Zimbabweans watched in disbelief Sunday as President Robert Mugabe, who they thought was going to resign, instead delivered a meandering speech on state television that made clear the 93-year-old leader has no plans to leave power.
In less than a week, Mugabe has survived both a military takeover and the largest public protests in the country’s history, reaffirming his uncanny ability to navigate the country’s political tides.
Mugabe said the criticisms leveled against his government “were inescapable.” But he suggested that he could make the necessary reforms to satisfy his critics, a doubtful contention given the overwhelming opposition to his rule. That opposition was underscored on Sunday, hours before his speech, when his own party dismissed him as leader. The party, ZANU-PF, also told Mugabe that he must resign by noon Monday or face impeachment proceedings.
Those actions, unimaginable only a week ago, added to the groundswell of public support for the ejection of the world’s oldest head of state.
“He is senile and obviously his faculties were beginning to deteriorate,” said Christopher Mutsvangwa, a member of the ZANU-PF central committee, which voted to oust Mugabe from the party.
Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the military Tuesday, though the generals insisted they weren’t conducting a coup. Huge protests followed, and it seemed by Sunday evening that events would finally bring about Mugabe’s resignation. The state broadcaster announced that he would address the nation. Zimbabweans gathered by their televisions. Some news outlets reported that he was about to resign. People discussed how they would celebrate the beginning of a new era.
But Mugabe did not resign. He spoke obliquely about the country’s economic challenges and disaffection with some of his party’s “rules and procedures.” He said those matters would be “settled and discussed” at next month’s party congress.
It was a speech that prompted the same questions about Mugabe that Zimbabweans have asked for years. Was he showing signs of senility? Or was he displaying the same shrewd, stubborn ability to defy his critics that has kept him afloat for decades?
It was “proof of his psychotic obsession with power,” said Fadzayi Mahere, a lawyer and politician. “We must never put ourselves in this place as a nation ever again.”
Now, Mugabe’s critics are trying to sort out another way to unseat him. While the party’s vote against him is a sign of its opposition, it does not have any immediate effect on Mugabe’s position as president. The party leaders have control only over their ranks and cannot influence the composition of Zimbabwe’s government.
Impeachment proceedings in parliament appear the most likely way forward, but they could take weeks, according to Zimbabwean legal experts, and would leave the country with a power vacuum in the interim.
“This is not instant coffee,” said Tendai Biti, a lawyer and opposition member. “We can’t sacrifice our constitution to get what we want.”
The chief whip of the ruling party, Lovemore Matuke, said impeachment proceedings would start on Tuesday. After 37 years in power, Mugabe is now technically a leader without a party, his closest allies having been detained by the military.
It is possible that the military will now move to oust Mugabe by force, but so far its commanders have gone out of their way to accommodate him, still referring to him as their commander in chief. In a picture taken Sunday and released by the state-owned newspaper, a general saluted Mugabe while the president stood behind his desk, one of many signs that Zimbabwe was hardly undergoing a textbook coup.
The military commanders have appeared intent on giving the public impression that they are not conducting a coup – likely to preserve the veneer of legitimacy that would sustain their relationship with the international community. In its bylaws, the regional bloc of southern African nations includes strong language against coups.
Even though Mugabe’s rule for years was above the law, many members of Zimbabwe’s opposition have shown enormous respect for the country’s constitution.
“If the military had run roughshod, it would have lost the support of the people,” Mahere said.
During Sunday’s meeting, the central committee of ZANU-PF, the ruling party, voted to replace Mugabe with former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa and expelled Mugabe’s once-powerful wife, Grace, from its ranks. The committee was composed of Mugabe’s rivals, some of whom had been forced from ZANU-PF months or years ago.
Until Sunday, Zimbabweans had united behind the military’s actions, an unpredictable turn of events in a country where security forces have for years cracked down on political dissent.
“Zimbabwe’s army is the voice of the people,” one popular sign read.
By the time a protest march on Saturday was over, signs for Robert Mugabe Road had been trampled.
On Sunday morning, when members of ZANU-PF arrived at the party headquarters in downtown Harare, they saw that a billboard bearing Mugabe’s face had been vandalized, a hole sliced through the center.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Kevin Sieff