- - Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Harare, Zimbabwe | It was an unexpectedly low-key conclusion to an era that many ordinary Zimbabweans were beginning to fear might never end.

Residents of this beleaguered capital took to the streets to celebrate as the news leaked out that autocratic President Robert Mugabe, the only leader most here have ever known, had resigned under pressure, bringing to an end both a weeklong standoff over his presidency and his 37 years running the country.

The increasingly frail, 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of government, was felled when the establishment he built up rose against him, rebelling when he tried to engineer the elevation of his polarizing wife, Grace Mugabe, as his successor.

There was open rejoicing Tuesday on the streets of the capital for the downfall of the man once lionized for liberating his country from British colonial rule in the 1970s and 1980s. Through violent suppression of dissent and a keen political sense, Mr. Mugabe would dominate his new country over the next three decades, presiding over a decline in civil liberties and a near-collapse of the once-flourishing economy while holding tight to the political reins.

“The dictator is gone — thank God that Zimbabwe is now independent!” said Maureen Kademaunga, 28, a human rights activist.

On Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers began impeachment proceedings against Mr. Mugabe, parliament Speaker Jacob Mudenda read a letter from the president in which he said he was stepping down effectively immediately for “the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and the need for a peaceful transfer of power,” sparking cheers from lawmakers.

“My decision to resign is voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire for a smooth, non-violent transfer of power,” Mr. Mugabe wrote.

The move was a sharp reversal from Sunday, when Mr. Mugabe vowed not to resign during a televised address, even after he and his wife were expelled from the ruling ZANU-PF party and he was being held in detention by the military.

For almost four decades, Mr. Mugabe has clamped down on dissent and crushed rivals. But he went one step too far earlier this month by firing Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, another hero of the independence struggle with deep ties to the military and veterans’ groups, hoping to clear the way for his 52-year-old wife to succeed him as president when the country holds elections next year.

Zimbabwe’s military commander, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, warned people not to target old adversaries following Mr. Mugabe’s resignation. “Acts of vengeful retribution or trying to settle scores will be dealt with severely,” he said.

The Trump administration and other international leaders welcomed the end of Mr. Mugabe’s rule, while cautioning that the new government should respect human rights and move quickly to organize new elections.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday the people of Zimbabwe are seeking a “new era” and an end to international isolation brought on by Mr. Mugabe’s authoritarian rule. She added that Washington is urging “unwavering respect for the rule of law and for established democratic practices,” according to The Associated Press.

Mr. Mugabe’s status as a hero of Africa’s 20th century liberation struggles brought a more equivocal response from African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat, who said the president’s resignation “will go down in history as an act of statesmanship that can only bolster President Mugabe’s political legacy.”

Human rights groups are urging Zimbabwe to respect the rule of law as the country shifts into an era without Mr. Mugabe, the AP reported.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty said in a statement that the people of Zimbabwe deserve better “after more than three decades of violent repression.”

Widely disliked by many for her lavish shopping sprees — which earned her the mocking nicknames “Gucci Grace” and “First Shopper” — Mrs. Mugabe entered Zimbabwean politics just two years ago and quickly made it known that she wanted to succeed her husband.

But following Mr. Mnangagwa’s dismissal, the military rebelled and detained the Mugabes Nov. 15, placing them under house arrest.

Despite fears of an extra-constitutional coup, the military’s actions were heralded by Zimbabweans who are tired of the crackdowns, the protests and, most of all, the lack of opportunities resulting from the dire poverty that marks this country.

Under Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe went from being one of Africa’s most prosperous nations to one of the world’s worst economies, wracked with crippling inflation, hunger and unemployment.

“Most of the industries have closed shop, and I have been rotting away at home,” said Felix Zhuwarara, 30, an unemployed engineer in Harare. “I want to fend for my pregnant wife. If I could get any form of employment, whether full- or part-time, I’d be very grateful.”

While some said they would mourn the man known as the “Bob” or “Father of the Country,” they said it was time to move forward, rebuilding the country both politically and economically.

“Zimbabweans have spoken,” said Nelson Chamisa, deputy president of the Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition party. “You can’t oppress people forever.”

But with Mr. Mnangagwa, known as the executor of some of Mr. Mugabe’s most heinous acts, likely to assume the post of president, some say Zimbabweans may still have to wait for major changes to come.

“Going forward, we want democratic elections that reflect the will of the people,” Mr. Chamisa added.

Regardless, many expressed relief over the resignation because it put an end to the tension and uncertainty over the standoff between the army and Mr. Mugabe that has been going on for almost a week.

“We couldn’t sell our wares freely because we don’t know what is going to happen next,” said Farai Makoni, 24, a street trader. “We are just waiting for the situation to normalize so we can return to work for our families.”

Joy on Harare’s streets as Mugabe exit ends standoff

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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