In a landmark move, veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war have announced they will no longer back President Robert Mugabe, describing him as "dictatorial" and manipulative.

Known to have crushed almost all dissent since he came to power in 1980, Mugabe may be facing the toughest moments yet of his 36-year reign. The country has been rocked by a series of protests against corruption, poverty and abuse of office by Mugabe's regime, amid fears of "economic collapse" in the nation of almost 16 million.

Mugabe accused the leader of the #ThisFlag protest movement, Pastor Evan Mawarire, of receiving funding from foreign countries bent on destabilising the nation.

Veterans: Mugabe, a president with 'dictatorial tendencies'

On Thursday (21 July), the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), which supported the long-serving leader for decades and was known for using violence against government critics, revolted, releasing a statement explaining why it was withdrawing its backing for Mugabe.

In their lengthy communiqué, the former loyalists – mostly in their sixties and older – accused the veteran leader of "declaring war" on them. They alleged the leader is manipulative, "delineating others from vantage positions for his personal interests" and the greatest beneficiary of Zimbabwe's war efforts.

"We note, with concern, shock and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle," the association said in its statement.

Children play outside a vast block of flats in Mbare township, on the outskirts of the capital city of Harare Mary Turner/Getty Images

The ZNLWVA issued its historic communiqué after dozens of ex-combatants' representatives from around the country gathered for a meeting full of high drama.

The veterans insisted their beleaguered chairman Christopher Mutsvangwa, who was expelled from cabinet, the ruling party and parliament on Tuesday (19 July), would remain their leader.

One of the association's grievances is the allegation that Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, had abandoned the ageing group for the youth league of the governing Zanu-PF party – a faction known as G40, which is openly fighting the Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa's Team Lacoste faction to succeed him.

Zimbabwe: On the verge of economic collapse?

Gripped by drought, Zimbabwe could also be on the verge of total economic collapse. In February, it appealed to domestic and international backers for assistance as it revealed that as nearly a quarter of its population was going hungry following a declaration of a state of disaster by Mugabe.

In 2015, Global Finance magazine placed Zimbabwe second poorest after the Democratic Republic of Congo in its survey of 184 countries. Based on IMF data, the survey showed the average annual income between 2009 and 2013 was around $589 (£410). In contrast, South African's was more than $11,000 per year (£7.600).

Some estimates put the rate of unemployment at 95%, but official figures are never revealed.

The veterans explained they would no longer support the president's political campaigns. Mugabe, 92, has repeatedly spoken of his plans to run for president again in 2018 and rule until he dies.

Simmering tensions with Zimbabwe's vets

While the ZNLWVA's announcement is described as surprising and historic by many in Zimbabwe, tensions have been simmering for some time between the leader and his former supporters.

In May, 32 veterans withdrew their support for Mugabe, just weeks after they criticised the leader for snubbing them following the cancellation of a series of meetings to iron out their differences, which include former fighters' welfare concerns – such as monthly pensions, school fees, medical support, funeral cover and business loans.

Mugabe, who is patron of the ZNLWVA, described the make-or-break meeting with 10,000 restless war veterans with five competing factions as a frank engagement following weeks of turbulence that threatened to split the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Mugabe, who is the world's oldest head of state and has been widely criticised for his country's human rights record, has indicated that he will represent Zanu-PF at the next general elections scheduled for 2018. But a number of Zimbabwe's veteran politicians, including some from his own party, have already thrown their hats in the ring.

In May, ZNLWVA's spokesman Bernard Manyadza, who was head of military instructors, said the decision meant that Mugabe could not be Zanu-PF's candidate in 2018. The association instead recently expressed its support for Mnangagwa to take over.