A senior and long-standing member of the ruling ZANU-PF, Simba Makoni, announced in Harare that he will stand as an independent candidate against President Robert Mugabe in the upcoming presidential election.  Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA this is the first time in nearly 20 years that Mr. Mugabe will be challenged by a senior member of his own party.

President Robert Mugabe faces his stiffest electoral challenge with the surprise announcement that Simba Makoni will face him in the polls on March 29.

Mr. Makoni, 57, is a chemist and former finance minister who was forced out of office in 2002 when he tried to devalue the Zimbabwe currency.  His announcement follows months of secret planning. 

According to reports published in Zimbabwe, he told President Mugabe only a week ago that he had never intended to stand as a candidate.

Mr. Makoni told a press conference in Harare that he shared the agony of citizens from nearly 10 years of extreme hardships that were a result of a failure of national leadership.

He said he is not an opposition party and that he would have liked to have stood for ZANU-PF, but that President Mugabe had made that impossible for him or anyone else.   He said he would not be in the campaign alone, that he would be joined by many others from ZANU-PF. 

Analysts in Harare say even without party backing he has strong support from important leaders in ZANU-PF and will also be supported by significant numbers of the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

Founding MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai's secretary-general, Tendai Biti, said the Makoni announcement proved there were internal divisions in ZANU-PF and that "President Mugabe was no longer in charge."

He said all the democratic forces should join hands and be "decent enough to come together."

Gabriel Chaibva spokesman for the MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara said he welcomed the announcement that shows the president has opponents inside ZANU-PF.  He also said, hinting at a political pact, that his party supported the idea of one candidate to fight Mr. Mugabe.

Zimbabwe has the fastest-shrinking peacetime economy in the world, which many analysts say is due to President Mugabe destroying commercial agriculture by confiscating 90 percent of the country's white-owned farms since 2000.

Mr. Makoni is one of the few senior members of ZANU-PF who bought his own farm and did not accept a white farm from the Mugabe government.