Zimbabwe candidate rejects criticism that he is a Western pawn

>HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – A former loyalist now trying to unseat President Robert Mugabe on Thursday rejected the ruling party’s accusations that he is a pawn of the West.

The challenge by former finance minister Simba Makoni, 57, in the March 29 presidential election prompted state media to accuse Makoni of being steered by British and U.S. diplomats.

“I find it insulting to the intelligence and integrity of our people to suggest they cannot think for themselves. I am nobody’s tool and nobody’s agent,” Makoni said in a news conference.

Mugabe fired Makoni as finance minister in 2002 in a disagreement over monetary policies. Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, which the opposition blames on the president, has left the country with the world’s highest inflation rate and acute shortages of gasoline, hard currency, food and most basic goods.

Makoni, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, said he decided to run after discussions with members of the ruling ZANU-PF and activists outside the party. He said he is running as an independent, although he has already attracted some support from the divided opposition group Movement for Democratic Change.

The ruling party said Thursday that Makoni was automatically expelled from its ranks for defying the national convention that nominated Mugabe in December.

But Makoni has said that many hoped the party’s convention would result in a change of leadership, but Mugabe railroaded his candidacy through by disallowing other nominations.

Makoni said he has been overwhelmed by messages of support from across the country.

“It’s incredible. It’s a sense of energy I don’t think this country has felt since independence,” he said as a reference to the end of British colonial rule in 1980, when Mugabe came to power.

Veterans of the bush war that swept Mugabe to power said Wednesday they plan to demonstrate against Makoni and seek out “likely traitors” backing him within the party. The war veterans have hounded Mugabe’s opponents in the past, while opposition activists and independent journalists have been assaulted by police.