Tens of thousands of jubilant Zimbabweans joined rallies on Saturday to celebrate the imminent departure of president Robert Mugabe, the only leader they have known since independence in 1980.
Mr Mugabe triggered his own downfall by firing Emmerson Mnangagwa as his vice president last week, a move that prompted the military to intervene and place him under house arrest. On Friday, the ruling party’s 10 provincial committees resolved to oust the 93-year-old president, a decision likely to be ratified at a meeting of its central executive on Sunday. The nation’s parliament is due to reconvene on Tuesday and could impeach him should he still refuse to resign.
A motorcade was seen leaving the president's private residence in the capital Harare on Saturday evening, to boos and jeers from the crowds that had gathered outside, but Mr Mugabe was not in it, according to a security source.
Sources in the ruling Zanu-PF party said that its central committee would meet on Sunday morning to dismiss Mr Mugabe and reinstate Mr Mnangagwa. It would also dismiss the president's preferred successor, his wife Grace, from her role as head of the Zanu-PF Women's League.
Mr Mugabe's 37-year rule has been effectively at an end since the army seized control on Wednesday, confining him to his residence, saying it wanted to target the "criminals" around him. Several of Mr Mugabe's ministers are reported to have been arrested, although the whereabouts of his wife are not known.
Mr Mugabe is said to be asking for more time amid negotiations with regional leaders that seek his exit with a veneer of dignity.
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In Harare, crowds gathered at Zimbabwe Grounds in the Highfield township and at Freedom Square in the city centre on Saturday, while smaller groups marched through the streets, singing and dancing. A rally in Bulawayo, the second-largest city, also drew thousands of people. Some protesters draped themselves in the national flag and others embraced soldiers who kept watch on the festivities. Several street signs bearing Mr Mugabe’s name were ripped down.
"This is it, he must go,” said Ronald Mupfumi, a 29-year-old unemployed graduate who joined the throng in Harare. “These guys made us suffer for a long time."
Under Mr Mugabe’s watch, the economy has imploded, leaving an estimated 95 per cent of the workforce unemployed, and forcing as many as 3 million people into exile. His swift and legal exit will enable the military to implement its plan to install a transitional government until elections can be held, without the risk of outside intervention.
Mr Mugabe's decision to fire Mr Mnangagwa, his long-time ally, could have paved the way for his 52-year-old wife and her supporters to gain control of the southern African nation. Nicknamed "Gucci Grace" in Zimbabwe for her extravagant lifestyle, she had said earlier this month that she would be prepared to succeed her husband.
The military denies having orchestrated a coup, and says it is only targeting "criminals" close to the president who are damaging the country. The ruling party’s provincial committees singled out finance minister Ignatius Chombo, higher education minister Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere, the party’s political commissar, and said they should be expelled.
“We are at the dawn of a new era,” Patrick Chinamasa, who Mr Mugabe fired as finance minister last month, told the crowd who gathered in Highlands township. Mr Mugabe “should resign forthwith. The criminals who surround him must be arrested and thrown in jail.”
The gathering was also addressed by opposition party leaders, including Joice Mjuru, who Mr Mugabe fired as vice president in 2014 and now heads the National People’s Party, and Douglas Mwonzora, secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change. They both called for Mugabe to go immediately.
Under Zimbabwe’s constitution, the country’s remaining vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko should step in for Mr Mugabe if he is removed from his post and the ruling party must nominate a replacement within 90 days.
“There’s no direction as to how that nomination takes place,” said Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean law lecturer who is based in the UK and helped design Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. “The party can just say they have nominated Mnangagwa and he takes over soon after the impeachment."
Mr Mnangagwa, who has close ties to the military, is the leading contender to head a transitional government, which may include opposition figures, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified.
The scenes of jubilation seen on Saturday would have been unthinkable with Mr Mugabe in full control, as any public demonstrations against the president were quickly and brutally put down.
Zimbabweans giddy with joy raced through intersections, raising their arms in triumph. Young men shouted, laughed and embraced. Others danced on top of moving buses. The bulk of Harare's population of about 1.6 million appeared to be in the streets. The army held back thousands who gathered near the State House, home to official functions, while others headed toward Mr Mugabe's lavish mansion.
Marchers handed flags to soldiers, who accepted and waved.
"It's like Christmas," said one marcher, Fred Mubay, who said Zimbabweans have been suffering for a long time.
Despite concerns about who would be in charge next and what freedoms might be available if the military lingered, people revelled in the rare chance to speak out.
Zimbabwean newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube tweeted: "Dear world, we are fully aware of the possible risks and pitfalls beyond this tipping point. ... After 37 years of repression, allow us to soak in this moment. Sincerely, #Zimbabwe."