Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe appeared publicly Friday for the first time since the military takeover in a defiant gesture, but faces pressure to step down from his party ahead of weekend protests.
Leaders of eight of ten regional branches of the 93-year-old’s ruling ZANU-PF party took to state television in an apparently coordinated push to call for him to go.
“The province resolved unanimously to recall the president… from being the president of the party and the government,” said Cornelius Mupereri, a spokesman for the party’s Midlands region.
Mupereri was one of several branch officials to appear on ZBC’s nightly news to read almost identical statements calling on the liberation hero turned autocrat to resign for the good of the nation.
As well as increasingly vocal opposition from within his own party, Mugabe will face street protests on Saturday organised by veterans of the country’s independence war and supported by long-standing opponents of the president.
– ‘Now we’ve got a future’ –
The dramatic intervention by the regional leaders of Mugabe’s party caps a week of unprecedented turmoil in which generals seized power and put the veteran ruler under house arrest.
Ahead of his public appearance at a graduation ceremony in Harare on Friday, Mugabe had been confined to house arrest after the military takeover — a stunning turnaround for the president who has ruled since 1980.
He attended the event in Harare dressed in a blue academic gown and tasselled hat, before listening to speeches with his eyes closed and applauding occasionally, an AFP correspondent reported.
Mugabe did not comment on the take-over by the generals who seized power late Tuesday after vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa was sacked and Mugabe’s wife Grace emerged as the frontrunner to succeed him as president.
Mnangagwa, who had fled abroad after his firing, returned to the country on Thursday and seems poised to play a central role in shaping developments.
Citizens were stunned by the military’s actions, which were sparked by the bitter succession battle between Grace and Mnangagwa.
“I’m happy with what the army has done, at least now we’ve got a future for our kids,” Teslin Khumbula, the owner of a security company, told AFP.
“We don’t want Mugabe anymore… Please — everyone go to the streets.”
– ‘Finish the job’ –
Mugabe and the army chiefs held talks on Thursday to resolve the crisis, but no official update was given on the status of negotiations that could see him relinquish power.
Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the independence war veterans’ association which is seen as supporting Mnangagwa, said Friday that “the game is up” for Mugabe and called for protests against the president.
“We want to restore our pride and tomorrow is the day… we can finish the job which the army started.”
Veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war were loyal supporters of Mugabe, but they turned against him as friction grew between the president and the military.
Mnangagwa, 75, fled to South Africa following his dismissal and published a scathing rebuke of Mugabe’s leadership and Grace’s presidential ambitions.
The military said Friday they had detained some “criminals” in Mugabe’s government in a reference to supporters of Grace’s presidential hopes.
Grace has not been seen since the takeover by the military, which has not overtly called for President Mugabe’s resignation.
Morgan Tsvangirai, a former prime minister and long-time opponent of Mugabe, has said the president must resign “in the interest of the people”, adding that “a transitional mechanism” would be needed to ensure peace.
Harare’s residents have largely ignored the few soldiers still on the streets with shops, businesses and offices operating as usual.
The international community has been watching the crisis closely.
The United States has called for the army to quickly relinquish power following the takeover.
“We all should work together for a quick return to a civilian rule,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday ahead of talks with African foreign ministers.
In Paris, the head of the African Union, Guinea’s President Alpha Conde, warned on Thursday that the continent “will never accept the military coup d’etat”.
Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial ruler, said elections scheduled for 2018 should go ahead.