By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's first lady, Grace Mugabe, challenged her president husband Robert on Friday to name his preferred successor, to end divisions over the future leadership of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Africa's oldest leader, Robert Mugabe, 93, has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980 but has insisted that ZANU-PF, not himself, will choose his eventual successor.
But at a meeting of ZANU-PF's women's wing in the capital Harare, Grace Mugabe - herself considered by some to be a possible future leader - contradicted her husband, who also attended the meeting, saying he should name a successor.
Grace, 52, who has become a power broker in ZANU-PF since her elevation to the top echelons of the party in 2014, said Mugabe's word was "final".
"There is no succession which will take place without the involvement of Mugabe. I know the president says: 'No, no, I don't want to impose a candidate.' But I have always argued with him that you have a role, you have the right to be part of that process," Grace said at the meeting attended by reporters.
"Because we respect him, his word will be final. Mark my words, his word will be final. I am asking him right now in your presence ... don't be afraid, tell us which candidate we should back," Grace said, speaking in the Shona vernacular.
Mugabe did not respond to his wife's comments but earlier addressed the meeting, where he repeated accusations he made in December 2015 that some in the military leadership were caught up in the succession fight.
"Now you hear some of them (in the military) saying the president should leave. Leave in favor of whom? Who is that someone who has a right to succeed?" said Mugabe.
Fighting over the leadership of a post-Mugabe ZANU-PF has intensified in the last three years, with two camps emerging, one supporting Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the other rooting for Grace Mugabe.
Independence war veterans last year turned on Mugabe, describing him as a dictator and have been backing Mnangagwa to succeed him. The veterans say Mnangagwa has the support of the military.
On Thursday, Grace repeated her previous call for ZANU-PF to change its constitution to make it mandatory for one of the president's deputies in the party and the government to be a woman.
Critics say this could be a maneuver by the first lady to strengthen her chances of succeeding her husband.
Robert Mugabe is ZANU-PF's presidential candidate for the 2018 election, his last under the constitution. He will be 99 years if he wins and completes the five-year term.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)