Zimbabwean army generals will pile further pressure on President Robert Mugabe to resign Sunday after tens of thousands of overjoyed protesters celebrated the apparent end of his 37-year regime.
Mugabe’s hold on power was broken this week when the military took over in a dispute over who would succeed the 93-year-old president, the world’s oldest head of state.
Mugabe remains in office but now faces overwhelming opposition from the generals, much of the Zimbabwean public and from within ZANU-PF, the once loyal party now calling for his exit.
“President Robert Mugabe will meet the command element of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces tomorrow,” state television announced on Saturday.
The two sides first met for talks on Thursday, smiling in photographs that attempted to present a dignified image of the tense process of negotiating Mugabe’s departure.
In scenes of public euphoria not seen since independence in 1980, huge crowds marched and sang their way through Harare and other cities on Saturday, demanding the end of Mugabe’s authoritarian rule.
The marches came after a historic week in which the military seized power and put Mugabe under house arrest in response to his sacking of vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a perceived rival of Mugabe’s powerful 52-year-old wife Grace who had increasingly voiced her ambition to succeed her spouse.
Large, peaceful protests
Saturday’s gatherings were peaceful, despite a stand-off when armed soldiers barred protesters from reaching Mugabe’s official residence, the State House.
The demonstrations were called by independence war veterans and included citizens of all ages, jubilant that Mugabe appeared to be on his way out.
“This is the best day of my life. We are hoping for a new life after Mugabe,” said 38-year-old Sam Sechete at the main rally in Highfield, a working-class suburb of Harare.
A symbolic location, Highfield was where Mugabe gave his first speech after returning from exile ahead of independence in 1980.
In central Harare, a group of young men tore down a green metal street sign bearing Robert Mugabe’s name and smashed it repeatedly on the road.
Such an open display of defiance would have been unthinkable just a week ago as dissent was routinely crushed by security forces.
Major General Sibusiso Moyo, whose statement on state TV marked the completion of the take-over in the early hours of Wednesday, told reporters at the protests that the people of Zimbabwe are “disciplined, orderly and they are unified”.
The majority of Zimbabweans have only known life under Mugabe’s rule, which has been defined by violent suppression, economic collapse and international isolation.
“I went to university but here I am selling bananas to earn a living. If it wasn’t for Mugabe, I would be doing something else,” said one protester, street vendor Abel Kapodogo, 34.
Sources suggest Mugabe has been battling to negotiate a delay to his exit and to ensure future protection for him and his family.
He attended a graduation ceremony on Friday, in a show of defiance over the talks with General Constantino Chiwenga, who led the military power grab.
Nine of the 10 regional branches of Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF have now called for him to go.
A ZANU-PF MP, and a national party official, who both declined to be named, confirmed that the party’s executive committee would meet Sunday to seek to have Mugabe removed as party leader.
The army seizure of power was the climax of a dispute over who would succeed the ailing leader.
Before being pushed out as vice president, Mnangagwa had clashed repeatedly with Mugabe’s wife.
Both had been seen as leading contenders, but Mnangagwa had the tacit support of the armed forces, which was strongly against the political ambitions of Grace Mugabe.