HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Robert Mugabe's nearly four-decade reign as the strongman of Zimbabwe ended Tuesday, when he submitted a letter of resignation to Parliament shortly after lawmakers began impeachment proceedings against him.
The speaker of the Parliament, Jacob Mudenda, read aloud a letter in which Mugabe, who once proclaimed that "only God" would remove him, said he was stepping down "with immediate effect" for "the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and the need for a peaceful transfer of power."
Lawmakers cheered, and jubilant residents poured into the streets of Harare, the capital. It seemed to be an abrupt capitulation by Mugabe, 93, the world's oldest head of state and one of Africa's longest-serving leaders.
"It's the best thing that's ever happened to Zimbabwe," Perseverance Sande, 20, said in central Harare minutes after news of the resignation began spreading, as crowds of people started singing around her. "I've been waiting so long for this moment."
Mugabe, who controlled the nation by handing out the spoils of power to his allies and crushing dissent, had refused to step down even after being expelled Sunday from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the political party he had led for four decades.
Then on Tuesday, party members introduced a motion of impeachment, invoking a constitutional process that had never before been tested.
The party's political rival, the Movement for Democratic Change, seconded the motion, signaling consensus in the political class that Mugabe must go -- one that formed speedily after the military took Mugabe into custody last Wednesday.
Lawmakers were still discussing the impeachment motion when Mugabe's justice minister, Happyton Bonyongwe, approached the stage. He was booed, initially, because of a rumor that he had been offering bribes to sway votes against impeachment. Then he whispered into the ear of Mudenda, the speaker, and handed him a letter.
Calling the lawmakers to order, the speaker announced that he had received an urgent communication from the president. As the crowd grew quiet, Mudenda -- with a wide smile across his face -- read out the letter.
Lawmakers immediately screamed and shouted. Once-bitter rivals from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the Movement for Democratic Change shook hands and hugged.
Even Mugabe's closest allies appeared taken aback. Reached by telephone, George Charamba, the president's longtime spokesman, declined to comment, saying only, "I'm concerned about the stability of my country."
In Africa Unity Square, the capital's main public area, scattered shouts were heard a few minutes after the announcement by the speaker. Then, as word began spreading by mouth and by phone, the shouts, cries and honking of cars rose in a deafening crescendo. Hundreds of people ran to the square, hugging and jumping, as the crowd soon swelled into the thousands.
The state broadcaster interrupted its programming to report that Mugabe had resigned and that a new leader could be sworn in as early as today. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president whom Mugabe abruptly fired last week, setting off an internal revolt, is widely expected to lead the country, at least until national elections scheduled for next year.
So far, Mnangagwa has used inclusive language when speaking of Zimbabwe's future, saying in a statement before Mugabe's resignation that all Zimbabweans should work together to advance their nation.
"Never should the nation be held at ransom by one person ever again, whose desire is to die in office at whatever cost to the nation," Mnangagwa said.
For nearly four decades, Mugabe ruled through a heavy mix of repression of his opponents and rewards for his allies. He oversaw the massacre of thousands of civilians in the 1980s and outmaneuvered rivals in his party and in the opposition. Even in his 90s and weakened by age, he kept potential successors at bay.
But his attempt to position his wife, Grace, 52, as his successor wasn't received well. Despite being a newcomer to politics who had no role in the nation's liberation war, she made clear that she wanted to be president and ridiculed politicians who had been waiting decades to succeed her husband.
Zimbabwe's military commander, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, warned people not to target old adversaries after Mugabe's resignation.
"Acts of vengeful retribution or trying to settle scores will be dealt with severely," he said.
The chain of events leading to Mugabe's downfall began Nov. 6, when he fired Mnangagwa, clearing the way for Grace Mugabe to take over the presidency at some point. Robert Mugabe then tried to arrest the nation's top military commander a few days later.
After the military took Mugabe into custody, the African National Union-Patriotic Front expelled him as its leader Sunday. But Mugabe stunned the nation that evening with a televised address in which he refused to step down as president. Pressure from within the country and from abroad had been building on Mugabe to resign, but observers had warned that the country might have to brace itself for lengthy impeachment proceedings.
The motion of impeachment introduced Tuesday alleged, among other things, that Mugabe had violated the constitution; that he had allowed his wife to usurp power; and that he is too old to fulfill his duties.
Earlier Tuesday, Mnangagwa, whose firing led to a military takeover of Zimbabwe and efforts to oust Mugabe, broke his silence, urging the embattled leader to step down.
"He should take heed of this clarion call by the people of Zimbabwe to resign so that the country can move forward and preserve his legacy," Mnangagwa said.
Mnangagwa's role as the likely successor to Mugabe has raised many concerns. He was accused of orchestrating the crackdown in the 1980s in which thousands of members of the Ndebele ethnic group were killed. He was also accused of being behind deadly violence in 2008, a bid to rig polls in favor of Mugabe, a claim which she denies.
At least a semblance of legitimacy -- especially for a government under Mnangagwa, who is known as the enforcer of some of Mugabe's most ruthless policies -- will be critical in gaining recognition from regional powers, Western governments and international lenders.
Zimbabwe, which no longer has its own currency and perennially struggles to pay government workers, became a pariah in the West in the early 2000s, after the state-backed invasion of white-owned farms, which slashed agricultural production, export earnings and tax revenue.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, welcomed news of Mugabe's departure, saying it presented "an opportunity to forge a new path free of the oppression that characterized his rule."
The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe issued a statement welcoming "an historic moment" for the country and urged "unwavering respect for the rule of law and for established democratic practices." It said that "the path forward" must lead to free, fair and inclusive elections.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Zimbabweans to maintain calm.
Mugabe leaves behind an economy in tatters. An estimated 95 percent of the workforce is unemployed, public infrastructure is crumbling, and there are widespread shortages of cash and food. Many of the country's woes are rooted in Mugabe's support for the seizure of white-owned farms.
The son of a carpenter and a catechism teacher, Mugabe was born in Zvimba, a peasant-farming area west of Harare, and trained as a primary school teacher.
He was introduced to politics while studying at South Africa's Fort Hare University, and went on to help found the Zimbabwe African National Union party in 1963. He was imprisoned the same year for calling for the violent overthrow of Ian Smith's white-minority government.
During his 11-year incarceration, Mugabe obtained degrees in economics, education and law. A year after his release, he fled to Mozambique, where he later became the leader of the then-exiled Zanu, which controlled the biggest of two guerrilla armies fighting Rhodesia.
A U.K.-brokered peace deal that ended the war brought Mugabe to power as the elected prime minister in 1980. While he initially preached reconciliation, violence broke out in 1982 when Mugabe accused his coalition partner, Joshua Nkomo, of plotting to overthrow him. He began a military crackdown that claimed about 20,000 lives in the western region of Matabeleland, according to Genocidewatch.org.
After February 2000, Mugabe allowed his supporters to take over white-owned land, disrupting farming and creating food shortages in a country that had once been the biggest corn exporter in southern Africa. And in 2005, he authorized a slum-clearance program that left at least 750,000 people homeless, according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
While Mugabe was the clear winner of the first four post-independence elections, his victory in a violence-marred 2008 vote was disputed and his party lost parliamentary elections the following year. Mugabe refused to step down, and international mediators coaxed him into a power-sharing deal with the main opposition. That lasted until 2013, when Mugabe reclaimed outright power in an election the opposition said was neither free nor fair.
END OF AN ERA
With the end of the Mugabe era, some longtime opponents who have found themselves on the losing side of history were quickly readjusting their positions Tuesday night.
Reached by phone, Philip Chiyangwa, a nephew of Mugabe and an ally of the president's wife, Grace, said: "It's fantastic! It's the best news in 37 years!"
In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, Chiyangwa said he was a member of G-40, the faction that had been led by Grace Mugabe. But on Tuesday night, he denied ever having been a member.
"No, no," said Chiyangwa, who is one of the country's most prominent businessmen and also president of the Zimbabwe football association.
Chiyangwa said he had never benefited from his family connection to Robert Mugabe.
"Yes, we're related," he said. "But being related does not necessarily mean there was any economic relations between us -- none at all."
On Tuesday night, it was unclear what guarantees Mugabe and his family had received in return for resigning -- whether they had been granted immunity, would be allowed to live in the country or keep their wealth.
In recent days, there were indications that some allies of Grace Mugabe had been allowed to leave the country. Jonathan Moyo -- a leader of Mugabe's G-40 faction -- said in a tweet Monday that he had left the country along with 50 other people. He quickly deleted it.
While Mugabe's resignation caused immediate jubilation in the streets and among lawmakers, for many the reaction was more complex. Mugabe had occupied a central role in the nation's four-decade history and in its founding mythology, which all Zimbabweans are taught in primary school. He was a tyrant, many said, but he was also the nation's father figure.
Even as military leaders met Mugabe in recent days before the cameras, their body language showed extreme deference. His fiercest critics saved their harshest words for Mugabe's wife and her political allies, often describing the president, who has become visibly frail in the past two years, as a victim of the people surrounding him.
Even among the celebrants in Unity Square, some wore quiet, almost sad expressions.
David Mushakwe, 35, a car electrician, stood quietly as he watched hundreds of mostly young men jumping on trucks on the edge of Unity Square, in front of Parliament. Lawmakers had met in the building in the morning and then moved to a hotel in another section of the city for a joint session of Parliament in the afternoon.
"I just want to say to His Excellency: 'Go and rest now, our father,'" Mushakwe said. "'We still love you. But we're happy today. We're hoping now for a better future.'"
Information for this article was contributed by Norimitsu Onishi and Jeffrey Moyo of The New York Times; by Brian Latham, Godfrey Marawanyika, Desmond Kumbuka and Mike Cohen of Bloomberg News; and by Christopher Torchia and Farai Mutsaka of The Associated Press.
Jacob Mudenda, Zimbabwe’s speaker of the parliament, reads a resignation letter from President Robert Mugabe during Tuesday’s session in Harare, the capital.
In this Friday Nov. 17, 2017 file photo, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends a graduation ceremony on the outskirts of Harare.
A Section on 11/22/2017
Print Headline: Reign ends for Zimbabwe's Mugabe, 93