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(CNN) —  

Zimbabwe’s former vice president has returned to the country to serve as interim President, vowing to lead the nation into a “new and unfolding democracy” following Robert Mugabe’s historic resignation.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is scheduled to be sworn in on Friday, arrived at the ruling ZANU-PF party headquarters in the evening to the cheers of thousands of supporters, eager to hear from “The Crocodile,” as he is known.

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Zimbabwe's incoming leader Emmerson Mnangagwa greets supporters Wednesday in Harare.

Mnangagwa’s return comes after a night of euphoric celebration. For the first day in nearly four decades, Zimbabweans experienced life free from Mugabe’s iron grip.

“Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy,” he told his supporters. “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Mugabe, 93, fired Mnangagwa as his deputy more than two weeks ago, triggering a political firestorm that culminated in his own humiliating defeat on Tuesday. Mnangagwa fled the country after his dismissal.

Mnangagwa’s rise comes just a week after the military took control in the capital, Harare, in what the defense forces insisted was not a coup.

But the incoming leader confirmed in his remarks that he was in “constant contact” with the military chiefs over the past week. Sources had told CNN that Mnangagwa had been instrumental in plans to dethrone the president.

In his speech, Mnangagwa avoided references to elections slated for next year. He will need to run and win the popular vote to remain in power for any meaningful amount of time and to have a clear mandate from the people.

But his speech nonetheless resembled the opening of an election campaign, in which he promised to bring prosperity and stability to the impoverished country.

“I pledge myself to be your servant,” he said.

“We want to grow the economy. We want peace in our country. We want jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Nervousness over Mnangagwa

For many, the joyous end of Mugabe’s reign is tempered with apprehension – Mnanagagwa served as Mugabe’s right-hand man for his entire career, and to many Zimbabweans, he is more feared than the leader he replaces.

The main opposition MDC-T has shown no resistance to Mnangagwa serving as transitional leader. It will be looking instead to make inroads in next year’s elections.

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PHOTO: KIM LUDBROOK/EPA-EFE
Supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa hold up a toy to celebrate the man nicknamed 'The Crocodile' as they waited at an airport for his arrival Wednesday.

“We are very excited that we have gotten rid of Robert Mugabe, but we have gotten rid of one man, we have not gotten rid of the system that was oppressive for 37 years,” MDC-T Secretary General Douglas Mwonzora told CNN.

“Therefore we have to work towards conditions for free and fair elections. The Zimbabwean people still have to choose a president by themselves.”

Mnangagwa had previously said that he wouldn’t return to Zimbabwe until his safety was guaranteed.

He was widely tipped to take over for Mugabe in the event of the president’s resignation or death, but his dismissal confirmed suspicions that Mugabe was clearing the way for his wife, Grace Mugabe, to succeed him.

Generals in the military staged an apparent coup in Harare last week, determined to keep Grace Mugabe from seizing power, and placed Robert Mugabe under house arrest as pressure mounted on him to stand down.

Who is Emmerson ‘The Crocodile’ Mnangagwa?

Mnangagwa is known as “The Crocodile” for his political cunning and longevity and is among the country’s combat-hardened veterans of the struggle for liberation from white-minority rule.

His background and experience is almost entirely hitched to Mugabe’s career. He was Mugabe’s closest aide for much of his career and presided over some of the leader’s most ruthless actions.

Mnangagwa was the country’s spy chief in the 1980s when a campaign of terror was unleashed by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade against political opponents and civilians, in which thousands were killed. Mnangagwa has denied involvement and blamed the army.

He is placed in the center of Zimbabwe’s cluster of power, with strong backing from the country’s elite and the military, but it is unclear whether he will be able to win the hearts of the people and be victorious in next year’s election.