HARARE - Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe on Sunday emerged to address the nation for the first time since stepping down last November and just hours before Monday’s historic election, declaring that “I will not vote for those who have illegally taken power.”
In a slow and rambling address, the 94-year-old Mugabe spoke to reporters about the circumstances of his dramatic removal under military pressure and after a ruling party feud.
He was coy about endorsing a candidate ahead of the election in which the former deputy that he fired, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, faces Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and pastor.
“I cannot vote for those who have tormented me,” Mugabe said, in a reference to Mnangagwa, who took office with the military’s support. “I cannot vote for ZANU-PF,” the ruling party he long controlled.
Mugabe, who has backed a new political party that is part of a coalition supporting Chamisa, said of him: “He seems to be doing well at his rallies . . . I wish to meet him if he wins.”
And Mugabe added: “Whoever wins, we wish him well. . . . And let us accept the verdict.”
Many in Zimbabwe knew no other leader but Mugabe, who led the country for 37 years and since independence from white minority rule in 1980. What began with optimism crumbled into repression, alleged vote-rigging, intimidation of the opposition, violent land seizures from white farmers and years of international sanctions.
The country hopes that a credible vote Monday could get those sanctions lifted and bring badly needed investment for a collapsed economy.
Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe confidante, has tried to recast himself as a voice for reform, inviting back dozens of election observers from the West and pledging a free and fair vote.
“I have during all this time liked our return to conditionality, our return to legality, an environment in which our people are free,” Mugabe told reporters. In a breathtaking statement, he asserted that his stay in power had been free from meddling: “It was not the army that ensured I remained in power.”
He blamed “evil and malicious characters” for his removal from office, which was met with a joyous outpouring in the capital, Harare, by thousands.
He said he resigned to avoid “bloodshed” and defended his wife, Grace, who just months ago appeared to be positioning herself for the presidency: “Leave, leave, leave my wife alone.”
While Mugabe, who has largely remained quiet in his Harare home since leaving power, spoke largely of the past, Zimbabweans are already impatient for the future — and Monday’s vote.