Zimbabwe’s former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is due to be sworn in to replace Robert Mugabe as president on Friday, told a cheering crowd in Harare on Wednesday that the country was entering a new stage of democracy.
“The people have spoken. The voice of the people is the voice of God,” Mnangagwa told thousands of supporters who had gathered outside the ruling ZANU-PF party’s offices.
“Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy.”
Mugabe resigned as Zimbabwe’s president on Tuesday, a week after the army and his former political allies moved to end four decades of rule by a man once feted as an independence hero who became feared as a despot.
Ahead of his arrival, hundreds of people gathered outside ZANU-PF headquarters in Harare in the hope he would address them, some holding placards welcoming him home, while others wore shirts emblazoned with his likeness.
A former key Mugabe ally, Mnangagwa had fled the country after his dismissal, saying he would not return without guarantees of his safety.
His sacking was the result of an increasingly bitter succession battle with first lady Grace, who had been pushing to take over from her ageing husband.
In a highly symbolic scene shortly after his resignation, a man took down a portrait of Mugabe from a wall inside the building where MPs had assembled for the extraordinary session to impeach the defiant president.
Another person replaced it with an image of the ousted vice president.
Mnangagwa is a political veteran long-time party loyalist who has served in a host of different cabinet positions since independence in 1980 and who has close ties with the military.
But critics describe him as a ruthless hardliner behind years of state-sponsored violence, warning he could prove just as authoritarian as his mentor.
And Rinaldo Depagne of the International Crisis Group said Mugabe’s departure “does not necessarily mean more democracy”.
At Harare’s Manyame airbase, senior military commanders and a gaggle of journalists were waiting for him as his business jet touched down at around 1400 GMT, AFP correspondents at the scene said.
Before leaving South Africa where he had been staying, Pretoria published a photograph of Mnangagwa shaking hands with President Jacob Zuma following a meeting earlier in the day, with both men grinning broadly.
Mugabe’s resignation capped a chaotic week in which the military seized control and tens of thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets in an unprecedented show of dissent against Mugabe.
“We want our new president to make sure power hungry gangs don’t infiltrate,” said Talent Chamunorwa, 37, a brick seller.
“We hope to be able to access our money from the bank come December and the US dollar must come back.”
He was referring to Zimbabwe’s chronic shortage of cash and a mistrusted “bond note” scheme intended to be pegged to the greenback but trading at a lower rate in reality.
Outstayed his welcome
Mugabe had ruled Zimbabwe almost unopposed since independence and until his exit, he was also the world’s oldest serving head of state.
But efforts to position his 52-year-old wife Grace as his successor were his undoing.
Although Mugabe’s fate remains unknown, ZANU-PF has said he deserved to be treated with respect after leading the country for nearly four decades.
“He deserves to rest and I believe every Zimbabwean agrees with this,” said ruling party spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo.
“But I think he had overstayed the hospitality of the people of Zimbabwe.”
Last week’s military takeover had all the hallmarks of a coup, but the generals stopped short of forcing Mugabe out.
As the crisis grew, the ZANU-PF party, an instrument of Mugabe’s brutal reign, removed him as party leader and began parliamentary proceedings to have him impeached.
The international community hailed his exit as a chance to reshape Zimbabwe’s future, with British Prime Minister Theresa May saying it offered “an opportunity to forge a new path free of the oppression” that characterised Mugabe’s rule.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it offered Zimbabwe “an extraordinary opportunity to set itself on a new path”.
And Beijing, which became a major political and economic partner of Harare as it was shunned by the west, said it respected Mugabe’s decision, describing him as a “good friend of the Chinese people”.
Most Zimbabweans had only known life under Mugabe, whose time in power was defined by violent suppression, economic collapse and international isolation.