Army is the new hero in town, though not everyone is buying it

In Zimbabwe, the army is the new hero in town, seen as a saviour delivering Zimbabweans from the tyranny of decades of despotic rule by Robert Mugabe. Not everyone is buying in.

'These military guys in 2008. I remember. I was there when they were beating up people'

Women in Harare raise their hands in prayer at a rally on Sunday. Pastor Evan Mawarire has been organizing what he calls prayer protest meetings in Harare's Africa Unity Square every day until Robert Mugabe resigns. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"Give it up for our soldiers," shouts the young woman standing in front of a tank to the crowd, a smile big enough to stretch the length of the Zambezi river lighting up her face. "We want to big up Mr. Chiwenga."

"Mr. Chiwenga" is Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) and the man who led last week's military takeover here.

Chiwenga's photo is the one carried high by the crowds of people who thronged to the centre of Harare on Saturday to demand Robert Mugabe stand down and in the demonstrations being held to demand it still.

The army is the new hero in town, seen as a saviour delivering Zimbabweans from the tyranny of decades of despotic rule.

A man in Harare takes a selfie with a portrait of Zimbabwean Defence Force chief Gen. Constantino Chiwenga on Saturday. Chiwenga is the man of the hour in the African country. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

Women try to hug and kiss officers stuck traffic, young men try to shine their cars and carry green tree branches as an homage to the colour of army uniforms. There's even a little camouflage ribbon floating about on some of the signs.

But not everyone is ready to embrace the army as Zimbabwe's great liberator, especially after a row of generals sat quietly by when Robert Mugabe made his rambling address to the nation on Sunday, managing to omit the resignation everyone was waiting for.

"These military guys in 2008. I remember. I was there when they were beating up people," says 27-year-old student Admire Matarutse.

The army helped skew the election results by embarking on a bloody intimidation campaign aimed at voters opposed to Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

Former Zimbabwean vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, seen here in 2016, is expected to return to the country. He's a likely replacement for Mugabe. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party won the first round but pulled out when the violence against his supporters escalated.

The army also "campaigned" for a Mugabe victory in the 2013 elections.

"Where were they all along?" asks Matarutse of their sudden desire to free the people of Mugabe.

"Maybe they've realized their mistakes, but my fear is if these guys get into power they are not going to remove their hands from power — because they have learned a lot from their mentor Robert Mugabe."

Monday night, Gen. Chiwenga issued a statement saying that he and Mugabe had agreed on a road map for what happens next in the country, but he didn't say what it was.

Nicknamed the Crocodile

He also said Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former Mugabe loyalist backed by the military to replace him down the road, would be in the country soon.

His picture, too, has featured in the crowds of celebrating Zimbabweans on the streets, although not to the same degree as Chiwenga.

Mnangagwa — nicknamed the crocodile for his ruthless reputation — was Mugabe's former intelligence chief, accused of grave human rights abuses in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

Admire Matarutse, a Zimbabwean student in Harare, says he is fearful about the return of Emmerson Mnangagwa. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"I think it has been a very smart move by the military," says Promise Mkwananzi of the way in which the army staged what it insists is NOT a coup.

Mkwananzi is an opposition activist who spoke at the big anti-Mugabe rally calling on Mugabe to stand down on Saturday.

"They've done the unexpected. The tradition is that the military takes over, they kill people, they intimidate citizens and install themselves in that manner. But here they came just short of a coup and then quickly sanitized the whole process in one of the most unimaginable ways."

Zimbabweans on the streets of Harare this weekend showed their appreciation for the military personnel stationed throughout the city 0:59

It makes things complicated for opposition activists and politicians. How do you argue against those in the process of removing a much despised leader who has caused so much suffering to so many?

"Not all is lost, but currently it's 1-0 against the opposition," says Mkwananzi.

"I think that the army has gained incredible authority of who should govern this country. As it stands now, the military fronted by Emmerson Mnangagwa and Gen. Constantino Chiwenga are on top of their game.

Student Admire Matarutse agrees.

"The whole nation has been deceived right now. Even if you go to free and fair elections right now people are going to vote for Mnangagwa. "

"I'm so scared what he's going to do. I'm so scared. He's pretending to do good. But later on his true colours are going to come."

That's why demands for the creation of a transitional government including opposition politics is so crucial, according to some.

Pastor Evan Mawarire is the founder of the #ThisFlag movement. He's been jailed by Mugabe five times. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Pastor Evan Mawarire is founder of the #ThisFlag movement, a social-media phenomenon that took Zimbabwe by storm over a year ago. He's been jailed by the Mugabe regime five times for his activism.

Mawarire has been organizing what he calls prayer protest meetings in Harare's Africa Unity Square every day until Mugabe resigns. That's the plan anyway.

He believes that despite the qualms people have about the army and Mnangagwa, it's important to be at the table with them.

"We are doing things that we've never been allowed to do in this country. The kind of relief we have had over the last few days is something that is so precious to us. And we don't want to lose it."

"So going forward, I would rather compromise and negotiate than try and go for a winner take all. Because if you've lived even just for one day in this country, then you know what it's like to live under oppression. And if there's a slight chance this might be different, we'll take that chance."

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.