, HARARE, Dec 12 – Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe on Friday bemoaned the divisions that he said were "eating up" his party, as he opened its first congress since losing its absolute grip on power.
"The party is fighting itself. It\’s eating itself up," the 85-year-old leader told more than 5,000 loyalists.
Mugabe and his ZANU-PF have ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, when they took control as the magnanimous liberators from white-ruled Rhodesia.
After initially working to expand education, health care and jobs, they are now reviled for leading the once prosperous nation into economic ruin, where life expectancy is only 34 and millions depend on foreign food aid to survive.
This year, Mugabe was forced into a unity government with Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who is now prime minister, after ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority in 2008 polls and the presidential race ended in dispute.
The power-sharing deal saw many Mugabe loyalists lose plum government jobs, rattling the patronage system that he has used to keep a lid on divisions within the party.
Mugabe also called for the sanctions levelled against him and his inner circle to be lifted.
"Certainly this arrangement (unity government) has restored peace between the party and stability in our country but the sanctions still continue and we wonder why, why, why."
Mugabe has spoken with unusual candor this week about the divisions within ZANU-PF, whose opaque internal operations generate widespread speculation in Zimbabwe.
"Instead of organising against the opposition, we are sweating for support, not for the party, but for oneself," Mugabe told party members ahead of the congress, according to the Herald newspaper.
"We should be able to admit that the election produced a result that left a huge dent on the party," he said.
"We are responsible for the poor performance in the election last year."
Tsvangirai also defeated Mugabe in the first round of the presidential race, but pulled out of the run-off citing state-sponsored violence against his supporters as the nation descended into political unrest, which rights groups say was fuelled largely by ZANU-PF.
Under stiff international pressure, Mugabe and Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing government in February in a bid to end a decade of political and economic turmoil.
The new government has stopped the economic bleeding, but jobs remain scarce, hunger widespread, and poverty is endemic.
ZANU-PF has been riven by internal squabbles over who should eventually succeed Mugabe, who has already been endorsed as the candidate in the next elections tentatively slated for 2013, when he will be 89 years old.
But analysts see no sign that the party is ready to tackle its challenges, much less turn around years of national crisis.
The two-day congress agenda focuses on the state of the party, the unity government, work on a new constitution and proposed media reforms.
In reality, little debate is expected, said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the pro-democracy group National Constitutional Assembly.
"There will be no noise during the congress, and there will be no meaningful debate," Madhuku said.
The accord between ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai\’s MDC has been plagued by disputes over the appointment of provincial governors and Mugabe\’s unilateral re-appointment of central bank chief Gideon Gono and attorney general Johannes Tomana.
In October, the fragile unity pact faced its biggest challenge when Tsvangirai and his party disangaged from the government, accusing the Mugabe camp of "dishonest and unreliable".
The three-week boycott was resolved by regional leaders, following Tsvangirai\’s appeal for intervention.