HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa vowed Friday he will work to reduce crushing unemployment and return the country to prosperity after years of decline, as the nation cheered a new beginning after the extraordinary exit of Robert Mugabe.
“Our economic policy will be directed for job, job, job creation,” Mnangagwa told the crowd of 60,000 witnessing his inauguration at a stadium in the capital, Harare. Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is estimated to be 80 percent.
“We must work together. You, me, all of us who make up this nation,” Mnangagwa said, urging the millions of Zimbabweans who have left the country to return.
“I must hit the ground running,” the new president said.
Mnangagwa, fired earlier this month as vice president, takes power after a whirlwind series of events that ousted the 93-year-old Mugabe, who had been the world’s oldest head of state. Mugabe who succumbed to pressure to quit from the military, the ruling party and massive demonstrations amid fears his unpopular wife would succeed him.
The new president’s speech struck notes of inclusion and reconciliation after years of growing frustration with Mugabe’s 37-year rule.
Mnangagwa said farmers would be compensated for the often forceful land seizures that drew international condemnation and sanctions and contributed to the country’s economic slide. But the program that saw land seized from white farmers and given to black Zimbabweans will not be reversed, he said.
“The principle of nationalization of our land cannot be challenged or reversed,” Mnangagwa said, but added that a land commission would be formed to make sure that properties are farmed productively.
The new president also sought to reassure the international community and attract badly sought investment.
“All foreign investment will be safe in Zimbabwe,” Mnangagwa said, addressing fears following moves by Mugabe to nationalize the country’s lucrative resources such as diamonds, platinum, gold and chrome.
Mnangagwa also said he will tackle corruption, and pledged that “democratic” elections will be held next year as planned.
He promised to change Zimbabwe’s political climate which he characterized as “poisonous, rancorous and polarized.”
And yet he opened his speech by praising outgoing leader Mugabe, who remains praised by many in Africa for his role in ending white-minority ruled Rhodesia. Mugabe should be “lauded and celebrated” for his work, Mnangagwa said, to tepid applause.
A smiling Mnangagwa greeted the stadium crowd with a raised fist. The military, fresh from putting Mugabe under house arrest just days ago, quickly swore its loyalty to the new leader.
The swearing-in ceremony was attended by regional leaders including the presidents of Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia. The crowd was entertained by Zimbabwean pop star Jah Prayzah whose song “Kutonga Kwaro,” which means “The Way He Rules” in the Shona language, has become a theme song for Mnangagwa’s presidency.
Mnangagwa, a former justice and defense minister, was a key Mugabe confidante for decades until they fell out over the presidential ambitions of Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
Mugabe, one of Africa’s last remaining liberation leaders, quit Tuesday as impeachment proceedings began. In the end, he was isolated and showing few of the political skills that kept him in power for decades and made him a prominent but polarizing figure on the world stage. He had led since Zimbabwe’s independence from white minority rule in 1980.
Mugabe did not attend Friday’s swearing-in, and ruling party officials have said he will remain in Zimbabwe with their promise that he is “safe” and his legacy as a “hero” will stand after his fight for an independent Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper reported that Mnangagwa assured Mugabe and his family of their “maximum security.” The report said the two men agreed Mugabe would not attend Friday because he “needed time to rest.”
Ahead of the inauguration people danced in the stadium stands. Banners erected stated its “Dawn of a new era” and “No to retribution,” even as human rights activists began to report worrying details of attacks on close allies of the former first lady and their families. Mnangagwa has warned against “vengeful retribution.”
Elsewhere in the capital, long lines formed outside banks, a common sight in a nation struggling with cash shortages and other severe economic problems that the new president will have to confront.
“Attending the inauguration will not bring food for my family,” said Kelvin Fungai, a 19-year-old selling bananas from a cart. Many young people are well-educated but jobless, reduced to street vending to survive. Others have left the country.
Elsewhere, there were signs of hope amid the uncertainty. Black market rates for cash have tumbled since Mugabe left office. Before he stepped down, one had to deposit $170 into a black market dealer’s bank account to get $100 cash. On Friday, $100 cash was selling for between $140 and $150.
As the inauguration crowds streamed by, Sharon Samuriwo sat on a ledge, watching. She said she hoped Mnangagwa would learn from the errors of his predecessor, and she acknowledged that the path ahead for Zimbabwe is unknown.
Still, “after 37 years, we’ve got someone different.”