Zimbabweans to march as Mugabe’s future hangs in the balance

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Zimbabwe was set for more political turmoil on Saturday with protests planned as veterans of the independence war, activists and ruling party leaders called publicly for President Robert Mugabe to be forced from office.

The marches will cap an unprecedented week in which army generals seized power and put Mugabe under house arrest in a stunning turnaround for the President who has ruled since 1980.

The 93-year-old autocrat did not resign in talks with the army chief on Thursday and sources suggested the veteran leader was “buying time” to negotiate an end to his 37 year reign.

Mugabe appeared publicly for the first time at a pre-planned graduation ceremony in Harare on Friday, further stoking questions over the status of his discussions with General Constantino Chiwenga, who led the military power grab.

Later in the day, eight of Mugabe’s ruling party’s 10 regional branches took to state television to call for him to go.

Cornelius Mupereri, a spokesman for Zanu-PF’s Midlands region, was one of several party barons to appear on ZBC’s nightly news to read almost identical statements calling on Mugabe to quit.

Chris Mutsvangwa, chair of the independence war veterans’ association, said “the game is up” for Mugabe and announced street protests against the President.

“It’s done, it’s finished… The generals have done a fantastic job,” he said at a press conference in Harare.

“We want to restore our pride and (Saturday) is the day… we can finish the job which the army started.”

The veterans’ association supports ousted vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa — whose sacking sparked the army intervention on Tuesday.

They are organising a gathering at a large sports field in a working class suburb on the outskirts of Harare.

It was the location of Mugabe’s first speech after returning from exile in Mozambique in 1979.

Demonstrators had begun to arrive in the area by midnight local time.

The US embassy in Harare warned its citizens to avoid another protest — thought to be a pro-Mugabe counter-demonstration — expected to take place in Robert Mugabe Square in the centre of the capital.

Other demonstrations are expected elsewhere in the country on Saturday.

Pastor Evan Mawarire, an outspoken Mugabe critic who rose to prominence last year with his #ThisFlag protest movement challenging the president over the economic crisis, called on Zimbabweans of all backgrounds to march with the war veterans.

“The citizens are joining hands across political divides… across ideological divides,” he said in a live broadcast on Facebook.

“We have joined hands with war veterans, with the church and young people. We will stand together for a new Zimbabwe… We are marching in order for us to thank our military.”

Some Zimbabweans remain wary of the army’s intentions however.

“Once things stabilise, once Mugabe is out of the way, we also want them out as well — they are from the same regime,” said Matthew Chakanetsa, a 35-year-old taxi driver.

Despite appeals for Zimbabweans to turn out in force, it remained unclear whether demonstrators would heed the calls in a country where public protest has previously been violently suppressed.

But a video emerged late on Friday of activists in the second city Bulawayo apparently offering free transport to Harare for residents eager to join Saturday’s march.

Zimbabwe’s military chiefs said in statement Friday they had detained some “criminals” in Mugabe’s government after their lightning power grab which appeared to be the climax of a dispute over who would succeed the veteran leader. They did not give any indication about whether Mugabe would remain head of state.

Before being pushed out, vice president Mnangagwa had clashed repeatedly with Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52.

Grace Mugabe and Mnangagwa were seen as the leading contenders to replace Mugabe but Mnangagwa had the tacit support of the armed forces, which viewed Grace — a political novice — with derision.

The United States has called for the Zimbabwe army to quickly relinquish power.

“We all should work together for a quick return to a civilian rule,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ahead of talks with African foreign ministers. Mugabe critic Mawarire, whose strike action in July 2016 was violently put down by security forces, added “we have to fight for ourselves”.

“This time around, we are not waiting.”