Mugabe Quit Over Fear of Being Zimbabwe’s Qaddafi

Updated on
  • Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old leader feared protests at his home
  • Negotiations for terms of his retirement yet to be completed
Robert Mugabe Source: Bloomberg

An emotional Robert Mugabe finally agreed to end his 37-rule in Zimbabwe when army generals who’d seized power told him they wouldn’t prevent protesters from storming his home unless he relented, three people familiar with the talks said.

The peril from the protesters was real. Three days before they’d approached the gates of his mansion, known as “the blue roof,” in the affluent northern Harare suburb of Borrowdale. Chris Mutsvanga, a leader of veterans of the liberation war against white-ruled Rhodesia in the 1970s, threatened to unleash a fresh wave of protests when Mugabe, confused and tearful during his final days in power, didn’t immediately resign after thousands poured into the streets on Nov. 18.

For Mugabe, an almost president-for-life figure, the scenes were difficult to believe. He’d always been accompanied by a motorcade of heavily armed troops, decoy cars, police vehicles, motorcycle outriders and a fully-equipped military ambulance. But in recent years, the fate of figures such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, both of whom died or were captured after going on the run, had weighed on him, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Ailing health and frequent confusion hobbled Mugabe during the talks. He wept often and called out for his deceased first wife Sally, and Nhamodzenyika, his son who died of cerebral malaria as an infant, the officials said. His friend Father Fidelis Mukonori, a Catholic priest who was mediating talks with the military, consoled him and begged him to eat and bathe.

Mugabe’s decision to step down and end a week-long standoff with the military came as his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front was preparing to impeach him in parliament. It marked an anguished end to the career of Africa’s second-longest serving leader who had led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 and dominated its political scene ever since.

Mugabe himself triggered the intervention when he fired Emmerson Mnangagwa, his deputy president and long-time right-hand man during the liberation war and after independence. Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old former spy chief, has close relations with the security forces.

‘Gucci Grace’

The dismissal was seen by many as a precursor to the appointment of Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace to the position and opening a clear path for her to succeed him. Grace, known as “Gucci Grace” for her extravagant lifestyle, had infuriated members of the security forces by denouncing veterans of the liberation war and military leaders in recent months. With Mnangagwa out of the picture, the so-called Generation-40 faction of younger members of the ruling party who supported Grace appeared to be in the ascendancy.

Armed forces commander Constantino Chiwenga then stepped in to take power in the early hours of Nov. 15, seizing control of the state broadcaster, after Zanu-PF described his comments criticizing Mnangagwa’s dismissal as “treasonous.”

After days of negotiations with the military, Mugabe was widely expected to use a televised address on Nov. 19 to announce his retirement. Instead, he delivered a rambling speech and pledged to preside over a December congress of the governing party that had dumped him as leader earlier in the day.

Mugabe’s resistance to stepping down finally buckled when he was told that Zimbabwe’s special forces had detained key allies and members of the spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organization. Again he began weeping and repeatedly asked what he could do to end the standoff, the officials said. Calls to army headquarters seeking comment weren’t answered.

No Escape

His options were clear, the generals told him: Resign, be impeached or face the mob in the streets. And there was no escape, they said. Special forces had been deployed to Zimbabwe’s airports with strict orders not to let him or Grace leave the country.

The anger over Mugabe’s resistance to quit and the joy over the military’s decision to move against him were fueled by a collapse in living standards -- the economy is half the size it was in 2000 -- and soaring unemployment. Public services such as water provision are almost nonexistent and a crippling cash shortage has prompted people to sleep outside banks in order to draw as little as $20 when they’re restocked.

In the end, it was the fear of suffering the same fate as Qaddafi, or the embarrassment of being impeached, that changed Mugabe’s mind, the people said. He signed a resignation letter penned on his behalf on Nov. 21 after the generals agreed to some of his demands for immunity from prosecution, the officials said. Negotiations for the final conditions of his exit continue.

— With assistance by Karl Maier

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