Zimbabwe’s former colonial power, Britain, has urged restraint following the apparent ouster of the country’s president, Robert Mugabe.
A former leader in Zimbabwe’s fight for independence in the 1970s, Mugabe has had an increasingly fraught relationship with Britain, which along with U.S. and European allies accuses him of directing widespread human rights abuses.
Outside the Zimbabwean embassy in London, celebrations began early Wednesday among some opposition supporters as the Mugabe era appeared to be nearing its end.
“We really appreciate what he had done before. But unfortunately, he couldn’t make a good move when he was supposed to step down. He should have stepped down a long time ago,” Chipo Parirenyatwa of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organization told VOA.
Instead, Robert Mugabe has clung to power for close to four decades, routinely crushing political dissent and persecuting or imprisoning political rivals.
Britain and the European Union imposed a travel ban on the president following the 2002 election violence. His apparent ouster should be treated with caution, argues analyst Nick Branson of the Africa Research Institute.
“There’s a need for cool heads, some back-channelling and some quiet discussions behind the scenes, rather than megaphone diplomacy, which is what Britain has historically fallen into.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also says the situation needs to be handled carefully.
"Nobody wants simply to see the transition from one unelected tyrant to the next, no one wants to see that. We want to see proper free and fair elections next year and that's what we will be working towards."
Britain’s prime minister offered a brief reaction to the military takeover.
“We are monitoring those developments very carefully, the situation is still fluid. We would urge restraint on all sides and we would call for an avoidance of violence,” she told lawmakers Wednesday, a sentiment echoed by the European Union.
“The fundamental rights of all the citizens need to be respected and the constitutional order and democratic governance to be upheld,” said the EU Commission’s spokesperson Catherine Ray.
Veterans of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence remain the driving force within the ruling Zanu-PF party.
Among them is the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, viewed as heir apparent until his firing last week by President Mugabe. That decision triggered the military takeover.
“(The army) is merely trying to manage the transition, having clearly been quite alarmed by Mugabe’s side-lining of Emmerson Mnangagwa, and working on the assumption that he was going to try to install Grace Mugabe, who has no liberation war credentials,” says analyst Nick Branson.
Those credentials led Mugabe to power. Now fellow veterans have decided his time is up. African governments and the international community are likely planning for a future Zimbabwe without Mugabe at the helm.
“There’s a great deal of desire to invest in Zimbabwe once the government is receptive to foreign direct investment and not seen as a threat to it,” says Branson.
Millions of Zimbabweans live in poverty after decades of economic mismanagement. The country’s public debt stands at over $11 billion, or more than 200 percent of GDP. But with an educated workforce and a developed, if dilapidated, infrastructure analysts say the fundamentals of the economy are still strong - and Mugabe’s ouster offers a chance to transform the country’s fortunes.