Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe appeared in public on Friday 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.
Mugabe, who is 93, opened a graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University in Harare. He wore blue and yellow academic robes and a mortar board hat and appeared to fall asleep in his chair as his eyes closed and his head lolled.
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’s impeachment on Tuesday.”
In contrast, the military said in a statement on national television it was “engaging” with Mugabe. It referred to him as Commander in Chief and said it would announce an outcome as soon as possible.
Mugabe is revered as an elder statesman and 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. He calls himself the grand old man of African politics.
Zimbabwe’s official newspaper, the Herald, ran photographs late on Thursday showing him grinning and shaking hands with military chief General Constantino Chiwenga, who seized power this week.
The images stunned Zimbabweans who thought it meant Mugabe was managing to hold out against Chiwenga’s coup, with some political sources saying he was trying to delay his departure until elections scheduled for next year.
The ZANU-PF source said that was not the case. Anxious to avoid a protracted stalemate, party leaders were drawing up plans to dismiss Mugabe at the weekend if he refused to quit, the source said.
“There is no going back,” the source told Reuters. “It’s like a match delayed by heavy rain, with the home side leading 90-0 in the 89th minute.”
The army is camped on his doorstep. His wife, Grace, is under house arrest, and her key political allies are in military custody. The police, once a bastion of support, have showed no signs of resistance.
Furthermore, he 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 nearly 90 percent and chronic shortages of hard currency have triggered hyperinflation, with the prices of imports rising as much as 50 percent a month.
The only words 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 Chiwenga.
“A NEW ERA”
The United States, a longtime Mugabe critic, is seeking “a new era”, the State Department’s top official for Africa said, an implicit call for Mugabe to quit.
In an interview with Reuters, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto appeared to dismiss the idea of keeping Mugabe in an interim or ceremonial role.
“It’s a transition to a new era for Zimbabwe, that’s really what we’re hoping for,” Yamamoto said.
The army appears to want Mugabe to go quietly and allow a smooth and bloodless transition to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president, whose sacking last week triggered the military takeover.
The main goal of the generals is to prevent Mugabe from handing power to his wife, Grace, who appeared on the cusp of power after Mnangagwa was pushed out.
Dumiso Dabengwa, a former head of intelligence and a Mnangagwa ally, is due to hold a news conference in Johannesburg.
A South African government source said he expected Dabengwa to discuss the events in Zimbabwe.
“It seems there is some sort of agreement,” the source said.