HARARE (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans flooded the streets of Harare on Saturday, singing, dancing and hugging soldiers in an outpouring of elation at the expected fall of President Robert Mugabe, their leader of the last 37 years.
In scenes reminiscent of the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, men, women and children ran alongside the armoured cars and troops that stepped in this week to oust the only ruler Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980.
The 93-year-old Mugabe has been under house arrest in his lavish ‘Blue Roof’ compound in Harare, from where he has watched support from his Zanu-PF party, security services and people evaporate in less than three days.
Emotions ran over on Harare’s streets as Zimbabweans spoke of a second liberation for the former British colony, alongside their dreams of political and economic change after two decades of deepening repression and hardship.
Mugabe’s downfall is likely to send shockwaves across Africa, where a number of entrenched strongmen, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila, are facing mounting pressure to step aside.
“These are tears of joy,” Frank Mutsindikwa, 34, told Reuters, holding aloft the Zimbabwean flag. “I’ve been waiting all my life for this day. Free at last. We are free at last.”
Some held aloft placards reading “No to Mugabe dynasty” and pumped their fists in the air in a sign of freedom, an echo of the gesture made by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela when he walked out of an apartheid jail in 1990.
Others embraced the soldiers who seized power, shouting “Thank you! Thank you!” in scenes unthinkable even a week ago.
In one telling metaphor, a metal street sign bearing the inscription R. Mugabe Rd had been torn down, crumpled up and thrown in a litter bin.
“These are our leaders now,” said Remember Moffat, 22, waving a picture of army commander Constantino Chiwenga and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president whose sacking this month precipitated the coup.
“My dream is to see a new Zimbabwe. I’ve only known this tyrant called Mugabe my whole life.”
Importantly for the army, the massive crowds in Harare give a quasi-democratic veneer to its intervention, backing its claims that it is merely effecting a constitutional transfer of power, which would help it avoid the diplomatic backlash and opprobrium that normally follows coups.
For some Africans, Mugabe remains a nationalist hero, the continent’s last independence leader and a symbol of its struggle to throw off the legacy of decades of colonial subjugation.
To many more at home and abroad, however, he was reviled as a dictator happy to resort to violence to retain power and to run a once-promising economy into the ground.
Although Mugabe has been digging in his heels in the face of army pressure to quit, he appears to have run out of road, devoid of domestic or international support.
Political sources and intelligence documents seen by Reuters said Mugabe’s exit is likely to pave the way for an interim unity government led by Mnangagwa, a life-long Mugabe aide and former security chief known as “The Crocodile”.
Stabilising the free-falling economy will be the number one priority, the documents said.
The United States, a long-time Mugabe critic, said it was looking forward to a “new era” in Zimbabwe, while President Ian Khama of neighbouring Botswana said Mugabe had no diplomatic support in the region and should resign at once.
“I don’t think anyone should be President for that amount of time. We are Presidents. We are not monarchs. It’s just common sense,” Khama told Reuters.
In a sign of the depth of his demise, Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF called on Friday for him to go, according to The Herald, the state newspaper that has served as a loyal mouthpiece for nearly four decades.
ZANU-PF branches in all 10 provinces had also called for the resignation of Mugabe’s wife Grace, the headstrong First Lady whose ambitions to succeed her husband outraged the military and much of the country.
To many Zimbabweans, Grace is more familiar as “Gucci Grace” on account of her reported dedication to shopping, or – in the wake of the alleged assault in September of a South African model – “Dis-Grace”.
The extraordinary scenes in Harare are indicative of the anger and frustration that has built up in nearly two decades of economic mismanagement that started with the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, the catalyst of a wider collapse.
The central bank tried to print its way out of trouble by unleashing a flood of cash but that only made matters worse, leading to hyperinflation that topped out at 500 billion percent in 2008.
At least 3 million Zimbabweans emigrated in search of a better life, most of them to neighbouring South Africa.
After stabilising briefly when Mugabe was forced to work with the opposition in a 2009-2013 unity government, the economy has collapsed again, this time due to a chronic shortage of dollars.
In October, monthly inflation leapt to more than 50 percent, putting basic goods beyond the means of many in a country with 90 percent unemployment.
Mugabe’s only public appearance since the military took over on Wednesday was at a university graduation ceremony on Friday morning. Decked out in blue and yellow academic gowns, he appeared tired, at one point falling asleep in his chair.
A senior member of the ZANU-PF ruling party said it was only a matter of time before he agreed to his own departure.
“If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday,” the source said. “When that is done, it’s impeachment on Tuesday.”