The reign of Robert Mugabe, the longest serving living head of state in Africa and one of the most well known and controversial figures in international politics, is on its final death throws after Zimbabwe’s ruling party stripped him of its leadership, with the ultimatum that he would face impeachment if he does not resign in the next 24 hours.
The announcement of Mr Mugabe’s sacking and replacement by Emmerson Mnangagwa was greeted with prolonged applause, singing and dancing by senior figures of Zanu-PF - a scene which would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago when the President still bestrode the power structure of this country as he had done for the last 37 years.
There were further cheers at the firing of the President’ wife as head of the party’s women’s league. Grace Mugabe, accused of corruption and abuse, has been a hugely divisive figure in the country. She had been responsible for the dismissal of Mr Mnangagwa as vice-president seeking, it is claimed, to take over the post. He subsequently fled to South Africa claiming to fear for his life.
The administration of the last-rites to the presidency of 93 year old Mr Mugabe came five days after the military staged a coup putting him and his wife under house arrest, and detaining a number of senior ministers. Criminal charges, carrying lengthy sentence on conviction, are likely to be laid against some of the ministers in the next few days.
Mr Mugabe is due to hold more talks with General Constantino Chiwenga, who had headed the takeover, and the military high command who want him to step down. The President, according to those familiar with the talks, has been desperately trying to cling on to power, insisting that he remains the constitutional head of state and demanding immunity from prosecution for him and his family.
But Mr Mugabe is now an isolated figure without any effective support. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Harare on Saturday on a overwhelming show of demand that Mr Mugabe and his 52 year old wife, given the epithets “ Gucci Grace” and “DisGrace" by her many critics for her lavish spending on luxuries, must go. His party, including the Youth Wing which had been fervent Grace loyalists, the opposition, the trade unions as well as the military are all urging him to go.
Although the mood of the crowd was celebratory at the prospect of deliverance from Mr Mugabe’s rule rather than confrontational, there have been warnings that frustration at Mr Mugabe’s failure to leave may trigger a violent reaction.
The head of the organisation of veterans who fought against white rule had warned that he “would bring back the crowd to do the business” if Mr Mugabe did not step down. “We would expect that Mugabe would not have the prospect of the military shooting at people trying to defend him”, said Christopher Mutsvangwa “the choice is really his, he cannot avoid it”.
Joshua Nhamburu, one of those who had fought in that conflict, added: “There will be an end to people’s patience. He has been given enough time now to make his arrangements and leave. His wife Grace, who is a thief, is also being allowed to go. They are both lucky that they are not looking at long years in jail : but their luck may run out soon if they continue acting in this way.”
The drive to remove Mr Mugabe from Zanu-PF leadership had started on Friday with branch after branch of the party voting motions of no confidence in Mr Mugabe. On Friday evening, it has emerged, the President sought to suspend parliament. But National Assembly speaker Jacob Mudenda refused the demand and senior Zanu-PF figures began talks with opposition parties to agree on a course of action.
Innocent Gonese, of MDC-T party, confirmed that there had been discussions with Zanu-PF about impeachment when parliament seats again on Tuesday. "If Mugabe is not gone by Tuesday, then as sure as the sun rises from the east, impeachment process will kick in” he said.
Although any settlement is likely to see Mr Mugabe going into exile with his wife, there is growing demands that others in their cohort should face justice. Emmanuel Fundira, a Zanu-PF MP, said: “It is only right that corrupt and rotten people should be punished. There are resources which have been taken away from this country. Naturally, the laws will follow up and make sure that all those people are brought to book."
Mr Mugabe’s rapidly fading hopes of political survival now appears to lie with the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) both of which have strong stances against military coups : a reaction to the repeated takeovers by armed forces of newly independent countries in the continent in the past.
That is the reason why Gen Chiwenga and the military hierarchy are trying to engineer a voluntary departure by Mr Mugabe. But the appointment of Mr Mnangagwa by Zanu-PF as leader and acting President in waiting would, believe senior officers, counter accusations of a military takeover and the massive street protests would show that he was being driven out by popular will.
The original plan for Saturday’s rally had been for demonstrators to gather at the city’s Freedom Square, but soldiers on duty asked them to go on to the far bigger Harare stadium at the outskirts of the city. It was a far bigger venue, but also symbolic. This was the place where another huge crowd had gathered 37 years ago to welcome Mr Mugabe on his return from exile following independence.
Washington Chando, remembered being taken at the age of ten to the stadium that day by his parents. “Everyone thought he was a hero. I remember people were crying with joy, but everything began to get worse after a while. I haven’t been able to find any permanent work for the last nine years, we have all had a very negative experience while people like Grace Mugabe has got richer and richer. “
There were some expressions of regret at the humiliating end of one of giants of African politics. “People would forget now that he did a lot of good for this country at one stage. He was our leader, much respected in Africa, other parts of the world” Daneil Zangaya, a teacher, reflected. “ But he stayed too long and allowed himself to be surrounded by corrupt people. He will be remembered for the dad day, not the good ones. That is a shame, but no man can avoid responsibility for his actions.”
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