HARARE – A lone figure sprinted into African Unity Square where the protests against Robert Mugabe’s regime had been taking place all day.
“He’s resigned!” the man howled, half crying. Others ran from nearby buildings and streets and within minutes, in the dusk, the pavement disappeared in a blur of flags and dancing figures.
Across the city car horns blared in unison. Six lanes of traffic ground to a standstill as people leapt on to their car roofs, stopped to buy flags from hawkers and joined in spontaneous dances. The noise was deafening.
The resignation of President Mugabe was announced by Jacob Mudenda, the Speaker of parliament, bringing to an end 37 years of brutal rule in Zimbabwe. He read out a letter from Mr Mugabe at a joint sitting of the national assembly and senate, meeting to begin what was expected to be a long process of impeachment of the 93-year-old president.
MPs raised a flurry of objections as an official walked towards the Speaker’s bench mid-session. Ignoring them, Mr Mudenda pushed his glasses up his nose and began reading aloud: “I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe . . . hereby formally tender my resignation as president of Zimbabwe with immediate effect.”
MPs jumped on to chairs and desks, screaming and clapping wildly. Others sat quietly in their seats, stunned. Some wept. Outside, an armoured personnel carrier overflowing with soldiers screeched around a car park in figures-of-eight as its driver honked the horn.
Police and a journalist for The Times clambered on to the back of a truck to head into the centre of Harare. The officers, normally a menacing presence for the media, this time hugged him and shook his hand.
“A new Zimbabwe, a new Zimbabwe,” they chanted. One said: “We know the people hate us, we’re going to change.”
Taxi drivers stopped in the middle of the road on the long and jubilant journey into the city centre to hug other motorists.
One of them, Kudzi, 28, said he wouldn’t believe the reports until he saw the resignation for himself. “I want to hear him say it. He must go on TV again,” he said.
Kuda, 26, a waiter, wept for ten minutes before announcing: “It’s like 1980 [the date of Zimbabwe’s independence] again. I have never been so happy in my whole life.”
As the bars in Harare filled, one patron, Rudo Kajese, toasted Mr Mugabe’s resignation with a drink and said: “Whatever happens next we are going to enjoy this victory. The citizens have a foot in the door and we plan to keep it there and push our way through.”
Towards midnight liquor stores and bars were still doing a roaring trade, with revellers cheering cars as they raced around the darkened streets, honking their horns. Inside a club some soldiers in dishevelled uniforms joined people on the dance floor, gladly accepting hugs and free drinks.
Amid the euphoria one patron even began to sympathise with Mr Mugabe. “I feel like crying with him. I feel sorry for him,” said Jennifer Cambanje, 32. “This man was stuck and he couldn’t leave. He didn’t want to but he had to. And now we are free.”
In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, there were wild cheers on the streets and in bars as the news spread of Mr Mugabe’s departure. For some, however, the celebrations were guarded. “We have made it, but where do we go from here? I witnessed something like this at independence in 1980 and then we were betrayed,” said Moffatt Masuku, in his seventies.
Roy Chiweshe, a taxi driver aged 40, said he did not care who succeeded Mr Mugabe. “The job is done. From now on, anyone who comes will be easier to remove. We must thank Grace for this” — a reference to Mrs Mugabe, whose push to succeed her husband backfired and set in motion the events that led to his resignation.
Mr Mugabe has in the space of a week sought to ignore a military coup, been placed under house arrest, been sacked by his own party, and faced the humiliation of impeachment. Whether the final straw came with the refusal by most of his 43 ministers to heed his call to attend a cabinet meeting yesterday, or the televised scenes of protesters bearing signs telling him to go, or the knowledge that his own MPs were teaming up with the opposition to remove him, is not known.
What is known is that last night the curtain had fallen on the regime of the world’s oldest president, who drove his country to the brink, forcing his people to endure famine, grinding poverty and relentless brutality.
Mr Mugabe, a bookish teacher who became a guerrilla fighter and liberation hero, only to drive his country to economic collapse, triggered his own demise by allowing his ambitious wife, Grace, to take over his duties as his energy and mental faculties waned. The tipping point appeared to be when he said that he planned to change the constitution of the ruling party next month and install his wife as his deputy.
Last week, after he had sacked his long-time ally and vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, the army called time, placing him under house arrest and detaining some of his closest allies.
Mr Mugabe was repeatedly offered the opportunity last week to resign, amid assurances he would not be prosecuted and could go into exile, most likely to Singapore where he has been treated for suspected prostate cancer.
Famous last words
“I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, in terms of section 96 of the constitution of Zimbabwe hereby formally tender my resignation . . . with immediate effect,” began the letter that was read out by Jacob Mudenda, the parliamentary Speaker. “My decision to resign is voluntary on my part. It arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire to ensure a smooth, peaceful and non-violent transfer of power that underpins national security, peace and stability.”