Minah Mandaba, a member of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s Central Committee, danced and cheered as she left the joint sitting of parliament, where the resignation was announced.
“I’m overjoyed. This is a wonderful day, not only in the history of Zimbabwe but for the world,” Mandaba said. “We did this with no bloodshed. We had peace and tranquility. This has been done with much love for each other. It’s a lesson to the rest of the world.”
Many Zimbabweans had never known another leader, and some could barely believe the news Mugabe had finally quit office.
Justina Chitongo, 19, graduated from high school last year and hoped Mugabe’s departure would revive the economy and enable her parents to pay her university fees.
“I am happy he is no longer president of my beloved Zimbabwe. We had suffered under this man. I hope that my parents would now be able to get money so that I can go to university next year,” Chitongo said.
Mugabe had been facing immense pressure to quit after 37 years in power, during which he evolved as a leader in the fight against white minority rule to a person considered most responsible for such problems as a collapsing economy and human rights violations.
He had led the country since independence from Britain in 1980, first as prime minister and then as president. But he presided over a country struggling with unemployment of around 90%, a dire currency crisis and impoverished health and education sectors.
He managed to hang on for a week after Zimbabwe’s military took control, stripped him of executive power, confined him to his house and arrested his political allies, including a group of senior government ministers. But as the pressure mounted, he resigned.
When he came to power in 1980, Mugabe was seen as one of Africa’s great liberation heroes, and he still sees himself, one of the continent’s elder statesmen, with no political peers.
But ruthless and oppressive, his popularity declined when he sent security forces to arrest and beat up opposition activists during several violent, flawed elections.
His move to strip white farmers of their land beginning in 2000 triggered deep economic difficulties in a country largely reliant on agriculture, as farms and the industries linked to them collapsed.
In 2007, Zimbabwe experienced galloping hyperinflation that saw the country forced to print $100-trillion notes that were virtually worthless, a crisis that wiped out savings and left many destitute, while political insiders speculated on the currency.
Mugabe was responsible for Operation Gukurahundi in southern Zimbabwe in the 1980s, a military operation designed to crush an opposition movement, leaving an estimated 20,000 people dead. In 2005, millions of homes and informal businesses were destroyed in opposition strongholds, in an operation called “Sweep Away the Filth,” which left up to a million people displaced.
Both former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the head of the armed services, Constantino Chiwenga, played roles in Gukurahundi and in other operations over the years designed to prevent the opposition from gaining power.
Mugabe’s departure paves the way for Mnangagwa — who was fired by Mugabe — to take power and lead the country, with elections due early next year. Mnangagwa was expected to take over within 48 hours, according to ZANU-PF officials.
Opposition and government supporters celebrated as darkness fell.
“I will always remember this day,” said unemployed 25-year-old Brian Tumbare, while drinking from a bottle of beer. “I have suffered for too long, and I am just loving every moment of it. It’s like our independence day.”
As Mugabe prepared to install his unpopular wife, Grace, as vice president, many people across Zimbabwe, including ZANU-PF, feared she would succeed him.
“At last we are free from this man and his mad wife. At least we can now hope to get jobs,” said Hilda Shoko, 30, a hairdresser.
But she feared the incoming president may repeat Mugabe’s mistakes.
“I don’t want the new president to be like Mugabe. Grace terrorized people in and outside government, and I shudder to think what would have happened if she had succeeded her husband as president of Zimbabwe. I know Emmerson Mnangagwa will be the next president, and my appeal is avoid the Mugabe mistake.”
Mugabe’s resignation illustrated the strength of Zimbabwe’s military security sector and its longtime role in the nation’s politics.
The ZANU-PF party was beginning impeachment proceedings against Mugabe after its Central Committee ousted the president as party leader Sunday and replaced him with Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa, a former state security minister nicknamed “the Crocodile,” served for decades as Mugabe’s enforcer, with a reputation for being astute and ruthless, more feared than popular.
Mugabe’s leaving comes amid concerns that Zimbabwe’s military does not intend to move the country toward an open democracy, as the opposition demands, but wants to see the ruling ZANU-PF party retain firm control.
Mnangagwa, who has been in hiding since Mugabe sacked him, earlier Tuesday had made his first public statement since the army took power, calling on Mugabe to resign.
Mnangagwa said Mugabe had called him and invited him to Zimbabwe for talks. Mnangagwa said he would not return to Zimbabwe until he could be sure of his safety, even though his allies in the military are in charge and his enemies in the ZANU-PF have been arrested and removed from power.
“Given the events that followed my dismissal, I cannot trust my life in President Mugabe’s hands,” he said.
Mnangagwa said after he was fired that he was warned by his security detail he was in danger and could be killed unless he fled the country.
Mnangagwa said the military action to take control of the country was code-named Operation Restore Legacy and was “aimed at preserving the ethos of our struggle against British colonialism.”
He and other senior figures in the government and military see the preservation of the gains of the liberation struggle against white minority rule as a ZANU-PF prerogative, and they have worked all their lives to prevent the opposition from taking power. They also see the opposition as disorganized and unlikely to win elections.
But they also want to attract foreign investors and development aid and may agree to a transitional government, retaining the real levers of power in the military and security services.
In a previous transitional government, ZANU-PF retained the key power ministries, controlling the military and security sectors and handed the opposition ministries like finance, health and education.
ZANU-PF insiders said the military and senior party figures had no intention of bringing in the kind of democratic reforms the opposition has been demanding.
After Mugabe’s resignation, a tweet was sent from the Twitter profile of higher education minister Jonathan Moyo, who was arrested last week.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to have served my country under & with him. I’m proud that I stood with & by this iconic leader during the trying moments of the last days of his Presidency,” the tweet said. “Democracy requires politics to lead the gun!”
Another close Mugabe ally, ZANU-PF political commissar Saviour Kasukuwere, who also was arrested, tweeted a farewell to the president in his first comment since the military took over.
“Let’s embrace the new dispensation and build our nation. Unity is strength and peace are prerequisites for progress,” he tweeted.
The motive for the military takeover was the removal of a ZANU-PF faction called G40, which included Moyo and Kasukuwere.
ZANU-PF spokesman Simon Khaya-Moyo said Mugabe’s departure was welcome and the party wished him a restful future.
“He deserves a good rest. He’s done so much for all of us,” Khaya-Moyo said.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for democratic reforms and free elections to move the country forward.
“Zimbabwe has an extraordinary opportunity to set itself on a new path,” Tillerson said in a statement. “The United States strongly supports a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Zimbabwe.”