Robert Mugabe Swaps House Arrest for a Cap and Gown (Briefly)
Mr. Mugabe was detained early Wednesday by senior military commanders who denied having mounted a coup. Instead, the commanders started negotiations with Mr. Mugabe, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and South African mediators. Mr. Mutsvangwa called the commanders’ actions a “judicious military intervention.”
The talks are intended to devise some form of transition that would have the appearance of constitutional legitimacy while providing a decorous departure for a leader whose role in the pre-independence liberation struggle is central to the national narrative.
From the outset, the commanders have said their action is aimed at “criminals” in Mr. Mugabe’s entourage rather than the president himself, and the halting pace of Mr. Mugabe’s ouster seemed to underscore the military’s determination to portray his departure as a result of a peaceful resolution rather than a traditional coup.
The military’s ultimate intention has apparently been to effect a transfer of power without the appearance of illegality that might draw further opprobrium from outside Zimbabwe or frighten off potential investors.
“The army is trying to keep people guessing” while talks continue, said Frank Chikowore, a Zimbabwean journalist.
The military commanders may also have chosen to take a more cautious approach until they have had time to gauge whether Mr. Mugabe can muster support. News reports said some high-ranking officials had been prevented from flying out of the country.
Outside the main cities, the military set up roadblocks on main highways, apparently to thwart any attempt at organized resistance. Buses traveling from Bulawayo, the second city, to Harare, the capital, were pulled over and boarded by soldiers who checked documents and asked passengers about their business. Sometimes, travelers reported, the soldiers ordered passengers off the buses for inspection. Some were asked if they were carrying weapons.
Such was the official concern to maintain an appearance of normalcy that the state broadcaster devoted the first 10 minutes of its news bulletin on Thursday to interviews with people across the land — traders in Bulawayo, tourists at Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River — and, as if scripted, all repeated the same refrain: “It’s business as usual.” Mr. Mugabe’s appearance at the graduation ceremony — however surreal — seemed to be part of the same stratagem.
Some Zimbabweans suggested that the officers’ calculation might offer Mr. Mugabe a chance to play hardball when setting out his terms in the closed-door negotiations.
In the annals of Africa’s many uprisings and coups, the script often involves the ousted strongman fleeing into exile, being shot to death or getting thrown in prison.
Instead, Zimbabwe’s military allowed Mr. Mugabe to return to State House, his official residence, and on Friday, he appeared in a bright blue cap and gown, under tight security, to oversee the graduation ceremony in Harare. At one point, he appeared to doze, his head lolling.
In 2014, he conferred a rapidly acquired doctorate on Grace Mugabe, his wife, whose ferocious ambition to replace her husband as president is seen by most analysts as a prime cause for the military action.
By appearing at the ceremony, Mr. Mugabe wanted to give “the impression that he is still in charge,” Mr. Mutsvangwa said. “He is finished.”
“He is defying the population, trying to give a semblance of normality when things are not normal,” Mr. Mutsvangwa said. “That’s why we are saying: Don’t lie to yourself; it’s a delusion. You know he has been deluding himself — he is deluded.”
Additionally, Mr. Mugabe’s adversaries are planning huge rallies on Saturday to thank Mr. Mugabe for his services to the nation and to urge him to step down.
Those calls may well be reinforced by moves among provincial committees of Mr. Mugabe’s powerful ZANU-PF political party to expel him, his wife and her followers in the so-called G-40 movement. The intention is apparently to display a broad, but legal, rejection of Mr. Mugabe, his wife and the coterie around them.
At his news conference, Mr. Mutsvangwa said several key regions in Zimbabwe’s Shona-speaking heartlands — the base of ZANU-PF’s support — had approved calls for the president’s expulsion. Mr. Mugabe himself has in the past used orchestrated maneuvering in the provinces to undermine national figures in Harare.
The person most often spoken of as a likely presidential successor is Emmerson Mnangagwa, a longtime Mugabe loyalist who fled the country last week after Mr. Mugabe stripped him of the vice presidency. That move was interpreted as Mr. Mugabe’s trying to clear the way for his wife to assume more power.
Mr. Mutsvangwa is an ally of Mr. Mnangagwa, so his remarks on Friday could be interpreted as forming part of a broad campaign for the return of the former vice president, who also has strong credentials from his record as a combatant in the liberation struggle.
Since independence, Mr. Mnangagwa has held a variety of security portfolios, giving him ties to the military and intelligence establishments including the feared Central Intelligence Organization, in effect the secret police.
He is regarded as an ally of Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, the head of the Zimbabwe Defense Force, who has overseen the military action against Mr. Mugabe and who has guided the negotiations that followed. The whereabouts of Mr. Mnangagwa, or of Mrs. Mugabe, were not clear on Friday.
Mr. Mugabe — in official portrayals at least — has maintained power as an enduring emblem of the fight to expunge colonial influence in Africa.
But he has presided over a precipitous economic decline that began with the seizing of white-owned farms starting in 2000. Joblessness has soared, and a shortage of foreign currency has driven up the price of imports. At the same time, a loyal elite around him has amassed villas, farms and high-end automobiles.
In a statement on national television, Reuters reported, the military said it was “engaging” with Mr. Mugabe and would publicize the results of talks as soon as possible.