Elated Zimbabweans celebrate as Mugabe era fades

Susan Njanji and Fanuel Jongwe
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There was a celebratory atmosphere across Zimbabwe as thousands turned out to voice their opposition to the decades-long autocratic rule of Presdient Robert Mugabe

Tens of thousands of overjoyed protesters flooded Zimbabwe's streets Saturday celebrating President Robert Mugabe's slipping power on the eve of crunch talks with the military to determine the veteran leader's fate.

In scenes of public euphoria not seen since independence in 1980, huge crowds marched, danced and sang their way through the capital Harare and other cities, demanding that Mugabe, 93, finally step down.

Following the mass demonstrations, the catholic priest chairing talks between Mugabe and the military who seized power from him told state TV that the president would meet the generals for talks on Sunday.

The protests' huge turnout came after an unprecedented week in which the military seized power and put Mugabe under house arrest in response to his sacking of vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The marches were peaceful, despite a tense stand-off as heavily armed soldiers barred thousands of protesters from reaching Mugabe's official residence, the State House, in central Harare.

- 'New life after Mugabe' -

The crowd got within 200 metres (220 yards) of the gates to the complex that has been the nerve centre of Mugabe's authoritarian rule before staging a sit-down protest.

The demonstrations were called by independence war veterans and included citizens of all ages, jubilant that Mugabe appeared to be on his way out.

"This is the best day of my life. We are hoping for a new life after Mugabe," said 38-year-old Sam Sechete at the main rally in Highfield, a working-class suburb of Harare.

A symbolic location, Highfield was where Mugabe gave his rousing first speech after returning from exile in Mozambique ahead of independence in 1980.

Demonstrators roared, whistled and chanted, brandishing placards proclaiming: "Not coup -- but cool" and "Mugabe must go!"

In central Harare, a group of young men tore down a green metal street sign bearing Robert Mugabe's name and smashed it repeatedly on the road before trampling it underfoot.

Major General Sibusiso Moyo, whose faltering delivery of an army statement on state TV marked the completion of the take-over on Wednesday, told journalists at the protests "the people of Zimbabwe are disciplined, orderly and they are unified".

In Bulawayo, the country's second-largest city, demonstrators sounded car horns, whistled and blew vuvuzelas as they gathered outside City Hall before briefly storming that city's State House. They were convinced to leave by troops.

- Unthinkable a week ago -

Such an open display of defiance would have been unthinkable just a week ago as dissent was routinely crushed by security forces.

But in a statement released on Friday, the army said it fully supported the protests.

The majority of Zimbabweans have only known life under Mugabe's rule, which has been defined by violent suppression, economic collapse and international isolation.

"I went to university but here I am selling bananas to earn a living. If it wasn't for Mugabe, I would be doing something else," said one protester, street vendor Abel Kapodogo, 34.

- 'Mugabe cornered' -

Mugabe enraged many Zimbabweans when he did not resign following talks with the army's leaders on Thursday, with sources suggesting he was "buying time" to negotiate a favourable end to his 37-year reign.

He appeared publicly for the first time on Friday for a scheduled appearance at a graduation ceremony in Harare, further stoking speculation about his talks with General Constantino Chiwenga, who led the military power grab.

Nine of the 10 regional branches of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF have now called for him to go.

A ZANU-PF MP, and a national party official, who both declined to be named confirmed that the party's executive committee would meet Sunday to seek to have Mugabe removed as president and party leader.

It is unclear whether the body has the power to force Mugabe out but a resolution against him would be yet another serious blow to his authority.

- Clashing with Grace -

The army seizure of power appeared to be the climax of a dispute over who would succeed the ailing leader.

Before being pushed out as vice president, Mnangagwa had clashed repeatedly with Mugabe's wife Grace, 52.

Both had been seen as leading contenders to replace Mugabe, but Mnangagwa had the tacit support of the armed forces, which viewed Grace -- a political novice -- with derision.

ZANU-PF will also discuss removing Grace as head of the party's women's league at the Sunday summit.

The international community including the African Union, Britain and the United States has called for Zimbabwe's army to quickly relinquish power.

A small but noisy protest in London Saturday called for Mugabe to go.