Zimbabwe remained in political limbo on Thursday morning, a day-and-a-half after the military takeover that appears to have put an end to Robert Mugabe’s 37-year grip on power.
As talks between Mugabe – who has been confined to his residence in Harare by the army, and senior military officers – entered a second day, there were reports that he is resisting pressure to resign as president. A Catholic priest close to the veteran leader is involved in mediation efforts.
The Zimbabwean capital was tense but calm amid the political uncertainty. Troops have secured the airport, government offices, parliament and other key sites. The rest of the country has remained peaceful. The takeover has been cautiously welcomed by many Zimbabweans.
The military declared on national television in the early hours of Wednesday morning that it had temporarily taken control of the country to “target criminals”around the 93-year-old president. It now seems likely that the ruthless rule of the world’s oldest leader will be definitively over within days.
The takeover by the armed forces appears to have resolved a bitter battle to succeed Mugabe that had pitted his wife, Grace, against the former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa was reported to have returned to Zimbabwe on Tuesday evening from South Africa, where he fled last week after being stripped of his office by Mugabe in an apparent attempt to clear Grace Mugabe’s path to power.
Reports that Grace Mugabe had fled to Namibia on Wednesday appeared false, with several sources saying she was detained with her husband in their residence in Harare.
The future of the first lady is a key element in the ongoing discussions between Mugabe and the military. Singapore and Malaysia, where the Mugabes own property, are potential destinations if she is allowed to travel into exile.
Forty-eight hours of drama and confusion had begun on Monday when the army chief – flanked by other senior officers – warned he was prepared to “step in” to end turmoil in the ruling Zanu-PF party.
By Wednesday, it was “game over” for Mugabe, as Piers Pigou, a South Africa-based analyst for the International Crisis Group put it. “It’s just a question of how soft the landing is …. But the [army] still need him to provide a veneer of legitimacy and constitutionalism. If he doesn’t want to play ball that is a bit of a problem.”
The 93-year-old has ruled over Zimbabwe like a medieval monarch, favouring loyal followers with gifts of land, office and money, but pursuing those seen as traitors with a cruelty only marginally moderated by a residual respect for legal process.
A former guerrilla leader, Mugabe was ready to sacrifice his country’s economy to maintain his grip on power, turning to increasingly tired revolutionary rhetoric, corruption and coercion to stave off any threats. Few other than the close associates who benefited directly from Mugabe’s rule will mourn his passing from power.
One high-profile opposition leader said there was “a lot of talking going on”, with the army “reaching out to different factions to discuss the formation of a transitional government.
Negotiations had been ongoing for several months with “certain people within the army”, a second senior opposition official said.
The official said Mugabe would resign this week and be replaced by Mnangagwa, with opposition leaders taking posts as vice-president and prime minister. There was no independent confirmation of his claim.
The fragmented opposition has not publicly condemned the military move. Nelson Chamisa, the deputy head of the opposition MDC party, called for “peace, constitutionalism, democratisation, the rule of law and the sanctity of human life”.
The MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, arrived in Harare from Johannesburg on Wednesday night. He has been tipped as a potential prime minister in a new political set-up.
Tendai Biti, an opposition leader and former finance minister, called for a transitional authority to take over. His party said in a statement on Thursday it should be “made up of competent Zimbabweans whose mandate will be to put in place measures to turn around the economy.”
South Africa appeared to be backing the takeover and sent ministers to Harare to help with negotiations to form a new government and decide the terms of Mugabe’s resignation. Regional officials are also meeting in Botswana.
Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary, told parliament that the UK wanted to see “proper, free and fair elections” in the former British colony. Presidential polls are due to be held next year but may well now be brought forward.
“Nobody wants simply to see the transition from one unelected tyrant to a next. No one wants to see that,” Johnson said.
There has been no sign of any resistance to the takeover or to the arrest of a series of senior officials associated with Grace Mugabe and her G40 faction. The youth wing of the ruling Zanu-PF, which had made defiant statements directed at the military earlier in the week, appeared to condone the military action.
Late on Wednesday, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation interrupted its programming to broadcast a statement by the party’s youth leader, Kudzai Chipanga, who apologised for “denigrating” military chiefs.
Grace Mugabe is deeply unpopular and has few allies internally or, crucially, regionally. In contrast, Mnangagwa, a former spy chief, has strong support among many in Zimbabwe’s armed forces, and it is unclear who might oppose him in coming days.
Evan Mawarire, a pastor and one of Zimbabwe’s best-known activists, called on Zimbabweans to “remain calm and hopeful, alert but prayerful”. Mawarire, who has been jailed and prosecuted since launching the #thisflag movement last year, which led to huge protests, said developments were “the culmination of the work that citizens have been doing”.
Mugabe’s sacking of Mnangagwa came as a shock to many observers. Nicknamed “the Crocodile” from his time fighting in the country’s liberation wars, he had been considered the most likely candidate to succeed Mugabe if the president decided to step down or died in office.
But the increasingly infirm president’s gamble exposed deep factional divides within the ranks of Zanu-PF as well as the political weakness of his wife and her faction. “It was a spectacular miscalculation,” said Pigou.
The crisis comes at a time when Zimbabwe faces severe economic problems. The country is struggling to pay for imports due to a shortage of dollars, which has also caused acute cash shortages.
State employees, including some soldiers and policemen, have gone for months without payment of their salaries, deepening discontent with the government.