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Mugabe makes first public appearance since military takeover

Zimbabwe’s veteran leader attends graduation ceremony as calls grow for army to reveal transition plans

Friday November 17, 2017

Robert Mugabe arrives to preside over a student graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University on the outskirts of Harare. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

Robert Mugabe has attended a university graduation ceremony on the outskirts of Harare in his first public appearance since a takeover by the Zimbabwean military on Wednesday.

Clad in academic gown and hat, the 93-year-old walked slowly in a procession on a red carpet to a podium as a marching band played. He was applauded as he announced the opening of the ceremony.

His appearance followed an army statement describing “significant progress” that was broadcast on national television and published by state-run media on Friday morning. The statement appears to have been aimed at quelling growing concerns that the military takeover could descend swiftly into chaos.

The appearance of the president in public is likely to fuel such worries, and reinforce growing pressure on the military to rapidly resolve the ongoing crisis.

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Mugabe has resisted pressure to step down, and says the army’s intervention is illegal, sources close to the military said.

Allowing the president to attend the graduation ceremony suggests the military want their intervention to be seen as primarily directed at Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and her associates.

The statement said the army had “accounted for some of the criminals around [Mugabe] in order to bring them to justice since they were committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country while others are still at large”.

Since taking power, the military has arrested about a dozen senior officials and leading members of the G40, a faction of the ruling Zanu-PF party who are loyal to the first lady.

Neither Grace Mugabe nor Jonathan Moyo, the higher education minister, was present at the graduation ceremony. Moyo is believed to be among those detained.

Grace Mugabe has not been seen since the takeover. Sources have told the Guardian that she was in her husband’s Harare residence when he was detained on Tuesday.

The takeover is thought to have been prompted in part by fears among the military and its allies within the ruling party of an imminent purge of rivals of the president’s wife, which would allow her to exercise greater power.

Images released by the army on Thursday evening showed Mugabe, 93, meeting the general who led the takeover.

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, looked relaxed and healthy in the images, taken during a meeting at the president’s state offices and residence in Harare on Thursday afternoon. The defence minister and two South African envoys also appeared in the pictures.

One picture showed Mugabe and Gen Constantino Chiwenga, the head of the armed forces, smiling as they shook hands. No details of the conversations held during the meeting were released.

Mugabe (2R) with Gen Constantino Chiwenga (R) and South African envoys at State House in Harare. Photograph: ZBC/AFP/Getty Images

Friday’s statement from the military respectfully referred to Mugabe as “commander in chief”. However, there are signs that the patience of the military and its supporters within Zanu-PF is growing thin.

Leaders of the party are meeting on Friday to draft a resolution to dismiss Mugabe at the weekend and lay the ground for his impeachment next week if he refuses to stand down, a senior party source told Reuters.

“There is no going back,” the source said. “If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday. When that is done, it’s impeachment on Tuesday.

A march of members and associations is being organised by Zanu-PF leaders for Saturday to call for Mugabe to step down.

Prior to Friday’s appearance at the graduation ceremony, Mugabe had been confined to his personal residence in the capital’s affluent neighbourhood of Borrowdale since Tuesday night, when troops seized the state TV channel’s studios and other important sites.

Sources close to the military said Mugabe had described the takeover as illegal. He is thought to have rejected efforts by a Catholic priest – a long-term friend – to facilitate mediation talks.

South African envoys are in Harare to help with negotiations and decide the terms of Mugabe’s resignation. South Africa, the biggest regional power, called an emergency meeting of the Southern African Development Community regional bloc in Botswana. The meeting was inconclusive, though a final statement condemned changes of government through unconstitutional means.

The military move has been cautiously welcomed by many Zimbabweans and the streets were quiet again on Friday, but there are growing public demands for those who led the takeover to lay out their plans.

The army has said the takeover was a temporary measure to target “criminals” around Mugabe, resolving a succession battle that has pitted Grace Mugabe 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 the president in an apparent attempt to clear Grace Mugabe’s path to power.

Opposition officials told the Guardian they believed a deal would eventuate allowing Mnangagwa to be appointed president, with Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), serving as prime minister in a transitional government of three to five years.

The outgoing president and his family would be offered protection in his retirement, though Grace Mugabe was expected to leave Zimbabwe. Singapore and Malaysia, where the Mugabes own property, are potential destinations.

Members of the G40 who were detained during the takeover would be prosecuted in accordance with the law, the officials said.

There was no independent confirmation of the opposition claims, which one analyst described as optimistic, though negotiations are clearly taking place between multiple political actors.

“The army want him [Mugabe] to relinquish power but there are some sticking points,” said Knox Chitiyo, an expert on Zimbabwe at the Chatham House thinktank in London. “This is a complete shock to him. He did not see himself leaving office this way.”

Other possibilities are Mugabe staying on as president until a Zanu-PF conference scheduled for December, or even until elections due in mid-2018.

The fragmented opposition has not publicly condemned the military move, but has repeatedly called for a swift transition to democracy.

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