Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, world's oldest head of state, resigns after 37 years

Robert Mugabe, 93, has resigned as Zimbabwe's president after decades in power, as parliament began impeachment proceedings against him. The announcement sparked celebrations on the streets of the capital, Harare.

Announcement follows week of extraordinary events that included military confining embattled leader

Harare erupts in jubilation as long-time president Robert Mugabe resigns 1:06

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe resigned as president Tuesday after 37 years in power, after parliament began impeachment proceedings against him.

"My decision to resign is voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire for a smooth, non-violent transfer of power," said Mugabe in his letter, which was met with cheers and dancing when it was read out in parliament.

Ruling party chief whip Lovemore Matuke said that recently fired vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa would take over as the country's leader within 48 hours. Matuke said Mnangagwa, who fled the country after his firing, "is not far from here."

Matuke said they look forward to Mugabe doing the handover of power "so that Mnangagwa moves with speed to work for the country."

Embattled former president of Zimbabwe quits in letter to parliament 1:15

Cars began honking horns and people cheered in the streets, as the news spread like wildfire across the capital, Harare.

While jubilation was in the air in the capital, Zimbabwe's military commander warned citizens not to target old adversaries following the historic resignation.

"Acts of vengeful retribution or trying to settle scores will be dealt with severely," Gen. Constantino Chiwenga said.

Mugabe, who had been the world's oldest head of state at the age of 93, said that proper procedures should be followed to install new leadership.

Mugabe's resignation brought an end to the impeachment proceedings brought by the ruling ZANU-PF party after its central committee voted to oust the president as party leader and select recently fired vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa as his replacement — a move that eventually could lead to Mnangagwa becoming head of state.

Currently in exile, Mnangagwa served for decades as Mugabe's enforcer, with a reputation for being astute and ruthless, more feared than popular.

Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she hoped Mugabe's departure will bring "greater prosperity and democracy" for Zimbabwe.

"I think I speak on behalf of all Canadians that we are hopeful that the departure of Mr. Mugabe can be the beginning of a better chapter in the life of the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe," she said Monday on Parliament Hill.

Also reacting to the resignation, Travel Canada urged people to "exercise caution" in Zimbabwe and avoid public gatherings.

"Although celebratory, they may pose a risk to your safety and security," the agency warned travellers on Twitter.

Celebrations in Harare

Before the resignation, crowds rallied outside parliament, dancing and singing. Some people placed photos of Mugabe in the street so that cars would run over them.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC party said the culture of the ruling party "must end" and everyone must put their heads together and work toward free and fair elections.

Earlier Tuesday, Mnangagwa said in a statement that Mugabe should acknowledge the nation's "insatiable desire" for a leadership change and resign immediately.

Zimbabweans celebrate after President Robert Mugabe resigns in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Mnangagwa added to immense pressure on Mugabe to quit after nearly four decades in power, during which he evolved from a champion of the fight against white minority rule into a figure blamed for a collapsing economy, government dysfunction and human rights violations.

"The people of Zimbabwe have spoken with one voice and it is my appeal to President Mugabe that he should take heed of this clarion call and resign forthwith so that the country can move forward and preserve his legacy," Mnangagwa said in his statement, after more than a week of silence.

Mnangagwa, who fled the country and has not appeared in public during the past week's political turmoil, said Mugabe had invited him to return to Zimbabwe "for a discussion" on recent events. However, he said he will not return for now, alleging that there had been plans to kill him at the time of his firing.

"I will be returning as soon as the right conditions for security and stability prevail," said Mnangagwa, who has a loyal support base in the military. "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."

Robert Mugabe's wife, Grace, talks to then Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa at a gathering of the ZANU-PF party's top-decision making body in Harare on Feb. 10, 2016. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Zimbabwe's polarizing first lady, Grace Mugabe, had been positioning herself to succeed her husband, leading a party faction that engineered Mnangagwa's ouster. The prospect of a dynastic succession alarmed the military, which confined Mugabe to his home last week and targeted what it called "criminals" around him who allegedly were looting state resources — a reference to associates of Grace Mugabe.

Hopes for dialogue

Mnangagwa was targeted by U.S. sanctions in the early 2000s for undermining democratic development in Zimbabwe, according to the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based policy institute. However, J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert at the council, noted that some Zimbabwean opposition figures have appeared willing to have dialogue with Mnangagwa in order to move the country forward and that the international community should consider doing the same.

"We're not saying whitewash the past, but it is in the interests of everyone that Zimbabwe is engaged at this critical time," Pham said in a statement.

The crowd outside parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe, earlier on Tuesday. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Regional leaders continued efforts to find a solution to the political turmoil, with South Africa's state-run broadcaster reporting that the presidents of South Africa and Angola would travel to Zimbabwe on Wednesday to meet with "stakeholders" in the political crisis, including Mugabe and the military.

The U.S.Embassy in Harare called for free elections and respect for the rule of law following the president's resignation.

"Tonight marks a historic moment for Zimbabwe," a statement issued by the embassy said. "Whatever short-term arrangements the government may establish, the path forward must lead to free, fair and inclusive elections."

Wilf Mbanga is looking forward to visiting his mother's grave for the first time now that Robert Mugabe has stepped down as Zimbabwe's president. 6:35

Impeachment proceedings began days after huge crowds surged through Harare to demand that Mugabe quit. The ruling party had instructed government ministers to boycott a cabinet meeting that Mugabe called for Tuesday morning at State House, the president's official residence, and instead attend a meeting at party headquarters to work on the impeachment.

It was not clear how long the impeachment process would have taken, but Mnangagwa called for unity and appeared to embrace the prospect of taking over power.

"I will not stand in the way of the people and my party," he said.

With files from CBC News