HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's incoming leader Emmerson Mnangagwa emerged from hiding Wednesday, departing from neighboring South Africa to return home in preparation to take power after Robert Mugabe's stunning resignation.
The 75-year-old Mnangagwa fled Zimbabwe after Mugabe fired him earlier this month, leading the military to move in and kick off a series of extraordinary events ending in Mugabe stepping down Tuesday amid impeachment proceedings.
Mnangagwa met with South African President Jacob Zuma in a jovial “courtesy call” before taking a private jet from Johannesburg to Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. He was expected to arrive at Manyame Air Base, where cheering crowds gathered.
He will be sworn in as Zimbabwe's new president Friday morning, the speaker of parliament said, after the ruling ZANU-PF party notified him of its nomination of Mnangagwa to replace Mugabe until the end of the current term next year.
The privately run Newsday newspaper reported that Mnangagwa would be met on arrival by army commander Constantino Chiwenga and ruling party officials and then was expected “to meet Mugabe for a briefing.”
Several hundred people gathered in anticipation of Mnangagwa's arrival. Some carried signs with images of him, suggesting a certain level of organization behind the jubilant turnout. Signs read “Welcome back, our hero” and “True to your word, you're back. Welcome.”
One man in the crowd, Godwin Nyarugwa, said he was “very ecstatic” and that “we need change in this country, change in everything” after years of economic crisis. Nyarugwa said he had several university degrees but no job, a common theme amid Zimbabwe's well-educated population.
“We have to try him and see,” he said of Mnangagwa. “If he doesn't come up with something, we need to change him as well.”
Zimbabweans were still reeling from Mugabe's resignation. They cheered and danced in the streets of Harare late into the night, thrilled to be rid of a leader whose early promise after the end of white minority rule in 1980 was overtaken by economic collapse, government dysfunction and human rights violations.
Now the focus turns to Mnangagwa, Mugabe's longtime deputy who was pushed aside as unpopular first lady Grace Mugabe positioned herself to replace him and succeed her husband. Mnangagwa fled the country, claiming threats against his life.
That led the military to step in a week ago, opening the door for the ruling party and the people to publicly turn against the president.
It was not clear what the 93-year-old Robert Mugabe and his wife would do next. Mugabe, who was the world's oldest head of state, said in his resignation letter that legal procedures should be followed to install a new president “no later than tomorrow.”
Zimbabweans woke up to the first day in 37 years without Mugabe in power. With some nursing hangovers, they looked over newspaper headlines such as “Adios Bob and Ta-ta President.”
“I think this change of government is like a new breath of fresh air right across the country,” said Patrick Musira on the streets of the capital. “Everyone was engulfed with excitement and they are looking for a better future, a brighter future with work.”
Zimbabwe's new leaders are faced with a once-prosperous nation whose economy has collapsed, sending frustrated young people into desperate work as street vendors. Many have left the country altogether.
Mnangagwa is a former justice and defense minister who served for decades as Mugabe's enforcer, a role that earned him the nickname “Crocodile.” Many opposition supporters believe he was instrumental in the army killings of thousands of people when Mugabe moved against a political rival in the 1980s.
So far in the current political turmoil Mnangagwa has used inclusive language, saying in a statement hours before Mugabe's resignation that all Zimbabweans should work together to advance their nation.
“Never should the nation be held at ransom by one person ever again, whose desire is to die in office at whatever cost to the nation,” Mnangagwa said.
In a new commentary, the state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper stressed the importance of presidential term limits, saying Zimbabweans will “never again go back into a box of silence.”
It added: “We hope that when (Mnangagwa) finishes his stint in State House the cheers will be for a job well done ... He has the best wishes of most Zimbabweans, at least today.”
AP journalist Andrew Meldrum reported from Johannesburg.