Zimbabwe's Mugabe to face polls challenge from former ally By Fanuel Jongwe AFP - 42 minutes ago HARARE (AFP) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's hopes of cruising to victory at polls next month suffered a severe jolt Tuesday as his respected former finance minister Simba Makoni announced his candidacy. (Advertisement) Makoni, a member of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, said he would take on Mugabe at the ballot box as an independent in a move analysts said could unite the president's opponents. "Following very extensive and intensive consultations with party members and activists countrywide and also with others outside the party, I have accepted the call and hereby advise the people of Zimbabwe that I offer myself as candidate for the office of president," Makoni told a press conference. "Let me confirm that I share the agony and anguish of all citizens over the extreme hardships that we all have endured for nearly 10 years now," added Makoni who was Mugabe's finance minister from 2000-2004. "I also share the widely held view that these hardships are a result of failure of national leadership and that change at that level is a pre-requisite for change at other levels of national endeavour." Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, is hoping to secure a sixth term in office at joint parliamentary and presidential elections on March 29. Since Makoni left office, Zimbabwe's economy has been in a dramatic downward spiral and it now has an annual inflation rate of more than 26,000 percent, the highest in the world. Unemployment also stands at around 80 percent. But despite the economic woes, the opposition has been in disarray with the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party unable to agree on a candidate to take on the soon-to-be 84 Mugabe. Takava**** Zhou, an analyst at Zimbabwe's Masvingo State University, said Makoni would present a stiff challenge, especially if he could attract other disillusioned members of the establishment. "He will pose a real challenge to Mugabe. For the first time Mugabe will have a hard time dealing with opposition from his own ranks," said Zhou. "The move by Makoni could mean the demise of Mugabe particularly if Makoni can get the support of the Mujurus and the army." Vice President Joyce Mujuru and her husband Solomon Mujuru, a former head of the armed forces, have previously been touted as possible challengers to Mugabe but have been reluctant to break ranks and their stance is seen as critical. The 57-year-old Makoni said he had hoped to have stood as ZANU-PF's official candidate but had been left with no alternative after the party congress endorsed Mugabe at its conference in December. George Katito, a Zimbabwe analyst at the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs, said Makoni would face formidable hurdles. "His challenge will breathe new life (into the contest) but whether it's a feasible platform is questionable considering the very strong political machine that Mugabe has run," said Katito. Katito however said Makoni could expect to win over voters who were "disillusioned with the MDC" and saw him as a more credible alternative. Mugabe won the last presidential elections in 2002 in a contest against the MDC's main leader Morgan Tsvangirai but the result was disputed by Western governments which subsequently imposed a package of sanctions. There was no immediate reaction from Tsvangirai's faction but a spokesman for the MDC splinter group led by his rival Arthur Mutambara welcomed Makoni's announcement. "We welcome anyone who is willing to fight poverty, hunger and the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe's government," said Gabriel Chaibva. "We are committed to working with anyone who is committed to the defeat of ZANU-PF, but we are yet to come up with a position as a party following Mr Makoni's decision."