Zimbabwe's vice-president John Nkomo has died after a long battle against cancer. File photo: Philimon Bulawayot

Harare - Zimbabwea’s vice-president John Nkomo has died after a long battle with cancer, President Robert Mugabe said on Thursday.

Nkomo, 78, was said to have died at St Anne's hospital in Harare.

“We have lost our vice-president John Landa Nkomo, he was suffering for a long time with cancer,” said Mugabe.

“We have lost a real revolutionary, a fighter of freedom, a friend of the people. He will be dearly missed by all of us.”

Nkomo was appointed to one of the country's two vice-presidencies under Mugabe in late 2009.

Responsible for overseeing financial, economic and environmental policy Nkomo, a former speaker of Parliament, was seen as loyal to Mugabe.

He “can be counted on to do Mugabe's bidding”, a leaked US diplomatic cable dating from 2009 said.

His roots in the Ndebele tribe made him useful in checking the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in Matabeleland, a western region where the MDC enjoys strong support.

While he was sometimes mooted as a successor to Mugabe, few believe he had a real shot at taking the top post.

But his death will rekindle the succession battle in the ruling Zanu-PF as the country's power-sharing government nears the end of its tenure.

It is still unclear who Mugabe will appoint to replace Nkomo, or if he will be replaced before elections set to take place this year.

Nkomo's death “may further divide the party on factional grounds, given the long history of succession tussles”, said International Crisis Group's senior researcher, Trevor Maisiri.

“The party may mute the succession of the vice-president and hold on until after elections.”

Nkomo's appointment was the culmination of a political journey that began in the early 1960s, when he joined the pro-independence movement, Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zanu).

The group later became part of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and Nkomo's appointment was a way of cementing that relationship.

If Mugabe chooses to delay naming Nkomo's successor, he runs the risk of plunging into disarray the Zanu-Zapu coalition, foment allegations of the marginalisation of the Matabele, and give the MDC an easy ride in Matabeleland.

Zanu-PF will “not want to go to the next election without having appointed a vice-president from that region, who will lead the party's (campaign) in that region,” Maisiri told AFP.

His death prompted condolences from the US embassy in Harare, which said he played “an important role in shaping the course of Zimbabwean history”.

“Whether as a teacher, a politician, an advocate for Zimbabwe's independence, or as a public servant, vice-president Nkomo was a patriot who dedicated his life to Zimbabwe's sovereignty and prosperity,” the US embassy said in a statement.

David Coltart, the education minister and member of Tsvangirai's party said although Nkomo was from a “party I clash with often, I always had a very cordial relationship with him” and that he had a “moderating influence in cabinet”.

If an appointment is going to be made, Zimbabwe's former envoy to South Africa and now party chairperson Simon Khaya-Moyo is rumoured to be the favourite. - Sapa-AFP