On Sunday, the party that Robert Mugabe led for nearly four decades dismissed him as its leader, another blow to the country’s long-ruling president who was detained last week by the military. The party also put pressure on Mugabe to resign by noon Monday or face impeachment proceedings.
The central committee of ZANU-PF, the ruling party, voted to replace Mugabe with former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa and kicked Mugabe’s once-powerful wife, Grace, from its ranks.
But the move to remove Mugage as party leader does not appear to have any immediate impact on Mugabe’s position as president. The central committee was composed of Mugabe’s rivals, some of whom had been forced from ZANU-PF months or years ago.
On Sunday, Mugabe continued negotiations with the military commanders who placed him under house arrest and a delegation from the Catholic Church. Those talks appear to be the most significant part of the process that looks increasingly like it will lead to the end of Mugabe’s reign.
“The party cannot recall him as president, so the legal effect of the vote is limited,” said Fadzayi Mahere, a Zimbabwean constitutional lawyer and politician. “It’s mostly a political statement”
Still, the fact that those who turned against Mugabe were able to take control of party headquarters and cast a vote against him is telling. After 37 years in power, Mugabe is now technically a leader without a party, his closest allies having been detained by the military.
If his military negotiators did allow him to stay in power, even for an interim period, he would lack the formal legitimacy that has insulated his rule for years.
In front of the party headquarters in downtown Harare, the billboard bearing Mugabe’s face had been vandalized, a hole sliced through the center, where he once posed.
In the biggest anti-government demonstration in decades, thousands of Zimbabweans marched through the capital on Saturday demanding the resignation of the president, after a dramatic military takeover days earlier.
It was a remarkable display of public opposition in a country where, until last week, such gatherings were typically quelled with force.
Thirty-seven years after he came to power, Mugabe now finds his rule under threat on multiple fronts. First, on Tuesday, there was the late-night military operation that placed him under house arrest. Then, on Friday, his own party voted for him to be recalled. And Saturday, a diverse array of opposition groups marched through the city in a buoyant demonstration against Mugabe that felt like a citywide party celebrating his possible ouster.
The rally had the air of collective catharsis. For decades, Mugabe had targeted a broad array of his own citizens: farmers from the white minority whose land was seized; political activists who were arrested or simply vanished; even Harare’s street vendors, who Mugabe has tried to evict.
Members of those groups and many others converged on the country’s State House, waving flags and signs that read, “Mugabe must go.”
“If we had tried this three weeks ago, hundreds of people would have been dead in the street,” said Terry Angelos, a 78-year-old man at the march.
It was the first time in decades that Zimbabweans had been able to protest Mugabe without fear of arrest.
“It’s like our second independence day,” said Martin Matanisa, 33, who works for an agricultural program. “For a while, it’s just been oppression. This is the first time we’ve been able to stand here and protest.”
Across the city, soldiers in armed personnel carriers observed the demonstrations, not intervening and, at times, snapping selfies. They were greeted and praised.
“Zimbabwe’s army is the voice of the people,” one popular sign read.
The demonstration was a remarkable step in Zimbabwe’s break with the 93-year-old president, the world’s oldest head of state. He was once seen as a hero of Zimbabwe’s liberation from British colonialism, serenaded in 1980 by reggae icon Bob Marley, who wrote the song “Zimbabwe” about the country’s struggle for independence.
The military stepped in after Mugabe indicated he was setting the stage for his unpopular wife, Grace, to succeed him.
The military commanders who detained Mugabe appear to support former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor. But both Western officials and many Zimbabweans have raised concerns about the prospect of a Mnangagwa-led government. In 2000, in a cable later released by WikiLeaks, the State Department said he was “widely feared and despised throughout the country” and “could be an even more repressive leader” than Mugabe.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Kevin Sieff