Mugabe seen in talks with military amid Zimbabwe political chaos

Editor’s Note: Are you in Zimbabwe? We want to hear how the current situation is affecting you. Contact CNN via WhatsApp at +1 347 322 0415. Please do not put yourself in any danger.

Harare, Zimbabwe CNN  — 

Zimbabwe’s embattled President Robert Mugabe has been shown in talks with the commander of the country’s defense forces, a day after the military seized control of the capital.

Photographs published by the pro-Mugabe Herald newspaper are the first images seen of the veteran leader since he was placed under house arrest Wednesday morning and the military staged an apparent coup. The Herald’s editor, Caesar Zvayi, also tweeted the images.

Mugabe in talks about his future, in this image tweeted by the editor of Zimbabwe's Herald.

Among the group of people in the photos is a priest, reported earlier to be brokering the talks for a transitional government, and two South African envoys.

Mugabe, 93, appears calm in the photos as he talks with army leader Commander General Constantino Chiwenga. The commander warned the President on Monday that the military could intervene after Mugabe dismissed Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, triggering the political tumult.

Mugabe – who has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years – has all but lost his grip on power as the country’s military leaders and senior officials in his own party turn against him. But he is yet to make a public statement, an indication that military chiefs are having difficulty persuading him to step down.

Key developments

Opposition leader returns: The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, returned to Harare after the apparent coup and Thursday called on Mugabe to resign.

Grace Mugabe: It was unclear whether the President’s 52-year-old wife was at home with him in Harare. Robert Mugabe’s efforts to position his wife as his successor infuriated the old guard in his party.

Allies turn: The powerful War Veterans’ Association, longtime Mugabe allies, is planning to hold a rally supporting Mnangagwa.

Transition talks

A source at the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) earlier told CNN that transition talks were underway, claiming that the embattled President’s exit was a “done deal.”

“There is a transition of power underway and it has tacit agreement from regional powers,” the opposition party source told CNN.

Key to any transitional administration will be former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was widely tipped to become the country’s next leader. Mnangagwa remains one of the most powerful figures in the country and derives much of his support from the military.

His dismissal fueled speculation that Mugabe was clearing the way for his wife, Grace, to take over the presidency in the event of his retirement or death. Mnangagwa has not been sighted in Harare since he was fired and his whereabouts are still unknown.

A crucial issue in the talks will be whether Mugabe will be allowed to serve out the rest of his term ahead of next year’s vote.

The MDC-T will also be looking to seize the opportunity the political upheaval has presented. The party’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, returned to Harare after Wednesday’s events. He had spent time abroad for cancer treatment.

Tsvangirai called on Mugabe to resign on Thursday, but was cautious in public about his future role.

Despite the opportunity the turmoil presents for him, Tsvangirai called the military takeover “unconstitutional” and questioned whether a transitional government was even the right approach.

“You can’t force the change (of) government by any means other than by the ballot box,” he told CNN after a press conference.

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai at a rally in Harare on August 5, 2017.

Tsvangirai served as prime minister under a power-sharing deal with Mugabe after a disputed election in 2008, but Mugabe regained full control in 2013 amid further allegations of election fraud. Tsvangirai has called on Mugabe to step down many times, but this time his calls are joined by many other voices, including within Mugabe’s own party.

Mugabe’s allies turn

In a sign that power in the country is quickly shifting, several of Mugabe’s longtime allies are turning on him.

The War Veterans’ Association, funded by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, is planning on holding a large rally in Harare on Saturday to show its support for Mnangagwa. It is an indication that the group is confident that its favored candidate has the upper hand.

The head of ZANU-PF’s youth wing, which had shown strong support for Grace Mugabe, issued an apology on state TV overnight for criticizing the head of the armed forces.

“I have since reflected and I personally admitted that I erred together with my entire executive to denigrate your highest office,” Kudzanai Chipan said in his apology, insisting he had not been coerced into making the statement.

Mnangagwa himself was once a loyal ally of Mugabe. He served as the leader’s right-hand man for his entire rule, and their relationship goes back to the country’s fight for independence. While he has his supporters, there are many Zimbabweans who fear him, having facilitated Mugabe’s brutal rule for so long.

World leaders also appear to be tacitly supporting the attempt at to dethrone Mugabe, with no real voices coming out to support the leader.

In his remarks on the military’s apparent coup, South Africa’s Zuma did not condemn the takeover Wednesday, a stance widely seen as tacit support for a change of government in the country.

A group of 115 civil society organizations called on Mugabe to peacefully step down, and for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – which Zuma chairs – to step in a arbiter of the transition talks.

The developments mark a sudden shift for ordinary Zimbabweans too, even though Mugabe’s downfall appears to have been years in the making.

“There are military tanks on the streets, which has never happened before,” said one Harare resident. “The military is obviously now in charge despite their insistence that it’s not a coup. It is.”

Soldiers are still deployed at the parliament, presidential palace and the state broadcaster. But the capital has been calm over the past two days, and activities are resuming as usual, said a university student.

“The soldiers outside the president’s office are actually talking to folks passing by,” the student said.

Mugabe’s brutal rule

01:58 - Source: CNN
Robert Mugabe: What you need to know

Mugabe, the only leader most Zimbabweans have ever known, ruled the landlocked country for 37 years with an iron fist.

He rose to power as a freedom fighter and was seen as Zimbabwe’s Nelson Mandela. But he quickly waged a campaign of oppression to consolidate his position, extinguishing the political opposition through violent crackdowns.

Among them was a string of massacres in opposition strongholds, in which thousands were killed. Some of those campaigns of terror were believed to be orchestrated by Mnangagwa when he was the country’s spy chief in the 1980s.

Mugabe’s hardline policies also pushed the country into poverty. Its flourishing economy began to disintegrate after a program of land seizures from white farmers, and agricultural output plummeted and inflation soared.

Like his wife – who is dubbed “Gucci Grace” for her extravagant shopping sprees – Mugabe is criticized for his lavish lifestyle. Last year, he held an birthday party that reportedly cost $800,000 in a region hit by food shortages and drought.

CNN’s David McKenzie and Brent Swails reported from Harare. Angela Dewan wrote from London and Jamie Tarabay wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Paul Murphy and Emily Smith contributed to this report.