Mugabe makes defiant public appearance since army ‘takeover’, but opponents call for protests

But influential veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war are planning mass anti-Mugabe demonstrations, while the US called for a return to civilian rule

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 8:58am

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe made his first public appearance since the military put him under house arrest this week, attending a graduation ceremony in the capital, Harare, to applause.

The appearance came during an extraordinary series of negotiations with regional leaders over Mugabe’s departure after 37 years in power. Zimbabwe’s military said it was making “significant progress” in the talks while it pursues and arrests some allies of the leader and his wife.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for a return to civilian rule and said the country has a chance to put itself on a “new path”.

The military is taking pains to show respect for the 93-year-old leader, the world’s oldest head of state, by referring to him as the president and the commander-in-chief.

Despite his show of defiance, pressure is mounting on him to quit as veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war – key players in the country’s power structure – called for mass anti-Mugabe demonstrations on Saturday.

Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the independence war veterans’ association which is seen as supporting Mnangagwa, said on Friday that “the game is up” for Mugabe and called for a protests.

“It’s done, it’s finished … The generals have done a fantastic job,” he said at a press conference in Harare. “We want to restore our pride and tomorrow is the day … we can finish the job which the army started.”

Veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war were loyal supporters of Mugabe, but they turned against him as friction grew between the president and the military.

Speaking at a meeting of African foreign ministers at the State Department on Friday, Tillerson said whoever replaces Mugabe at the helm must respect democracy and human rights. He said the choice of leadership is solely the choice of the Zimbabwean people.

“I’m happy with what the army has done, at least now we’ve got a future for our kids,” said Teslin Khumbula, the owner of a security company. “We don’t want Mugabe any more … Please – everyone go to the streets.”

Army troops and armoured vehicles continued to patrol Harare, as Zimbabweans went about their daily business. Some said they were scared when the military first moved in but praised the current calm. Others worried that Mugabe, the only leader many have ever known, would somehow find a way to stay on.

Headlines in some local newspapers declared the Mugabe era over. “Dawn of a new era,” one said. “Mugabe remembered for brutal 37-year rule,” said another.

The ongoing negotiations appear to be trying to get Mugabe to agree to hand over to a new government. But difficulties could include the timing. The ruling party is set to meet next month, and Mugabe’s term ends next year. An election date has not been set.

In another striking image of the fluidity of the political situation, the Zimbabwe Herald on Thursday published photos of Mugabe jovially shaking hands with army commander Constantino Chiwenga, the general who ordered the president’s arrest.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse