Zimbabwe’s former vice-president has said the country is witnessing a “new and unfolding democracy”, as he returned to a jubilant welcome two weeks after fleeing to South Africa following his sacking by Robert Mugabe.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old liberation war veteran and stalwart of the ruling Zanu-PF party is to be sworn in as president on Friday. His sacking triggered the political crisis that culminated in the resignation of the 93-year-old Mugabe on Tuesday.
Mnangagwa arrived from Johannesburg at a military airbase in Harare on Wednesday afternoon and travelled directly to the Zanu-PF headquarters where a crowd of several hundred had gathered to hear his first speech as president-in-waiting.
“The people have spoken. The voice of the people is the voice of God,” he told supporters. “Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy.”
Soldiers controlled admission to the concrete complex, but allowed hawkers to sell ice-creams, bananas and soft drinks. Outside, a makeshift stall selling Zanu-PF T-shirts with the slogan “A New Era” and pennants in the national colours did brisk business.
Many supporters carried placards thanking Mnangagwa for his “resilience and endurance”.
Nicknamed “the Crocodile” for his fearsome reputation, Mnangagwa has been accused of leading brutal waves of repression against opponents of Zanu-PF and Mugabe.
His current popularity, though undoubtedly genuine, is clearly more dependent on the extraordinary events of the last week than any deep knowledge of the former spy chief.
“I am here to welcome my leader, our leader,” said Nicky Chihwa, a 28-year-old student waving a national flag. “We hope he will be someone who will bring us change. We don’t really care who. We just wanted Mugabe to go.” .
Jennifer Mhlanga, a Zanu-PF MP and member of the party’s central committee, said it was important that Mnangagwa felt he had the party’s backing.
“He needs to know that all this work, to meet all these high expectations, will not simply fall on his shoulders alone. He has all these people with him. The Zanu-PF family will assist him, the family of Zimbabwe will assist him,” she said.
Mnangagwa’s exile in South Africa underlined the important role the powerful neighbour has played during the crisis. Though attempts at diplomatic mediation failed outright, Pretoria offered a crucial haven to Mnangagwa and close allies when they were forced to flee three weeks ago.
Car horns and celebrations greeted the motorcade carrying Mnangagwa as it passed through the Zimbabwean capital on the way to party headquarters, where one small portrait of Mugabe remained on a wall but two large images had been stowed in a corner.
There is still much residual respect for Mugabe, and many in Harare say he should be allowed to “rest” rather than face charges or enforced exile.
Zanu-PF officials have said that Mugabe and his wife, Grace, will be allowed to live in Zimbabwe.
Ziyambi Ziyambi, a Zanu-PF MP and former minister, said the couple had been guaranteed impunity from prosecution and other unspecified protections.
“There has been an agreement. They are elder statesmen [sic] and will be respected and given their dues. He was our president and he agreed to resign so he will enjoy the benefits of being an ex-president and his wife too. He is our icon,” Ziyambi said.
Mugabe, who ruled the country with an iron grip for 37 years, finally caved to popular and political pressure on Tuesday, hours after parliament launched proceedings to impeach him. He had refused to leave office during eight days of uncertainty that began with a military takeover last week.
Harare was quiet on Wednesday morning after a night of joyous celebration. Traffic was normal and many people were going to work.
“It’s a new day for Zimbabwe. We are smiling,” said Lovemore Simbeli, 19, as he sold newspapers with front-page headlines announcing Mugabe’s resignation.
Mnangagwa, once one of Mugabe’s closest aides, can count on the support of the armed forces, the massed ranks of Zanu-PF followers across the country, and his own followers in the eastern part of Zimbabwe where he comes from.
Among those who greeted the new leader at the airport were relatives, including nephew Lucius Ngomo, a chief from near the town of Masvingo.
“In the family there are people who you see and who you say will rise up to a high level. He was one of those people,” Ngoma said.
The decision to sack Mnangagwa was a rare tactical error by Mugabe, who appears to have wanted to clear the way to power for his ambitious but unpopular wife and her G40 faction.
While there is widespread respect for Mugabe for his leadership during the brutal liberation wars of the 1960s and 70s, the first lady is viewed differently, with many calling for her trial and imprisonment.
Despite the guarantees offered by Mnangagwa and the military, the former leader may still prefer exile. Dubai, Singapore or Malaysia are considered the most likely destinations. The family is believed to have a substantial property portfolio overseas.
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