HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe emerged for the first time Friday from military-imposed house arrest, presiding at a university graduation ceremony in a fragile show of normalcy even as former loyalists across the country demanded that he resign after nearly four decades in power.
In an extraordinary evening newscast, state broadcaster ZBC reported on the surging campaign for his ouster and showed video of ruling party members saying he should resign.
Clad in a blue academic gown, the 93-year-old leader earlier joined academics on a red carpet and sat in a high-backed chair in front of several thousand students and guests, a routine he has conducted for many years as the official chancellor of Zimbabwe’s universities.
This time, however, the spectacle was jarring because the authority of the world’s oldest head of state, once seen as impregnable, is evaporating daily.
That Mugabe was permitted to go to the Zimbabwe Open University event possibly reflected a degree of respect by the military for the president, a former rebel leader who took power after independence from white minority rule in 1980. The armed forces are in a delicate position, sending tanks and troops into Harare’s streets this week to effectively end the Mugabe era while refraining from more heavy-handed measures that would heighten accusations that they staged a coup and violated the constitution.
Meanwhile, the ruling ZANU-PF party signaled impatience with Mugabe amid negotiations on his exit. Party branches passed no-confidence votes in all 10 Zimbabwean provinces, and the state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper said all called for the resignation of Mugabe and his wife. They seek a special meeting within two days of the party’s Central Committee.
Demonstrations were called for Saturday in Harare to support the military’s move against Mugabe, who drew applause from the graduating students on the outskirts of the capital only when he made brief, perfunctory remarks, usually to bestow degrees on delighted graduates. The military said it supports plans for a march, as long as the demonstration is orderly and peaceful.
“It was a long struggle,” graduate Arthur Chipra said of the years of effort that went into his master’s degree in conflict resolution. He declined to say anything when asked what he thought about Mugabe’s presence at the ceremony, highlighting the lingering caution of many in a country where people have been prosecuted for criticizing the president.
Discontent with Mugabe has been growing because of the dire state of the economy, concerns about corruption and mismanagement, a sense that he is no longer physically capable of leading the country due to advanced age and the ambitions of his wife, Grace Mugabe, to succeed him.
The military stepped into the factional battles of the ruling party on Wednesday after the firing of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is close to the armed forces and was heavily criticized by both Mugabes.
Mnangagwa, who fled Zimbabwe after his dismissal, will return only after the process to remove Mugabe is complete, high-level supporters told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters about the matter.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for a return to civilian rule in Zimbabwe, urged any new leader to respect democracy and human rights, and said the country has a chance to put itself on a “new path.”
China said it hopes Zimbabwe’s political situation can be resolved “under the legal framework” and that stability can be restored.
Questions have been raised about China’s possible role in Zimbabwe’s affairs because Zimbabwe’s army commander was in Beijing last week. China said the visit by Gen. Constantino Chiwenga was a “normal military exchange.”
As Mugabe tries to hang on in negotiations over his departure from office, he has asked for “a few more days, a few more months,” the chairman of the influential war veterans’ association in Zimbabwe told reporters.
Chris Mutsvangwa, a Mnangagwa ally, said there is little tolerance for Mugabe to extend his presidency.
Several ruling party figures linked to Grace Mugabe — Jonathan Moyo, the higher education minister; Saviour Kasukuwere, the local government minister; and Ignatious Chombo, the finance minister — were detained during military operations, according to Mutsvangwa. Moyo was not at the graduation ceremony, even though he had been scheduled to attend.
The military said “significant progress has been made in their operation to weed out criminals around President Mugabe,” saying they had committed “crimes that were causing social and economic suffering in Zimbabwe.”
Photographs of talks at Mugabe’s official residence show the president, Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi, Intelligence Minister Kembo Mohadi, South African Cabinet ministers who are acting as mediators and a local Catholic priest, the Rev. Fidelis Mukonori, whom Mugabe has used as a mediator before. Grace Mugabe was not pictured. Negotiations on Mugabe’s exit come ahead of a key ruling party congress next month, and elections next year.
There was no obvious military presence at the university graduation that Mugabe attended. His security was handled by presidential guards. Burly men in suits surrounded him as he walked slowly out of the graduation tent after declaring — to applause — an end to the ceremony.