By MacDonald Dzirutwe
CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe said on Friday members of his party would choose his eventual replacement, but gave no timeline despite a mounting succession battle triggered by long-denied reports he is suffering from cancer.
Mugabe, in power since the former white-ruled Rhodesia's independence from Britain in 1980, was re-elected in a July 31 vote that was rejected by his rivals as fraudulent, but largely endorsed by African observers as free and credible.
Addressing a ZANU-PF central committee meeting before the party's annual conference, Africa's oldest leader denounced the increased jockeying between party factions to succeed him.
Without naming any of the heads of the factions, Mugabe said the party's leadership would be determined by ordinary members at a congress.
"So, let us hear our people. They, after all, will in the end decide on who will be needed and who will not. Every one of them matters," he said.
"We cannot build a united party when we divide people into camps of those who belong to so and so and those who belong to so and so. They belong to the party," he added.
Critics say Mugabe has maneuvered himself into a position of virtual life president by playing factions against each other.
But there are fears ZANU-PF could implode in a violent struggle if his office becomes vacant before the succession question is resolved.
NOSE IN FRONT
Analysts say Mugabe's deputy president Joice Mujuru secured an edge in the race for his post after her supporters won most of the provincial elections in the last few months.
Her main rival is widely seen as Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as Ngwena (the crocodile). Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi is also regularly listed among the contenders.
Mugabe has denied regular reports in the local media that he has been receiving treatment for prostate cancer in Singapore over the last few years.
In his 90-minute address on Friday, Mugabe said the party's future would depend on fulfilling its electoral promises to rebuild the economy.
Zimbabwe is struggling to right its economy which shrank by 45 percent during a decade-long economic crisis up to 2009.
Its economy is expected to grow 3.4 percent this year, a significant slowdown from the near double-digit expansion it enjoyed after the government scrapped the worthless Zimbabwe dollar in 2009.
The country desperately needs foreign investment and aid to create jobs and revamp infrastructure, but sanctions imposed on Mugabe and other top officials have put off many donors.
On Friday, Mugabe said Zimbabwe would grow its economy through ZANU-PF's black empowerment program which forces foreign-owned companies, including mines, to sell majority stakes to locals.
"We should not make any apology over this policy because these are our resources," he said.
(Writing By Cris Chinaka; Editing by Andrew Heavens)