Amid growing calls for Zimbabwe's 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe to step down, the country's military says it supports a protest march planned for Saturday in the country's capital of Harare.

The leader of Zimbabwe's War Veterans Association issued a warning to the president at a news conference in advance of the rally, which has been organized by the vets and Zimbabwe's ruling party, ZANU-PF.

​"Between now and tomorrow we are saying, we are giving a warning, a very stark warning to Mugabe, to his wife and to anybody who wants to be associated with him," said Chris Mutsvangwa. "That the game is up. Finished. Done. We won't allow this to go any further."

Earlier on Friday, Mugabe appeared in public for the first time since the army took charge this week, as the ruling party made plans to force him to step down after more than three decades in power.

Zimbabwe Political Turmoil

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe makes his first public appearance since a military takeover at a graduation ceremony on the outskirts of Harare Friday. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Wearing blue and yellow academic robes, he opened a graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University in Harare. Several thousand graduates and guests stood as Mugabe and other dignitaries entered a tent set up for the event.

Mugabe is revered as an elder statesman and member of the generation of Africa's independence leaders, but he is also viewed by many in Africa as a president who held his country back by remaining in power too long. He calls himself the grand old man of African politics.

The army appears to want Mugabe to go quietly and allow a smooth and bloodless transition to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president, whose sacking last week triggered the military takeover.

The main goal of the generals is to prevent Mugabe from handing power to his wife, Grace Mugabe, who is 40 years his junior and appeared on the cusp of power after Mnangagwa was pushed out.

Mugabe makes appearance at a university graduation0:31

Mugabe led the country's liberation struggle and has dominated its politics since independence in 1980. He said he is still in charge, but a senior member of the ZANU-PF ruling party said it wanted him gone.

"If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday," the source said. "When that is done, it's impeachment on Tuesday."

The military said in a statement on national television it was "engaging" with Mugabe. It referred to him as commander in chief and said it would announce an outcome as soon as possible.

War veterans, Mugabe's former comrades from the liberation war, who enjoyed a privileged position under his rule for 
decades, had chafed in recent years as Grace Mugabe positioned herself to succeed her husband as president. The  vets turned on him decisively after he ousted Mnangagwa.

No going back

"There is no going back about Mugabe, period," said Mutsvangwa. "And that's what we are saying, that's why we are bringing all the population of Zimbabwe. We have indicated that we want their support tomorrow. We have declared … he must leave.

"The madness, sheer madness of his wife, who was trying to become the president of the republic and create a dynasty. The Zimbabwean people are up to here," said Mutsvangwa, gesturing to his forehead.

Mutsvangwa vowed that the protest would be non-violent.

Zimbabwe's official newspaper, the Herald, ran photographs late on Thursday that showed a grinning Mugabe shaking hands with military chief Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, who seized power this week.

'It's like a match delayed by heavy rain, with the home side leading 90-0 in the 89th minute.' - ZANU-PF source on Mugabe's attempts to stay

The images stunned Zimbabweans who thought it meant Mugabe was managing to hold out against Chiwenga's coup, with some political sources saying he was trying to delay his departure until elections scheduled for next year.

The ZANU-PF source said that was not the case. Anxious to avoid a protracted stalemate, party leaders were drawing up plans to dismiss Mugabe on the weekend if he refused to quit, the source said.

"It's like a match delayed by heavy rain," the source told Reuters, "with the home side leading 90-0 in the 89th minute."

The CBC's Margaret Evans is in Zimbabwe. Speaking to Suhana Meharchand on CBC News Network, Evans said all 10 regional bodies of ZANU-PF have held Mugabe non-confidence votes. She said the party is "asking him to step down, saying he's too old to carry out his duties." 

 

Evans said Zimbabweans are both confused and frustrated by the in-between state of their nation's leadership. "People have been expecting that the next thing they'd hear from him is that he's leaving."

Evans also said that while Zimbabweans look at Mugabe "as a bit of a joke because he falls asleep at international meetings," some still fear reprisals from speaking out against his notoriously brutal government.

Mugabe's options limited

But Mugabe's options look limited. The army is camped on his doorstep. His wife is under house arrest, and her key political allies are in military custody. She was nowhere to be seen at Friday's graduation ceremony.

The police, once a bastion of support, have showed no signs of resistance.

Furthermore, Mugabe has little popular backing in the capital, a hotbed of support for the opposition, which has tapped into the anger and frustration at his handling of the economy, which collapsed after the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000.

Calls for Mugabe's removal signals change in Zimbabwe7:41

Unemployment is now running at nearly 90 per cent. Chronic shortages of hard currency are driving up the price of imports as much as 50 per cent a month.

On social media, Zimbabweans circulated a spoof message to Chiwenga demonstrating the depth of anger at Mugabe.

Does Canada have a role in Zimbabwe's crisis?6:36

"If Mugabe refuses to resign, let the army take him to First Street and leave him there. People of Zim will negotiate with him," the message read.​

 

With files from the CBC's Margaret Evans and Lily Martin