“I want to warn them that they are playing with fire,” Mr Mugabe told thousands at a sports stadium in a speech marking Zimbabwe’s 26 years of independence, all of it under his rule.
It was Mugabe’s second warning since his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, called last month for street protests to end his long rule.
Zimbabwe is battling its worst economic downturn since independence from Britain, dramatised by the world’s highest inflation rate, unemployment above 70 per cent and shortages of fuel, food and foreign currency.
Mr Mugabe departed from his prepared text to deliver his ominous warning, speaking in both English and the local Shona.
“Anyone … who dares lead any group of persons to embark on a campaign of violence … will be inviting the full wrath of the law to descend mercilessly on him or those who follow him,” he said.
Political analysts say the government is concerned that Mr Tsvangirai’s call could be heeded by Zimbabweans, many of whom are increasingly unable to cope with the crumbling economy.
Mr Tsvangirai last month threatened to lead a campaign of peaceful mass protests, prompting a warning from Mr Mugabe, 82, that he would be “dicing with death”.
“There are those who dream governing this country. I want to tell them that dreams are only dreams, they should end at home,” Mr Mugabe said to cheers from the crowd.
Mr Mugabe co-led the 1970s guerrilla war against white minority rule in the then British colony of Rhodesia and was revered in his early days in power as a nationalist hero.
But the memory of that struggle is now lost on many jobless young Zimbabweans, who are fleeing in their hundreds of thousands to neighbouring South Africa and beyond.