Zimbabwe’s parliament prepared to start impeachment proceedings against President Robert Mugabe Tuesday, as ousted vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who could be the country’s next leader, told him to step down.
Further street protests have been called in Harare, raising fears that the political turmoil could spill into violence.
Mnangagwa, seen as the preferred candidate of the military chiefs who took power last week, said he would only return to Zimbabwe when he his safety was guaranteed and he would not face arrest.
Mnangagwa’s intervention — his first since the army seized control — comes as lawmakers of Mugabe’s once loyal ZANU-PF party were to meet in parliament at 1215 GMT to trigger proceedings that could see the president stripped of office.
A bubbling factional squabble over the presidential succession erupted two weeks ago when Mugabe fired Mnangagwa.
The dismissal put Mugabe’s wife Grace in prime position to succeed her 93-year-old husband, prompting the military to step in to block her path to the presidency.
After Mnangagwa fled abroad, the army took over the country and placed Mugabe under house arrest — provoking amazement and delight among many Zimbabweans as his autocratic 37-year reign appeared close to an end.
Mnangagwa — formerly one of Mugabe’s closest allies and a regime hardliner — said in his statement that Zimbabweans had “clearly demonstrated without violence their insatiable desire” for Mugabe to resign.
“It is my appeal to President Mugabe that he should take heed of this clarion call,” he said.
On Saturday, Zimbabweans attended huge, peaceful anti-Mugabe marches that would have been brutally repressed just weeks ago.
The influential war veterans’ association called for immediate protests outside Mugabe’s private residence — upping the risk of civil unrest.
“We are calling on the people of Zimbabwe to settle their scores with President Mugabe so that he leaves office immediately,” war veterans’ leader Chris Mutsvangwa — another former Mugabe loyalist — told AFP.
“We are on the hour of victory. All the people must leave what they are doing and proceed to Blue Roof (Mugabe’s residence). We want to see the back of him immediately.”
On Monday evening, army chief Constantino Chiwenga told reporters that progress had been made in talks towards an apparent exit deal for the world’s oldest head of state.
Chiwenga called for patience and calm after elated Zimbabweans were stunned to see the president declaring in a TV address on Sunday that he was still in power.
Mugabe is feted in parts of Africa as the continent’s last surviving independence leader.
He was a key figure in the war for independence and took office as prime minister in 1980, riding a wave of goodwill.
His reputation was swiftly tarnished, however, by his authoritarian instincts, rights abuses and economic policies.
Most Zimbabweans have known life only under his rule, which has been defined by violent suppression, economic collapse and international isolation.
Despite his fragile health, Mugabe had previously said he would stand in elections next year that could have kept him in power until he was nearly 100 years old.
Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52, has not been seen since the takeover.
‘We have the numbers’
ZANU-PF lawmakers vowed to remove Mugabe after he missed their weekend deadline to resign.
“We have the numbers, the opposition is also going to support us,” Vongai Mupereri, a party MP, said.
“We are going to impeach — the man has to go,” said another ZANU-PF lawmaker, MacKenzie Ncube.
Chris Vandome, an analyst at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, warned of the rising risk of public unrest.
“They will start impeaching him, that is certainly the will of the military, but it’s increasingly now the will of the people,” Vandome told AFP.
“The longer this goes on for, the more the likelihood of violence increases.”
Legal experts say impeachment could take weeks and be subject to court appeals.
Mugabe is thought to be battling to delay his exit in order to secure a deal that would guarantee protection for him and his family.
The army insists it has not carried out a coup, but rather an operation to arrest allegedly corrupt supporters around the Mugabe family.
“It might take days and weeks, but Mugabe is on his way out,” said Charles Muramba, a 46-year-old bus driver in Harare.