Tuesday 22 May 2018

Crowds cheer the fall of Mugabe

'It's like Christmas' - young and old, black and white, gather on the streets of Zimbabwe's capital to demand the official end of Mugabe's rule after 37 years, says Christopher Torchia

Time to go: People in Harare demonstrate against Robert Mugabe who has been deserted by most of his former allies. Photo: AP
Time to go: People in Harare demonstrate against Robert Mugabe who has been deserted by most of his former allies. Photo: AP

Christopher Torchia

Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party is today set to dismiss President Robert Mugabe and reinstate Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president he fired, two party sources told reporters yesterday, as ecstatic crowds celebrated the expected downfall.

Mugabe's 37-year rule has been effectively at an end since the army seized control on Wednesday, confining him to his residence, saying it wanted to target the "criminals" around him.

State TV said Mugabe would meet military commanders today, quoting Catholic priest Fr Fidelis Mukonori, who has been mediating in negotiations with the president.

But hundreds of thousands of people had no need for a formal signal that his time had ended as they flooded the streets of Harare yesterday, singing, dancing and hugging soldiers.

In scenes reminiscent of the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, men, women and children ran alongside the armoured cars and the troops who stepped in this week to oust the only ruler Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980.

Others marched towards his lavish residence, but were kept away by soldiers.

Under house arrest in his compound, the 93-year-old has watched support from his party, security services and people evaporate in less than three days.

The sources said a Zanu-PF party central committee meeting scheduled for 10:30am local time (8.30am Irish time) will also dismiss the 93-year-old's preferred successor, his wife Grace, from her role as head of the Zanu-PF Women's League.

Mugabe's nephew Patrick Zhuwao, speaking from South Africa, said that only Mugabe could call a meeting of the central committee. It was not clear from reading the party's constitution who is empowered to call such a meeting - but events appeared to have made the issue irrelevant.

On Harare's streets, locals spoke of a second liberation for the former British colony, alongside their dreams of political and economic change after two decades of deepening repression and hardship.

"These are tears of joy," said Frank Mutsindikwa, 34, holding aloft the Zimbabwean flag. "I've been waiting all my life for this day. Free at last. Free at last."

"It's like Christmas," said one marcher, Fred Mubay, who said Zimbabweans have suffered for a long time.

Another marcher, 37-year-old Talent Mudzamiri, was born soon after Zimbabwe's independence.

"It's like a relief," he said. "Our voices have not been heard for a long time. The trend in Africa, when the people speak, they are not heard."

He acknowledged that Zimbabwe faces challenges in the long term, but said: "The common enemy is Robert Mugabe. That's for starters." If Zimbabwe's next leader is just as troublesome, he said, "we are going to come out again."

And Zimbabwean newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube tweeted: "Dear world, we are fully aware of the possible risks and pitfalls beyond this tipping point. After 37 years of repression, allow us to soak in this moment. Sincerely, #Zimbabwe."

Mugabe's downfall will send shockwaves across Africa, where a number of entrenched strongmen, from Uganda's Yoweri Museveni to Democratic Republic of Congo's Joseph Kabila, are facing mounting pressure to step aside.

The crowds in Harare have so far given a quasi-democratic veneer to the army's intervention, backing its claims that it is merely effecting a constitutional transfer of power, which would help it avoid the diplomatic backlash and opprobrium that normally follows a coup.

The military had been prompted to act by Mugabe's decision to sack Mnangagwa, Grace Mugabe's main rival to succeed her husband. The next presidential election is due next year.

Zimbabweans abroad were also hailing the end of Mugabe's rule, not least the hundreds living in Britain who gathered outside their embassy in central London.

For some Africans, 'Comrade Bob' remains a nationalist hero - the continent's last independence leader and a symbol of its struggle to throw off the legacy of colonial subjugation.

But to many more at home and abroad, he was reviled as a dictator happy to resort to violence to retain power and to run a once-promising economy into the ground.

Political sources and intelligence documents seen by reporters said Mugabe's exit was likely to pave the way for an interim unity government led by Mnangagwa, a life-long Mugabe aide and former security chief known as "The Crocodile". Stabilising the free-falling economy will be the number one priority, the documents said.

The US - a long-time Mugabe critic - said it was looking forward to a "new era" in Zimbabwe, while President Ian Khama of neighbouring Botswana said Mugabe had no diplomatic support in the region and should resign at once.

The Zimbabwe Herald, the state newspaper that has served as Mugabe's loyal mouthpiece, said Zanu-PF had called on Friday for him to go. It said that Zanu-PF branches in all 10 provinces had also called for the resignation of Grace, the first lady whose ambitions to succeed her husband outraged the military and much of the country.

To many Zimbabweans, she is known as "Gucci Grace" on account of her reported dedication to shopping, or - in the wake of her assault in September on a South African model - "Dis-Grace".

The scenes in Harare yesterday reflect the anger and frustration that has built up among Zimbabwe's 16 million people in nearly two decades of economic mismanagement that started with the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, the catalyst of a wider collapse.

The central bank tried to print its way out of trouble by unleashing a flood of cash but that only made matters worse, leading to hyperinflation that topped out at 500 billion per cent in 2008. At least 3 million Zimbabweans emigrated in search of a better life, most of them to neighbouring South Africa.

After stabilising briefly when Mugabe was forced to work with the opposition in a 2009-2013 unity government, the economy has collapsed again - this time due to a chronic shortage of dollars.

In October, monthly inflation leapt to more than 50pc, according to some economists, putting basic goods beyond the means of many in a country with 90pc unemployment.

Mugabe's only public appearance since the military took over was at a university graduation ceremony on Friday morning. Decked out in silken academic gowns, he appeared tired, at one point falling asleep in his chair.

A senior member of Zanu-PF said it was only a matter of time before he agreed to go.

"If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday," the source said. "When that is done, it's impeachment on Tuesday."

©Reuters

Reuters

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