CHISHAWASHA, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s formerknew it was “the end of the road” days before he quit, and appeared relieved when he signed his resignation letter after 37 years in power, a Catholic priest who mediated talks leading to his ouster said Sunday.
Fidelis Mukonori, who has known Mugabe for decades, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Mugabe, under immense pressure in his final days as president, wanted a gradual and “smooth” transition of power to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president he had recently fired and who is now Zimbabwe’s new leader.
Mukonori said Mugabe had to resort to “Plan B” — an immediate resignation — after Mnangagwa did not return from exile in South Africa at Mugabe’s request.
Speaking to BBC News, Mukonori said Mugabe will continue to have a role to play in Zimbabwean politics, providing “advice” as an elder statesman to his successor. “In the African world, senior citizens are there for advice,” Mukonori said.
The Associated Press interview at the Chishawasha mission church east of Harare, the capital, revealed some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering at the frantic end of Mugabe’s rule, which began with promise after the end of white minority rule in 1980 and unraveled under pressure from virtually all sectors of a society worn down by economic decline, government dysfunction and restrictions on basic freedoms.
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“I sympathize with the people in the street. They didn’t know what was happening,” Mukonori said. “The man had already realized that this is the end of the road.”
Mnangagwa, who has close ties to the military and had fled Zimbabwe, was the “one figure missing” in the talks, Mukonori said. Hours before Mugabe’s Nov. 19 speech, the priest said, Mugabe spoke to Mnangagwa for 10 minutes by telephone and implored his former deputy to return, saying: “‘Emmerson, come back now, now, now. Let’s deal with this issue.'”
Mugabe “had to change his mind because Emmerson did not turn up,” said Mukonori, who worked with several other mediators in the government.
The next day, Mnangagwa said publicly that he could not return to Zimbabwe because he feared for his life and urged Mugabe to resign immediately. On Tuesday, Zimbabwe’s parliament began impeachment proceedings against Mugabe, who called Jacob Mudenda, the parliamentary speaker, to say he wanted to resign.
The president worried, according to Mukonori, that “‘they think I’m now resigning in order to stop the meeting, as if I have something to hide.'”
When Mugabe finally signed his resignation letter, he had an expression of relief, as though to say, “‘It’s done,'” the priest said.
The priest chuckled when asked whether Mugabe will stay in Zimbabwe.
“Where would he go?” he said. “He would die here.”