After 37 years of dictatorship and misrule, Robert Mugabe has resigned as Zimbabwe’s president.

His resignation letter was read to a joint sitting of both houses of Zimbabwe’s parliament on Tuesday afternoon, barely an hour after members had begun debating a motion to impeach him.

Within moments, Harare erupted into wild and riotous celebrations. Other Zimbabwean cities quickly followed.

Hundreds of thousands of people flocked into Harare’s streets, from one end of the capital to the other. Six hours later, they were still partying. They whooped, danced, cheered, sang, waved flags, honked car horns and propped themselves dangerously out of car windows to scream at passing motorists. Even in remote suburbs, people came out of their homes to dance on the sides of the streets with music blaring.

“He’s gone, he’s gone, he’ll never come back,” one group of Zimbabweans sang ecstatically.

“Let him go, let him go,” another group sang.

Several young women carried a huge Zimbabwean flag and sang a traditional song from the country’s war of liberation in the 1970s. “You have lost,” they sang, celebrating their victory over the dictator.

People carried placards reading, “Mugabe, you’re snookered” and “Mugabe, go home and rest!” Excited crowds had gathered outside the parliamentary session even before the impeachment debate had begun.

Mr. Mugabe will be replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief and defence minister with close ties to the military. He will be sworn in as president on Friday.

It is unclear whether Mr. Mugabe will stay in Zimbabwe or go into exile in another country.

Despite the ruling party’s attempts to portray it as voluntary, Mr. Mugabe’s resignation was a direct response to the military coup launched in Harare last Wednesday.

The military takeover led swiftly to the arrest and expulsion of Mr. Mugabe’s strongest supporters in the ruling party, ZANU-PF, leaving his rivals in full control of the party and government. The party then demanded Mr. Mugabe’s resignation. He wavered at first, delivering a rambling and confused speech to the country on Sunday night before finally recognized the writing on the wall.

Zimbabwe’s military commanders are trying hard to portray this as a constitutional and legal change of leadership. They could be deprived of international recognition and foreign loans if the takeover is acknowledged as a coup. But there is no doubt that Mr. Mugabe’s resignation was a response to the armoured vehicles and soldiers that seized every key point in Harare last week.

The soldiers arrested all of Mr. Mugabe’s key allies and put the president under house arrest. Before the coup, Mr. Mugabe had been planning to run for election again next year, potentially keeping him in power to the age of 99.

The dramatic events began on Tuesday afternoon, when Zimbabwe’s parliamentarians began the process of impeaching the president. The parliamentary houses were debating the impeachment motion, which appeared to be unanimously supported, when there was an unexpected interruption.

Two cabinet ministers brought a document to Jacob Mudenda, the parliamentary Speaker. Opposition MPs feared it was a court injunction from Mr. Mugabe to shut down the impeachment process.

Opposition MP Nelson Chamisa rushed to the Speaker’s chair to try to prevent him from cutting short the session. When he realized it was a resignation letter, he pumped his fist triumphantly in the air and other MPs and senators began to realize what was happening.

Minutes later, Mr. Mudenda read the full text of the resignation letter and the parliamentarians exploded into cheers and roars of triumph. Some leaped on their desks.

In the public gallery, hundreds of spectators burst into wild applause. Some chanted “Ngwena, Ngwena” which translates to “Crocodile” – Mr. Mnangagwa’s nickname.

Few Zimbabweans are expecting an era of full democracy or full human rights under the military-backed government that is likely to emerge. But at a minimum, they hope for economic reforms, more jobs and more investment. The ruling party has promised a more investor-friendly regime.

“We are free now,” said Kenneth Chimbuya, a 40-year-old unemployed man who celebrated in the public gallery when he heard the Mugabe resignation letter.

“We’ve had no jobs and no work for many years,” he said. “But everything will be okay now. I’m very happy.”

The ruling party has already chosen Mr. Mnangagwa as its new leader and its nominee to be president. He is likely to be formally appointed as president (perhaps initially as interim president) within days.

Mr. Mnangagwa had fled the country in early November, fearing arrest or worse after Mr. Mugabe fired him as vice-president. The military said on Monday he is expected to return shortly.

Mr. Mugabe, 93, was the world’s oldest head of state and one of its longest-ruling dictators. He brought Zimbabwe into desperate poverty in his nearly four tumultuous decades in power, years that included horrific outbreaks of cholera, hyperinflation, political bloodshed and brutal repression.

He came to power as a liberation leader after a guerrilla campaign against white-minority rule in the former Rhodesia, but quickly crushed dissidents. An estimated 20,000 people were killed in the early 1980s. In recent decades, his regime has rigged elections, seized farms owned by white people, sent the economy into collapse and impoverished millions of people.

Despite the obvious evidence of the massive demonstrations against Mr. Mugabe since the coup, ZANU-PF insists he was an “iconic” leader who merely went astray in recent years. In the impeachment debate, several ruling-party MPs said they had “heavy hearts” about their decision to impeach him. When his resignation letter was read, some had tears in their eyes, one MP said.

Many Western governments and international human-rights organizations suggested Mr. Mugabe’s resignation could be a catalyst for democratic reforms.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the dictator’s departure a “moment of joy” for Zimbabwe. He described Mr. Mugabe as “a despot who impoverished his country.” His resignation could be a turning point that leads to free and fair elections, Mr. Johnson said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the resignation was “an extraordinary opportunity” for Zimbabwe to “set itself on a new path.” That path must lead to free and fair elections, he said.

Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the resignation is “a golden opportunity for improving respect for human rights and freedoms in Zimbabwe.”

Jubilation in Zimbabwe’s parliament as Mugabe quits

Africa Bureau Chief
The Globe and Mail, November 22, 2017