Veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war made a significant break with President Robert Mugabe for the first time Thursday, 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 it released a statement criticizing 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 Mugabe's aging corps of loyalists comes after nationwide anti-government protests organized 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 after dozens of veterans' representatives from around the country met Thursday, changing anti-government slogans.
The group said it would no longer support Mugabe's political campaigns, accusing him of abandoning the veterans for the youth league of the ruling party ZANU-PF.
The veterans' group blamed the southern African country's economic crisis on "bankrupt leadership."
Mugabe, who has been in power for 36 years, has recently turned toward 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."
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 Mugabe's land reform program that saw thousands of white farmers violently evicted to make way for landless blacks.
Mugabe's rule began with widespread optimism, but that faded over the years amid economic hardship and contentious relations with the West. Mugabe has blamed the recent woes on Western sanctions.