Mugabe appears in public for first time since army takeover

From right: Military chief Constantino Chiwenga with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and South African envoys at State House in Harare, in a screengrab from Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation taken on Thursday. The image stunned Zimbabweans who thoug
From right: Military chief Constantino Chiwenga with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and South African envoys at State House in Harare, in a screengrab from Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation taken on Thursday. The image stunned Zimbabweans who thought it meant Mr Mugabe was managing to hold out against Gen Chiwenga’s coup. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
An armoured personnel carrier on the streets of Harare yesterday, a common sight since the military took over the Zimbabwean capital this week.
An armoured personnel carrier on the streets of Harare yesterday, a common sight since the military took over the Zimbabwean capital this week. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Zimbabwe President attends university event; military says it is 'engaging' with him

HARARE • Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe appeared in public for the first time since the army took charge this week, as the ruling party made plans to force him to step down after more than three decades in power.

Mr Mugabe, 93, opened a graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University in Harare yesterday. He wore blue and yellow academic robes and a mortar board, and appeared to fall asleep in his chair as his eyes closed and his head lolled.

Mr Mugabe led the country's liberation struggle and has dominated its politics since independence in 1980. He said he is still in charge, but a senior member of the Zanu-PF ruling party said it wanted him gone.

"If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday," the source said.

"When that is done, it is impeachment on Tuesday."

In contrast, the military has taken pains to insist it was not staging a coup to avoid a collision course with the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a regional body of 15 countries chaired by South Africa, whose President Jacob Zuma is a Mugabe ally.

The military said in a statement on national television that it was "engaging" with Mr Mugabe. It referred to him as commander-in-chief, and said it would announce an outcome as soon as possible.

Zimbabwe's official newspaper, The Herald, ran photographs late on Thursday showing him grinning and shaking hands with the military chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, who seized power this week.

  • ZIMBABWE BY THE NUMBERS

  • Population 16.53 million

    Life expectancy 62 for women, 59 for men

    GDP per capita US$1,009 (S$1,368)

    External debt US$9.3 billion

    Exchange rate Z$35 quadrillion to US$1 in 2009. The Zimbawean dollar has since been abandoned in favour of the US dollar and South African rand.

    Inflation 500 billion per cent in 2008

    Unemployment 95 per cent

    Poverty 21 per cent of Zimbabweans live on less than US$2 a day

    Armed forces 50,800 personnel as of 2015

    SOURCES: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

The images stunned Zimbabweans who thought it meant Mr Mugabe was managing to hold out against Gen Chiwenga's coup, with some political sources saying he was trying to delay his departure until elections scheduled for next year.

Mr Mugabe is revered as an elder statesman and a member of the generation of Africa's independence leaders, but he is also viewed by many in Africa as a president who held his country back by remaining in power too long.

The army appears to want Mr Mugabe to go quietly and allow a smooth and bloodless transition to Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president whose sacking last week triggered the military takeover.

The main goal of the generals is to prevent Mr Mugabe from handing power to his 52-year-old wife Grace, who appeared on the cusp of power after Mr Mnangagwa was pushed out.

Mr Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the independence war veterans' association which is seen as supporting Mr Mnangagwa, said yesterday that "the game is up" for Mr Mugabe, and called for a protests against the President.

"It is done, it is finished... The generals have done a fantastic job," he said at a press conference in Harare as he called for a mass demonstration today.

"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 sup-porters of Mr Mugabe, but they turned against him as friction grew between the President and the military.

The army is camped on the President's doorstep. Mrs Mugabe is under house arrest, and her key political allies are in military custody. The police, once a bastion of support, have shown no signs of resistance.

Furthermore, Mr Mugabe has little popular backing in the capital, a stronghold of support for opposition parties that have tapped into the anger and frustration at his handling of the economy, which collapsed after the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000.

Unemployment is now running at more than 90 per cent, and chronic shortages of hard currency have triggered hyperinflation, with the prices of imports rising as much as 50 per cent a month.

The only words Mr Mugabe spoke at the graduation ceremony were met with ululations from the crowd. In a telling irony, one of the graduates was the wife of Gen Chiwenga.

The international community has been watching the crisis closely.

The United States, a long-time Mugabe critic, is seeking "a new era", the State Department's top official for Africa said, an implicit call for Mr Mugabe to quit.

In Paris, however, the head of the African Union, Guinea's President Alpha Conde, warned on Thursday that the continent "will never accept the military coup d'etat" in Zimbabwe, and called for a return to the "constitutional order".

Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, said elections scheduled for next year should go ahead.

In the Ivory Coast, President Alassane Ouattara yesterday saluted Mr Mugabe's role in the fight against colonialism, saying he "has been the object of respect and even adulation from many Africans and young Africans".

"But the world has changed," he said. "Clearly, given his age and the long time he has spent in office, everyone is aware that it is time for him to hand over his seat to a new generation."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Mugabe appears in public for first time since army takeover'. Print Edition | Subscribe