"I regret to announce to you the passing away early this morning of our beloved compatriot ... one of the stalwarts of Zimbabwe's struggle from the 1950s to the 1970s for independence from Britain," Mr Mugabe said on state radio.
The struggle between the two men, which in effect ended in 1987 when Mr Nkomo became Vice-President and his PF-Zapu party united with Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF, was a reflection of the fault line in Zimbabwean society. Zapu was based in Matabeleland, with the support of the Ndebele people who make up 20 per cent of Zimbabwe's population, while Zanu had its roots among the 80 per cent Shona population.
The divisions broke out in a bloody fashion in 1982, two years after independence, when Mr Mugabe accused Mr Nkomo of fomenting rebellion in Matabeleland. He sent in his notorious Fifth Brigade to pacify the area. The force was accused of countless atrocities. Mr Nkomo always denied any role in the uprising.
Masipula Sithole at the University of Zimbabwe said: "He [Mr Nkomo] protected Mugabe from those who believe the President presided over some kind of genocide."
There are fears that with the President deeply unpopular, through his economic policies and involvement in the war in Congo, Mr Nkomo's death could trigger further unrest.
Obituary, Review, page 6Reuse content