Robert Mugabe clung on as Zimbabwe’s president Sunday, using national TV to insist he still holds power despite a military takeover and mounting pressure for his autocratic 37-year rule to end.
Crowds who gathered in bars and cafes in Harare to watch the address, which was widely expected would end in the 93-year-old’s resignation, were left stunned and disconsolate. Some wept openly.
“The (ruling ZANU-PF) party congress is due in a few weeks and I will preside over its processes,” Mugabe said.
His words pitched the country into deep uncertainty, as they imply he will seek to stay in office until at least mid-December.
It was widely thought that Mugabe would have no choice but to go after the army seized power, opened the floodgates of citizen protest and his once-loyal party told him to quit.
But Mugabe, sitting alongside the uniformed generals who were behind the military intervention, delivered a speech that suggested he was unfazed by the turmoil.
Speaking slowly and occasionally stumbling as he read from the pages, Mugabe talked of the need for solidarity to resolve national problems — business-as-usual rhetoric that he has deployed over decades.
He made no reference to the chorus calling for him to resign and shrugged off last week’s dramatic military intervention.
“The operation I have alluded to did not amount to a threat to our well-cherished constitutional order nor did it challenge my authority as head of state, not even as commander in chief,” he said.
Instead he urged harmony and comradeship.
“Whatever the pros and cons of how they (the army) went about their operation, I… do acknowledge their concerns,” said Mugabe.
“We must learn to forgive and resolve contradictions, real or perceived, in a comradely Zimbabwean spirit.”
His address provoked immediate anger, and raised concerns that Zimbabwe could be at risk of a violent reaction to the political tensions.
“People should go back on to the streets. This is not fair,” said a security guard in Harare who declined to be named.
Chris Mutsvangwa, head of the influential war veterans’ association, also called for protests and demanded that Mugabe be impeached.
On Saturday, in scenes of public elation not seen since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, huge crowds had marched and sang their way through Harare, believing Mugabe was about to step down.
Just ahead of Sunday’s speech, crowds gathered in Harare’s Africa Union Square under the light of the setting sun to chant against Mugabe and wave Zimbabwean flags.
“What we wanted was the government of Mugabe gone… out of the way by whatever means necessary,” Thobekile Ncube, a demonstrator, told AFP.
Highlighting the the chaos engulfing Zimbabwean politics, the ruling ZANU-PF party sacked Mugabe as its leader earlier on Sunday and told him to resign as head of state, naming ousted vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa as the new party chief.
It warned that the party would seek to impeach him if he did not go by 1000 GMT on Monday.
“Mugabe seemed to be enjoying himself, but he commander of the defence forces was looking thunderous, we noticed he didn’t clap at the end of the speech,” said Derek Matyszak, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told AFP.
“It’s absolutely astounding. Mugabe behaves as if nothing ZANU-PF said this afternoon was of any relevance.
“Where they’ll go from here? They’ll proceed with the so-called impeachment process.”
Analysts say the military stepped in last week after Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52, secured prime position to succeed him as president following a bitter power struggle with Mnangagwa, who has close ties to the army.
The majority of Zimbabweans have only known life under Mugabe — the world’s oldest head of state — during a reign defined by violent suppression, economic collapse and international isolation.
Sources suggest Mugabe has been battling to delay his exit and to secure a deal guaranteeing future protection for him and his family.
The factional succession race that triggered Zimbabwe’s sudden crisis was between party hardliner Mnangagwa — known as the Crocodile — and a group called “Generation 40”, or “G40”, because its members are generally younger, which campaigned for Grace’s cause.
The president, who is feted in parts of Africa as the continent’s last surviving independence leader, is in fragile health.
But he previously said he would stand in elections next year that would see him remain in power until he was nearly 100 years old.
Zimbabwe’s economic output has halved since 2000 when many white-owned farms were seized, leaving the key agricultural sector in ruins.