Veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war made a significant break with President Robert Mugabe for the first time, calling him dictatorial, manipulative and egocentric.
The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association has been a pillar of support for the 92-year-old leader for decades.
But on Thursday it released a statement criticising the man it had long been quick to defend. The veterans are known for unleashing violence on those opposing the government.
The surprise revolt by Mr Mugabe’s ageing corps of loyalists comes after nationwide anti-government protests organised via social media.
Many in Zimbabwe are frustrated by a rapidly deteriorating economy, a currency crisis and alleged corruption.
“We note, with concern, shock and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle,” the statement said.
The group said it would no longer support Mr Mugabe’s political campaigns, accusing him of abandoning the veterans for the youth league of the ruling party ZANU-PF.
The veterans’ group, whose members are in their 60s and older, blamed the southern African country’s economic crisis on “bankrupt leadership,” and it accused Mr Mugabe of corruption: “This rot needs to be uprooted, and right now.”
There was no immediate comment from the government. Mr Mugabe has repeatedly said he plans to run again in 2018 and rule until he dies.
Mr Mugabe, who has been in power for 36 years, has recently turned to the youth league for political support, including two rallies attended by tens of thousands of people.
Earlier this week, the world’s oldest head of state responded to the recent anti-government protests, telling critics to leave Zimbabwe if they are unhappy with conditions at home.
The veterans’ group indicated it has had enough of such talk from the president.
“We are dismayed by the president’s tendency to indulge, in his usual vitriol against perceived enemies, including peaceful protesters, as well as war veterans, when the economy is on its knees,” their statement said.
“He has a lot to answer for the serious plight of the national economy.”
Mr Mugabe came to power when Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, won independence from white rule in 1980.
The guerrilla war that led to independence forged close ties among the fighters. The veterans were also at the forefront of Mr Mugabe’s land reform programme that saw thousands of white farmers violently evicted to make way for landless blacks.
Tensions emerged earlier this year between the veterans and Mr Mugabe, who warned them to stay out of politics as talk about who might succeed him intensified. Some veterans have backed the candidacy of a former vice president, Joice Mujuru.
In February, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of veterans who were demonstrating against what they described as criticism by Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace.