Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe made his first public appearance since the military seized control of the country, attending a graduation ceremony at Harare’s Open University on Friday morning.
In an apparent display of defiance, the 93-year-old arrived at the ceremony on Friday morning dressed in a blue academic gown and tasselled hat.
Several thousand graduates of the Zimbabwe Open University and guests stood as Mr Mugabe and other dignitaries entered a tent set up for the event. Once on the podium, Mr Mugabe joined the crowd in singing Zimbabwe’s national anthem. He announced the opening of the graduation ceremony, and the crowd applauded.
The event appears to allow him to project the image of leadership, even as calls for his departure after 37 years in power grow stronger.
It came during an extraordinary series of negotiations with regional leaders. Zimbabwe’s military said it was making “significant progress” in the talks while it pursues and arrests some allies of the leader and his wife.
A senior source in Zanu-PF told Reuters news agency the party was due to meet on Friday to draft a motion to fire Mr Mugabe on Sunday. If Mr Mugabe still refuses to stand down, the party plans to impeach him on Tuesday, according to the source.
Talks with Mr Mugabe continued, the military said in a statement reported by the state-run Herald newspaper and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
Zimbabwe’s military is “currently engaging with the Commander-in-Chief President Robert Mugabe on the way forward and will advise the nation of the outcome as soon as possible,” the statement said.
“Significant progress has been made in their operation to weed out criminals around President Mugabe,” it said, adding that the military had already arrested some although others remained at large. Those sought had been “committing crimes that were causing social and economic suffering in Zimbabwe.”
The military is seeking Cabinet ministers and other top officials who had been associates of first lady Grace Mugabe, part of a clique dubbed the G40 because many were in their 40s and 50s. They are of a different generation from the one that fought for independence from white minority rule.
Army troops and armored vehicles continued to patrol the capital, Harare, as Zimbabweans went about their daily business.
The military has had Mugabe under house arrest since late Tuesday, yet it is taking pains to show respect for the 93-year-old leader, the world’s oldest head of state, by referring to him as the president and the commander-in-chief.
The ongoing negotiations appear to be trying to get Mugabe to agree to hand over to a new government. But difficulties could include the timing. The ruling party is set to meet next month, and Mugabe’s term ends next year. An election date has not been set.
In a striking image of the fluidity of the political situation, the Zimbabwe Herald on Thursday published photos of Mugabe jovially shaking hands with army commander Constantino Chiwenga, the general who ordered the president’s arrest.
Others pictured in the first round of talks at State House, the president’s official residence, include Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi, Intelligence Minister Kembo Mohadi, South African Cabinet ministers who are acting as mediators and a local Catholic priest, Fidelis Mukonori, whom Mugabe has used as a mediator before.
Grace Mugabe was not pictured. Her rapid political rise had alarmed many who feared she could succeed her husband after he fired his longtime deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, last week. That firing set off the military’s moves, and Mnangagwa is expected to lead any new government.
The military wants the process of establishing the new government to appear to be constitutional in order to maintain a veneer of legality and the approval of the 16-nation regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, and the African Union.
As a landlocked country, regional sanctions by the bodies could be harmful to Zimbabwe’s already ailing economy.
A committee of SADC on Thursday has recommended an emergency summit of heads of state to discuss the Zimbabwe situation. It was not clear when that would take place.