Zimbabwe's president said Wednesday he fired his deputy and longtime ally for scheming to take power, including by consulting witch doctors, while Emmerson Mnangagwa said he has left the country after "incessant threats" to him and his family.
The demonization of the deposed vice president is the clearest sign yet that President Robert Mugabe, who at 93 is the world's oldest head of state, is preparing his wife, Grace, to succeed him.
In a statement obtained by The Associated Press, Mnangagwa said he was safe but did not mention his location. "I will be communicating with you soon and shall return to Zimbabwe to lead you," the statement said.
Mugabe spoke publicly for the first time since dismissing Mnangagwa, who had been seen as Mugabe's potential successor. Now Mugabe's wife appears poised for the role.
Mugabe told thousands of cheering supporters that Mnangagwa had plotted to take over since becoming a vice president in 2014.
Mnangagwa replaced Joice Mujuru, who had been ousted and accused by Mugabe of using witchcraft to take power.
"We have kicked him out for the same reasons that saw us chasing away Mujuru," Mugabe said of Mnangagwa. The president, who has proved to be one of Africa's most wily politicians, added: "People were told that I will retire in March but I did not. Upon realizing that I wasn't, he started consulting traditional healers on when I was going to die."
In the statement, Mnangagwa said that "my mouth has never uttered a single foul word against the president nor have I ever contemplated bringing him harm in any way." He adds: "This party is not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please" and calls Mugabe "one stubborn individual who believes he is entitled to rule this country until death."
First lady Grace Mugabe has been endorsed by ruling party groups to take over from Mnangagwa as vice president at a party congress next month, placing her in prime position to succeed her husband.
"No one will remove the president except God," the first lady told the crowd on Wednesday, without directly addressing her ambitions. "God grant me the serenity to accept things I can't change. I love my president. I will help him to make the country prosper." On Sunday, she told a rally that she was ready to take over from her husband.
Senior officials who spoke before Mugabe and his wife on Wednesday aimed jibes at Mnangagwa, describing him a "border jumper."
An ally of Mnangagwa, Chris Mutsvangwa, speaking to reporters in Johannesburg, described Mugabe as a "dictator" hoping to cling to power until his death and his wife as a "mad woman."
"They want to seize power ahead of the election," knowing they have lost popularity, Mutsvangwa said. Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, is already running for next year's election.
Frustration has been growing in this once-prosperous southern African nation as the economy has deteriorated under Mugabe, who has been in power since independence from white minority rule in 1980.
Mnangagwa was the more prominent of the country's two vice presidents and had been part of Mugabe's cabinet since independence. He is said to have enjoyed the support of military generals and war veterans; his critics view him as ruthless because he was in charge of state security when Mugabe unleashed a North Korean-trained brigade to crush dissent in western Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia in Johannesburg contributed.