Harare/Johannesburg: Tens of thousands of jubilant Zimbabweans joined rallies on Saturday to celebrate the imminent departure of President Robert Mugabe, the only leader they’ve known since independence in 1980.
Mugabe triggered his own downfall by firing Emmerson Mnangagwa as his vice president last week, a move that prompted the military to intervene and place him under house arrest. On Friday, the ruling party’s 10 provincial committees resolved to oust the 93-year-old president, a decision that’s set to be ratified by its central executive as early as this weekend. The nation’s parliament is due to reconvene on Tuesday and could impeach him should he remain steadfast in his refusal to resign.
In Harare, the capital, crowds gathered at Zimbabwe Grounds in the Highfield township and at Freedom Square in the city centre, while smaller groups marched through the streets, singing and dancing. A rally in Bulawayo, the second-largest city, also drew thousands of people. Some protesters draped themselves in the national flag and others embraced soldiers who kept watch on the festivities. Several street signs bearing Mugabe’s name were ripped down.
“This is it, he must go,” said Ronald Mupfumi, a 29-year-old unemployed graduate who joined the throng in Harare’s streets. “These guys made us suffer for a long time.”
Under Mugabe’s watch, the economy has imploded, leaving 95% of the workforce unemployed, according to Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions estimates, and forcing as many as 3 million people into exile. His swift and legal exit will enable the military to implement its plan to install a transitional government until elections can be held, without the risk of outside intervention.
Mugabe’s decision to fire his long-time ally Mnangagwa could have paved the way for his 52-year-old wife Grace and her supporters from a ruling party faction known as the G-40 to gain control of the southern African nation. Nicknamed “Gucci Grace” in Zimbabwe for her extravagant lifestyle, she said on 5 November that she would be prepared to succeed her husband.
The military denies having orchestrated a coup, and says it is only targeting “criminals” close to the president who are damaging the country. The ruling party’s provincial committees singled out finance minister Ignatius Chombo, higher education minister Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere, the party’s political commissar, and said they should be expelled.
“We are at the dawn of a new era,” Patrick Chinamasa, who Mugabe fired as finance minister last month, told the crowd who gathered in Highlands township. Mugabe “should resign forthwith. The criminals who surround him must be arrested and thrown in jail.”
Speaking at the same rally, water and climate minister Oppah Muchinguri denounced the First Lady and called on the crowd to “march to State House to remove the tyrant.”
The gathering was also addressed by opposition party leaders, including Joice Mjuru, who Mugabe fired as vice president in 2014 and now heads the National People’s Party, and Douglas Mwonzora, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change. They both called for Mugabe to go immediately.
Under Zimbabwe’s constitution, the country’s remaining Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko should step in for Mugabe if he is removed from his post and the ruling party must nominate a replacement within 90 days.
“There’s no direction as to how that nomination takes place,” said Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean law lecturer who’s based in the UK and helped design Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. “The party can just say they have nominated Mnangagwa and he takes over soon after the impeachment.”
Mnangagwa, who has close ties to the military, is the leading contender to head a transitional government, which may include opposition figures, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to comment.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he hadn’t been approached by the military rulers for talks on a transitional government, adding that he’s prepared to meet with them. The military intervention resonated with the national public sentiment, was irreversible and steps should now be taken to restore democracy in the country, he said in a statement on Friday.
“If there is ever to be a Zimbabwean Spring, today’s marches are the first green shoots,” Charles Laurie, head of African analysis at Bath, UK-based Verisk Maplecroft, said by email. “For the first time in 37 years, Zimbabweans stood today as a united people. The mass public demonstrations are intended to ensure there is no backsliding as the notoriously wily Mugabe seeks to negotiate an exit to the unprecedented political crisis.”