HARARE–Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, refused to resign during a crunch meeting with military generals who have seized control of the country.
The talks in Harare on Thursday came after tumultuous days in which soldiers blockaded key roads, took over state TV and put the veteran leader under house arrest.
“They met today. He is refusing to step down. I think he is trying to buy time,” said a source close to the army leadership who declined to be named.
Mugabe’s motorcade took him from his private residence to State House for the talks which included envoys from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc. A Catholic priest was also present for the gathering, according to the state-run Herald news site.
Government TV showed Mugabe dressed in a navy blue blazer and grey trousers standing alongside army chief General Constantino Chiwenga who smiled and was dressed in camouflage military fatigues.
The broadcast said talks were ongoing. It also said that a graduation ceremony at a university where Mugabe is the chancellor would proceed as planned on Friday morning.
Mugabe has previously taken a hands-on role in the capping of graduates himself and if he were to attend in person it would suggest that his house arrest had been relaxed.
Zimbabwe was left stunned at the military intervention against Mugabe, 93, who has ruled the country since independence from British rule in 1980. Despite Mugabe’s refusal to resign, attention has shifted to the prominent figures who could play a role in any transitional government.
Morgan Tsvangirai, a former prime minister and long-time opponent of Mugabe, told journalists in Harare that Mugabe must resign “in the interest of the people”.
He added that “a transitional mechanism” would be needed to ensure stability.
Tendai Biti, an internationally-respected figure who served as finance minister during the coalition government after the 2008 elections, called it “a very delicate time for Zimbabwe”.
“A way has to be worked out to maintain stability. That restoration requires a roadmap and to address the grievances that have led to this situation,” he said.
Mugabe’s advanced age, poor health and listless public performances fuelled a bitter succession battle between his wife Grace and former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who Mugabe sacked last week.
Mnangagwa, 75, was previously one of Mugabe’s most loyal lieutenants, having worked alongside him for decades.
But he fled to South Africa following his dismissal and published a scathing five-page rebuke of Mugabe’s leadership and Grace’s presidential ambitions.
The military generals were strongly opposed to Grace Mugabe’s rise, while Mnangagwa has maintained close ties to the army and could emerge as the next president.
“People want the constitution to be upheld. The talks should look at how to deal with the Mugabe issue in a progressive manner,” political analyst Earnest Mudzengi said.
Eldred Masunungure, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, added that the formation of a “pre-election coalition” could be a viable response to the crisis.
Many Zimbabweans hoped the situation would pave the way to a more prosperous future.
“We needed change. Our situation has been pathetic,” said Keresenzia Moyo, 65.
“The economy has been in the doldrums for a very long time. We are happy with what has been done.”
However, a spokesman for the ruling Zanu-PF party, Simon Khaya Moyo, insisted it was business as usual.
“It’s normal, everything is normal with the party,” he said.
Harare’s residents largely ignored the few soldiers still on the streets Thursday and continued commuting, socialising and working.
The international community has been watching the crisis closely.
In Paris, the head of the African Union, Guinea’s President Alpha Conde, warned on Thursday that the continent “will never accept the military coup d’etat” in Zimbabwe and called for a return to the “constitutional order.”
“(Problems) need to be resolved politically by the Zanu-PF party and not with an intervention by the army,” added Conde.
A meeting of SADC in Botswana on Thursday called for an emergency regional summit to help resolve the crisis.
The bloc urged Zimbabwe to “settle the political challenges through peaceful means”.
Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial ruler, demanded that elections scheduled for 2018 go ahead.
The Herald daily walked a fine line in its editorial pages Thursday by remaining loyal to Mugabe but also endorsing the military’s action.
“The military does not readily interfere… they had to break with this long tradition,” it wrote, adding that ZANU-PF “was being soiled by those who should be helping the President”.