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Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa looks on after delivering the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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By Emelia Sithole-Matarise

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Wednesday promised zero tolerance in his government's push to punish corruption that stifled political freedom and economic growth under Robert Mugabe's 37-year rule.

Mnangagwa, giving his first state of the nation address since he assumed power last month following a de facto coup that ousted his 93-year-old predecessor, has sought to draw a line under years of endemic corruption and impunity.

Under pressure to deliver results, especially on an economy crippled by severe currency shortages, Mnangagwa said reforms of a bloated state sector would be launched in early 2018.

With opposition parties calling for widespread political reforms before an election next year, he repeated a promise that his government would do everything in its power to ensure a credible, free and fair ballot.

"Corruption remains the major source of some of the problems we face as a country and its retarding impact on national development cannot be overemphasised," Mnangagwa told a joint sitting of the country's two houses of parliament.

"On individual cases of corruption, every case must be investigated and punished in accordance with the dictates of our laws. There should be no sacred cows. My government will have zero tolerance towards corruption and this has already begun."

The latter was an apparent reference to comments last week he would name and shame those who failed to return stolen public funds after a three-month amnesty ends in February.

His government is also pursuing corruption charges dating back over two decades against former finance minister Ignatius Chombo, a close ally of Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Chombo, whose lawyer has said he will deny the charges, faces trial early next year.

"ALBATROSS"

In the latter half of Mugabe's rule the economy fell apart amid the violent and chaotic seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms.

Billions of dollars of domestic debt issued to pay for a bloated civil service triggered a collapse in the value of Zimbabwe's de facto currency and hyperinflation.

Mnangagwa said the government would in the first quarter of next year announce a programme to reform, commercialise or shut down some state-owned firms he said had been "for a long time an albatross around the government's neck".

Zimbabwe's efforts to re-engage international lenders and lure investors will rest on the credibility of next year's election, and the president again pledged a commitment to a free and fair vote.

To level a playing field they say is skewed in favour of Mnangagwa's ZANU-PF party, opposition parties have however challenged his army-backed government to first enact a long list of electoral reforms.

They include a new voters' roll, opposition access to public media, allowing an estimated three million Zimbabweans living abroad to vote and international observers including the United Nations.

"We would like to see genuine, credible electoral reforms that will lead to free and fair elections and they must be underwritten and guaranteed by the international community," Tendai Biti, leader of the opposition MDC Alliance, told reporters ahead of Mnangagwa's address.

Biti and other members of the alliance also criticised what they called the "militarisation" of the government following the appointment of two former senior military officials to the new cabinet.

Mnangagwa gave his clearest signal yet on Tuesday that he would appoint as vice president Constantino Chiwenga, the military leader who led the coup that ousted Mugabe.

Chris Mutsvangwa, adviser to the president and the influential leader of the war veterans' association, has rejected the criticism of the appointments, saying they were not unique to Zimbabwe.

(Editing by James Macharia and John Stonestreet)

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Reuters