Msika, 85, was on life support when Mugabe visited him on Tuesday night, ZBC reported the president as telling a meeting of his ZANU-PF party’s politburo.

"He (Mugabe) announced to the members of the politburo the passing on of Comrade Msika this morning. He said some of his organs had stopped functioning," a ZBC reporter said.

Sources said Msika died on Saturday night but Robert Mugabe was battling to calm his feuding party faithful vying to succeed the former ZAPU stalwart.

The death of Msika, who was also deputy president of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and one of the founding leaders of its nationalist liberation movements, is likely to re-ignite debate on who will succeed Mugabe as leader of the party.

The vacancy for deputy president in ZANU-PF has always been the subject of intense lobbying by the party’s two main factions with the position seen as a stepping stone to succeeding the 85-year-old Mugabe.

He largely owed his position to the 1987 power sharing accord which merged Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the late Joshua Nkomo’s PF-ZAPU.

Msika was also deputy president of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and one of the founding leaders of Zimbabwe’s nationalist liberation movements.

The post of deputy president in ZANU-PF has always been seen by the party’s two main factions as a stepping stone to succeeding the 85-year-old Mugabe and the vacancy is sure to spark intense lobbying.

The elderly vice-president remained Mugabe’s loyal deputy and a figurehead of a political elite that was once influential in the southern Matabeleland provinces.

But Msika, known for his outbursts against Mugabe’s critics, lacked a power base of his own and many inside and outside ZANU-PF said he had reached the peak of his political career.

ZANU-PF holds its five-year congress in December this year, when it will choose new party leaders.

Analysts say Mugabe’s position is secure as shown by ZANU-PF provincial officials who have already lined up to endorse him as leader for another five years and as the party candidate in the next presidential poll.

But ZANU-PF politicians in Matabeleland are seen positioning themselves to replace Msika, although the post is likely to go to John Nkomo, current party chairman and one of the few remaining senior former PF-ZAPU figures in government.

John Nkomo is a long serving government minister and former Speaker of Parliament, often touted by local media as a possible Mugabe successor.