Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe defied calls to quit Sunday, saying he will preside over a ruling party congress in December in an announcement that could trigger impeachment proceedings this week and more protests demanding his ouster. In a televised address, the 93-year-old Mugabe acknowledged what he said were “a whole range of concerns” of Zimbabweans about the chaotic state of the government and the economy, but he stopped short of what many people in the southern African nation were hoping for a statement that he was resigning after nearly four decades in power.
The once-formidable Mugabe is now a virtually powerless, isolated figure, making his continued incumbency all the more unusual and extending Zimbabwe’s political limbo. He is largely confined to his private home by the military. The ruling party has fired him from his leadership post, and huge crowds poured into the streets of Harare, the capital, on Saturday to demand that he leave office.
Yet the president sought to project authority in his speech, which he delivered after shaking hands with security force commanders, one of whom leaned over a couple of times to help Mugabe find his place on the page he was reading.
The Central Committee of the ruling ZANU-PF party voted to dismiss Mugabe as party leader at a meeting earlier Sunday and said impeachment proceedings would begin if he does not resign by noon Monday. Mugabe made no reference to the party moves against him, instead saying he would play a leading role in a party congress planned for Dec. 12-17.
“The congress is due in a few weeks from now,” Mugabe said. “I will preside over its processes, which must not be prepossessed by any acts calculated to undermine it or compromise the outcomes in the eyes of the public.”
Mugabe has discussed his possible resignation on two occasions with military commanders after they effectively took over the country on Tuesday. The commanders were troubled by his firing of his longtime deputy and the positioning of unpopular first lady Grace Mugabe to succeed him. He referred to the military’s concerns about the state of Zimbabwe, where the economy has deteriorated amid factional battles within the ruling party.
“Whatever the pros and cons of the way they went about registering those concerns, I, as the president of Zimbabwe, as their commander in chief, do acknowledge the issues they have drawn my attention to, and do believe that these were raised in the spirit of honesty and out of deep and patriotic concern for the stability of our nation and for the welfare of our people,” Mugabe said.
The deputy whom Mugabe fired, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is positioned to become Zimbabwe’s next leader after the party committee made him its nominee to take over from Mugabe, who has ruled since independence from white minority rule in 1980.
Committee members stood, cheered and sang after Mugabe was removed from his post as party leader. Meeting chair Obert Mpofu referred to him as “outgoing president” and called it a “sad day” for Mugabe after his decades in power.
“He has been our leader for a long time, and we have all learned a great deal from him,” Mpofu said. But Mugabe, he said, “surrounded himself with a wicked cabal.”
The meeting replaced Mugabe as party chief with Mnangagwa and recalled the first lady as head of the women’s league, in decisions set to be ratified at the party congress next month. The committee accused the first lady of “preaching hate, divisiveness and assuming roles and powers not delegated to the office.”
Zimbabwean officials never revealed details of Mugabe’s talks with the military, but the military appeared to favor a voluntary resignation to maintain a veneer of legality in the political transition. Mugabe, in turn, has likely used whatever leverage he has left to try to preserve his legacy or even protect himself and his family from possible prosecution.
Hours before Mugabe spoke on television, Chris Mutsvangwa, head of the country’s liberation war veterans, said more protests could occur if the president does not step aside. He said he was concerned that the military could end up opening fire to protect Mugabe from protesters.
“We would expect that Mugabe would not have the prospect of the military shooting at people, trying to defend him,” Mutsvangwa said. “The choice is his.”