HARARE, Zimbabwe — Thousands of Zimbabweans marched to the statehouse Saturday, demanding that President Robert Mugabe step down after 37 years as head of state.
The rally had the air of collective catharsis. It was the first time in decades that Zimbabweans had been able to protest Mugabe without fear of arrest, coming days after the 93-year-old leader was detained by the military.
Although the future of Zimbabwe’s government remains in question, with Mugabe still involved in negotiations with the military and South African intermediaries, Saturday’s demonstration sent a clear signal that opposition to Mugabe is massive and diverse.
It appeared to be the largest public demonstration in Zimbabwe since the country declared independence from white minority rule in 1980, with the crowd ballooning throughout the day.
The gathering included both black and white Zimbabweans, carrying signs and flags and honking car horns.
“It’s like our second independence day,” Martin Matanisa said. “For a while it’s just been oppression. This is the first time we’ve been able to stand here and protest.”
Members of Zimbabwe’s white minority joined the protests, many of them having lost their farms in violent government-led seizures. The farms were frequently redistributed to Mugabe loyalists.
Elaine Rich and her family were given two hours to flee their farm in 2004.
“I’ve been waiting 37 years for this,” she said, carrying a Zimbabwean flag.
Demonstrators tore down the sign from Robert Mugabe Road and stomped on it. At Zimbabwe Grounds, where Mugabe gave his first independence day speech in 1980, thousands of his opponents gathered.
“I’m glad with this show of unity to force Mugabe out,” said Joyce Mujuru, whom Mugabe fired as vice president in 2014.
“We have to march to statehouse to remove the tyrant,” said Oppah Muchinguri, the current minister of water who has backed the military takeover.
Across the city, soldiers in armed personnel carriers observed the demonstrations, not intervening. They were greeted and praised. Some posed for selfies.
“Zimbabwe’s army is the voice of the people,” one popular sign read.
Still, some Zimbabweans expressed concern that the country was offering legitimacy to military and civilian leaders with a questionable track record.
“We cannot afford to give another set of leaders a blank check or license to dictate,” said Ibbo Mandaza, a Zimbabwean academic.
There was still no sign of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president whose dismissal earlier this month set off the process that culminated in Mugabe’s house arrest.
Zimbabwe’s military on Tuesday detained Mugabe, raising hopes that the widely maligned leader was about to be deposed. Then on Friday he turned up at a university graduation, with no indication that his reign was about to end.
Mugabe’s exit would mark the end of a tumultuous period spanning Zimbabwe’s independence after years of white minority rule, the end of apartheid in South Africa — and then this country’s economic and political collapse.
When generals seized control of the state broadcaster early Wednesday, many Zimbabweans expected Mugabe could be gone within hours. It now seems the process could take much longer, with moments of near normalcy, such as the graduation ceremony, and mounting calls for the president’s resignation.
On Friday, the military said in a statement that “significant progress” had been made in its efforts to apprehend members of Mugabe’s government who are suspected of vast corruption and other abuses. Mugabe also had stirred widespread ire with his apparent attempts to make his wife his successor and build a dynasty.
But negotiations with Mugabe were continuing, the military added, referring obliquely to “the way forward” without explaining whether commanders were seeking Mugabe’s ouster or a different kind of settlement.
Throughout the day Friday, all 10 provincial committees representing governing party ZANU-PF voted for Mugabe to step down. The state broadcaster, now under military control, reported that party members believed Mugabe had “lost control of the party and government business due to incapacitation stemming from his advanced age.” Many of those who voted had already been at odds with Mugabe.
Meanwhile, the country’s fragmented opposition seemed to finally unite around calls for Mugabe’s resignation. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, which had opposed the president and his wife for years, said it was planning a large demonstration Saturday in downtown Harare to demand Mugabe’s departure.
“If he doesn’t leave, we will settle the scores tomorrow,” said Chris Mutsvangwa, the group’s leader. The military said it supported the event.
Other members of Zimbabwe’s civil society and political opposition said they would join Saturday’s rally, which could be the most significant display of antipathy toward Mugabe in recent years, even as it brings together unlikely bedfellows.
“We’re going to have to work together with the military to build an all-inclusive transitional government,” said Evan Mawarire, a pastor and popular anti-government activist, who encouraged his followers to attend the rally.
But despite growing public opposition to Mugabe’s rule, his departure is still likely to hinge on negotiations with the military, which has so far claimed that it will not forcibly remove the president and allowed him to travel to his office and to the graduation ceremony. This weekend, representatives of a bloc of southern African nations are discussing the situation in Zimbabwe; the gathering could also help to shape Mugabe’s future.
In a meeting Thursday, the 15-nation bloc suggested that the military’s actions constituted the “unconstitutional removal” of Mugabe. But on Friday, some of Zimbabwe’s neighbors spoke out against him.
“I don’t think anyone should be president for that amount of time. We are presidents, we are not monarchs. It’s just common sense,” Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, told the Reuters news agency.
A top official in the U.S. State Department appeared to agree that it was time for a new government in Zimbabwe.
“It’s a transition to a new era for Zimbabwe, that’s really what we’re hoping for,” Donald Yamamoto, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told Reuters.
Despite Mugabe’s unpopularity, the military intervention drew concern from both people in Zimbabwe and outside, with some saying they did not want to endorse an undemocratic action.
“He’s still the president of the country and therefore my president,” said Didymus Mutasa, Zimbabwe’s former security chief and presidential affairs minister who was fired by Mugabe in 2014. “Doing anything else would be unconstitutional.”
At the ceremony of Zimbabwe Open University on Friday, a tired-looking Mugabe sang the national anthem and handed caps to the top graduates.
Wanda Mabande, 34, who studied banking and finance, was one of the students who received a cap from the president.
He said he was honored, if a little surprised, to see the president at the ceremony. Just days earlier, he was watching generals address the nation on state television, in what appeared to be a coup. They had already put the president under house arrest.
“I thought I was dreaming,” Mabande recalled. “Is this actually happening in Zimbabwe?”
Mugabe came to power in 1980, three years before Mabande was born. The student had seen Zimbabwe’s leaders fail to address mounting economic problems. But with the prospect of a military takeover, he was not sure what was best for the country.
“Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” he said.
The military commanders responsible for detaining Mugabe appear to support former vice president Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor. But many Zimbabweans and Western officials have raised concerns about Mnangagwa. In 2000, a U.S. diplomat in Zimbabwe sent the State Department a cable (later released by WikiLeaks) saying that Mnangagwa was “widely feared and despised throughout the country” and “could be an even more repressive leader” than Mugabe.