a lavish birthday party last Saturday that was criticised as the country endures a severe drought and a moribund economy.
“We should remain united and use proper channels to solve our differences,” he told the crowd, accusing Britain and the United States of funding “individuals both within and outside the party to cause factionalism”.
At the end of January, Mugabe attended an African Union summit in Ethiopia to give a long speech as he stepped down from his year as AU chairman.
President Mugabe in December complained that members of the security forces were meddling in Zanu PF affairs as they tried to influence his succession.
However, at the weekend he mocked ZPF saying the party would soon disintegrate.
“Those who came from us tried to take our name and said we are People First,” President Mugabe told his 92nd birthday celebrations in Masvingo.
“You will hear People First, People Third and People Fourth. Zanu PF will remain Zanu PF, very strong, no change.”
Zimbabwe’s opposition has been weakened in recent years by splits due to fights over leadership positions.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), formed in 1999, has been Zanu PF’s strongest challenger since independence.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008 beat President Mugabe in the first round of the presidential elections but was prevented from standing in the run-off poll after tens of his supporters were killed in political violence.
After being part of a unity government with his arch rival from 2009, Mr Tsvangirai lost dismally in the 2013 presidential elections.