Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s public appearance at a university graduation ceremony Friday — leaving the confinement of his mansion — was stage-managed by the military to deflect accusations it took control of the country Wednesday in a military coup.
The move was designed to assure neighboring governments that Zimbabwe’s political crisis is nothing but an internal conflict in the ruling ZANU-PF party, with Mugabe still nominally the head of state, although stripped of executive powers.
Mugabe, clad in an academic gown, made no speech at the ceremony, but opened the event to applause.
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma on Friday expressed his hope that events in Zimbabwe “will not lead to unconstitutional change of government,” in comments that suggested acceptance of the generals’ contention that a coup has not taken place.
The military is steadily increasing pressure on Mugabe to persuade him to agree to a swift exit in coming days.
Mugabe’s position weakened further Friday when eight of the 10 ZANU-PF party provincial bodies passed no-confidence motions in him, demanding his departure and rebuffing his efforts to stay on.
Mugabe, 93, holds no cards in his struggle to continue as president against the wishes of the generals, who have offered him a dignified departure but want a quick exit deal.
The security of Mugabe’s wife, Grace, depends on the president agreeing to step down, or she could face arrest like her allies, members of a ZANU-PF faction named G40.
In a further move to ratchet up the pressure on Mugabe, the ZANU-PF war veterans’ association called a mass rally for Saturday morning to show support for the actions of the military.
Dozens or even hundreds of buses are likely to arrive in Harare, the capital, from provinces across Zimbabwe to participate in a “solidarity rally” supporting the military intervention.
Under the deal being sought by the military, Mugabe would reappoint Emmerson Mnangagwa to the post of vice president and step down by December, leaving Mnangagwa to assume the presidency leading into elections early next year. The head of the armed forces, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, is emerging as a likely vice president, according to a ZANU-PF source.
Mugabe came close to an exit arrangement Thursday, offering to step down at elections next year, a proposal rejected by the military.
Zimbabwe’s generals are determined to deflect concerns raised by the regional leadership group, the Southern African Development Community, over Mugabe’s confinement to his home. South African envoys who met with Mugabe, Chiwenga and others Thursday were told that their presence was unnecessary to deal with an internal party struggle, according to the ZANU-PF source.
The major sticking point in negotiations over an exit plan is Mugabe’s refusal to accept the military’s demand that he reinstall Mnangagwa, who has the support of the generals.
One ZANU-PF member close to Mnangagwa said there were “so many options” to remove Mugabe if he tried to remain in power. “Whichever one, it’s a fait accompli. It’s not going to change. There’s no turning back. There’s no way this dispensation is going to change.”
Members of the G40 faction close to Mugabe and his wife are being held in cells in the military headquarters, notably Jonathan Moyo, the higher education minister. Support for the faction has abruptly evaporated within the ruling party.
On Friday, a group of approximately 200 rank-and-file party members danced, sang and chanted at the Harare provincial office of ZANU-PF in the capital, celebrating the military intervention. They sang, “We want a male vice president,” in a rebuff to Grace Mugabe’s efforts to have her husband appoint her to the post. They also chanted, “Viva ZANU-PF! Down with G40!”
A military statement published in the state-owned Herald newspaper Friday said those arrested had been “committing crimes that were causing social and economic suffering in Zimbabwe.” Charges may be laid out in coming days. Chiwenga told South African envoys the military arrests of G40 members were legal, deriving from section 212 of the constitution, which gives the military broad powers to safeguard the national interest.
Moyo, who made enemies in the military last year by accusing them of plotting a coup against Mugabe, may be singled out for grave charges. At a meeting of the ruling party’s supreme body last month, Mnangagwa accused Moyo of being a CIA agent. If charges of espionage were brought against Moyo, he could face the death penalty.
The military’s actions also appear designed to avoid a democracy in which the opposition might win power. One option is to accept a government of national unity, ensuring that Mnangagwa and the generals retain control over the security organs.
Zimbabwe has had a similar arrangement before when opposition members joined a unity government after disputed elections in 2008.
In Masvingo province Friday, the ZANU-PF coordinating committee voted to ban all party regalia depicting the faces of Mugabe and his wife, in another blow to the president’s prestige.
The provincial chairman, Ezra Chadzamira, read a resolution accusing Mugabe of succumbing to a “bedroom coup,” ceding his power to his wife, local media reported Friday.
“We call for an immediate resignation of President Mugabe,” the resolution said. “In the event he refuses to resign, we call for his immediate recall from both the party and government. We are in solidarity with the action and processes taken by the Zimbabwe Defense Forces led by the Commander General Constantino Chiwenga towards the formation of a new, democratic and constitutional government.”
Botswana’s President Ian Khama told Reuters on Friday he knew of no regional support for Mugabe to remain as head of the nation he’s led since independence in 1980. Khama said the events in the neighboring country offered “an opportunity to put Zimbabwe on a path to peace and prosperity.”
“I don’t think anyone should be president for that amount of time. We are presidents; we are not monarchs. It’s just common sense,” he said.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 5:05 a.m.