Bishops warn politicians, army to prioritise the people

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Speaking from an undisclosed location thought to be in South Africa on Tuesday, Mnangagwa urged Mugabe to resign immediately.

One week after Zimbabwe’s army moved to detain President Robert Mugabe under house arrest, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice-president and the man widely expected to succeed Mugabe as head of a transitional government, made his first public statement.

Speaking from an undisclosed location thought to be somewhere in South Africa on Tuesday, he urged Mr Mugabe to resign immediately. Meanwhile on Sunday Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops issued a statement that referred to the “recent tense events” and encouraged “those central to these delicate processes, (particularly the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and the political leadership) so that they maintain the best interests of the nation as a priority and continue to work tirelessly for a peaceful end to the crisis”.

The bishops measured statement showed considerable foresight, given the uncertainty surrounding a process characterised not by removing the president per se, as in a coup, but persuading him to step down against his will by applying ever increasing pressure. They did not name Mnangagwa, but his reputation as a one-time ally of Mugabe who has more than once been behind the ruthless crushing of opposition to the Government is well established, and their concerns about a Mnangagwa succession are evident.

Following his removal from the ruling party leadership and the threat that impeachment proceedings would start on Tuesday, Mugabe was expected to resign when he made a television appearance on Sunday evening, flanked by several members of the military. However, in a rambling address he said – somewhat bizarrely given the Zanu-PF vote on Sunday to remove him from the party leadership – that he would preside over the party Congress next month.

Mr Mnangagwa said he fled abroad two weeks ago when he learned of a plot to kill him, and he would not return until he was sure of his security. His decision to flee came after Mr Mugabe sacked him as vice president to make way, it was widely assumed, for his wife Grace to take over as vice-president and be next in line for the presidency.

Mr Mugabe is accused, as grounds for his impeachment, of allowing his wife to “usurp constitutional power”. Grace Mugabe was believed to be under house arrest with her husband, but unlike him made no public appearances.

Mr Mnangagwa said the 93-year-old president should heed the “clarion call” of his people and step down. Tens of thousands of people thronged central Harare last Saturday demanding that Mugabe do just that.

Tens of thousands march through Harare, 17 November ©PA

In the second city of Bulawayo in Ndebele-majority Matabeleland, there were also demonstrations, but Mnangagwa is not popular there as he is widely regarded as the architect of the Gukurahunde massacres by the Fifth Brigade in the early 1980s that left 20,000 dead.

The Church has “keenly and prayerfully followed the recent tense events in the country,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in their 19 November statement signed by conference president Bishop Michael Bhasera of Masvingo, vice president Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare, and other bishops. It was a “drastic” deterioration in the atmosphere in the country that led to the army’s intervention, they acknowledged.

The “entire population” was concerned about the process, they said, reminding army and politicians that what is happening is not only a power struggle within the ranks of the ruling party. Any transition must embrace “all Zimbabweans in their diversity and their oneness”, they said. Normality could only be achieved through a “participatory process in a democratic way”. And in a robust appeal to avoid bloodshed, they affirmed: “All life is precious. The preservation of lives must be paramount.”

During his conversations with the army generals at State House, Mugabe has been accompanied by his longtime confidant Fr Fidelis Mukonori. Reportedly Fr Mukonori argued that the December Zanu PF Congress would provide a dignified exit for Mugabe, but this proposal appears not to have been taken seriously by the army.