Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe addresses supporters gathered to celebrate his 92nd birthday in Masvingo February 27, 2016. Picture taken February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo(reuters_tickers)
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Thursday accused potential successors for wishing him dead and told ruling ZANU-PF supporters to unite against foreign enemies he said wanted to destroy the Southern African nation.
Africa's oldest leader at 92 years, Mugabe has held power since independence from Britain in 1980 and says his heir must be chosen democratically and that his wife will not automatically inherit the role.
Mugabe told a meeting of about 10,000 veterans of Zimbabwe's 1970s independence war that his frequent trips to Malaysia and Singapore had fed newspaper reports that he was ill and sometimes dying, stoking succession fights in ZANU-PF.
"You then see a stampede now, they will be saying the president is dying. 'I am not dying, shame on you'," Mugabe said during the first ever such meeting with the veterans.
"I am there at the mercy of the people. If the people say no, go, I go. But if the people say no, we still want you, I stay on," said Mugabe at a sports centre in Harare.
Thursday's meeting came at a time of high tensions in ZANU-PF as party officials position themselves for a post-Mugabe era.
Local media had reported the meeting could split ZANU-PF, especially after Mugabe said last month the veterans had indicated they wanted him to retire.
Instead, veterans pledged their loyalty to Mugabe, but also presented a list of grievances and demands for top positions in government and state-owned firms, diplomatic posts and at least a fifth of all farmland and mining concessions.
The veterans, 30,000 in total, also want their monthly allowances increased from $260. But Mugabe said the government would only meet such demands if it had the resources.
The last time Mugabe caved into demands from veterans was on Nov. 14 1997 when the Zimbabwean dollar crashed by 72 percent after the government announced unbudgeted allowances for veterans. That day became known as 'Black Friday'.
But without balance of payment support or foreign credit, Zimbabwe cannot afford such demands. It already runs its budget hand-to-mouth, leaving it with no money for infrastructure.
Mugabe has agreed to major reforms, such as compensation for evicted white farmers and a big reduction in public sector wages in a bid to woo back international lenders and to have part of its $8 billion in foreign debt cancelled.
Mugabe said Zimbabwe's bad record with debtors was holding back potential funding from China, Japan and India.
"We have a disease in Zimbabwe where we just want to receive and forget that debts are supposed to be repaid. It's a very bad culture," said Mugabe in a monologue that lasted 90 minutes.
(Editing by James Macharia and Richard Balmforth)