Addressing his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party at the official opening of its congress on Friday, President Robert Mugabe deplored intra-party factionalism that he said was weakening the onetime ruling party and creating opportunities for the rival Movement for Democratic Change.
Insiders and observers said ZANU-PF has been torn by internal divisions over a range of issues including the succession to Mr. Mugabe, 85, as party president and first secretary.
Such jockeying led to the resignation this week of party's provincial chairman in eastern Manicaland, Basil Nyabadza, after the senior official he was backing for national chairman, Didymus Mutasa, was passed over by the politburo in favor of Simon Khaya Moyo, Zimbabwean ambassador to South Africa.
Sources said members of the Karanga and Manyika ethnic groups were fuming over dominance of the presidium by Zezurus and Ndebeles for three decades.
In his speech to the quinquennial congress, Mr. Mugabe called for unity, saying that the party was “eating itself up.” Referring to issues on the table within the country's troubled national unity government, Mr. Mugabe said the MDC must tell its Western friends to lift targeted travel and financial sanctions on him and other ZANU-PF senior officials and various other key supporters.
The president also took a swipe at Senator Roy Bennett, treasurer of the MDC formation of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who was designated deputy agriculture minister by Mr. Tsvangirai in February but has not been sworn in by Mr. Mugabe. President Mugabe called Bennett, who is white, "the offspring of settlers," a reference to the farm seized from Bennett under land reform.
ZANU-PF Chief Parliamentary Whip Joram Gumbo told VOA Studio 7 reporter Blessing Zulu that Mr. Mugabe was right to call for sanctions to be lifted and in urging that the MDC take the lead in bringing this about.
But spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the MDC formation led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai called Mr. Mugabe’s comments a diversionary tactic as he sought to tamp down dangerous factionalism within his party.
Observers said internal strife was evident at the congress with problems repeatedly arising over candidates for the central committee who were rejected even after Mr. Mugabe's urged a more cooperative spirit.
Earlier, text messages critical of Mr. Mugabe circulated in Harare late Thursday, causing a stir. Sources attributed the texts to party rebels urging the congress to unseat Mr. Mugabe. Reports quoted police as saying they were investigating the messages sent through Econet, the leading private mobile operator.
The messages said the Zimbabwe Defense Forces would refuse to recognize Vice President Joice Mujuru, whose main rival to succeed Mr. Mugabe is Emmerson Mnangagwa, the minister of defense.
ZANU-PF the texts the work of enemies of the party. State television compared them to the text and Twitter messages used by the Iranian opposition to rally protesters against the Teheran government after elections this year.
VOA Studio 7 correspondent Sylvia Manika, at the congress, told reporter Sandra Nyaira that there were signs of tension at the congress.
Commenting on Mr. Mugabe’s speech to the party, political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya said the president himself was the main reason for the party’s disintegration and loss of support among voters.