By Douglas Rogers
The expected resignation speech is an hour late.
At 9pm, ZBC goes live to a red carpeted room in State House. The military commanders are shown first, seated left of screen, General Constantino Chiwenga in the same fatigues he wore for his press conference.
The mediators, including George Charamba and Mugabe’s friend and spiritual advisor, Catholic priest Father Fidelis Mukonori, are seated right.
The odd man out, next to Chiwenga, is Augustine Chihuri, the G40-aligned police chief, the man who supposedly tried to arrest Chiwenga at the airport. He and Chiwenga looked on good terms.
Mugabe finally appears, in a dark suit, looking small, frail and unsteady. He shakes hands with the commanders, who salute him, then sits at a table in front of two mics. He’s immediately swallowed by the chair he’s slumped in.
With the military men hovering over him, it looks like a hostage video.
What follows is one of the most bizarre live broadcasts by a politician in modern television history.
As he’s about to speak he shuffles some papers – one assumes the written speech – and they drop to the floor.
Chiwenga picks them up and hands them to Chihuri next to him, who keeps them for the duration. This act will set off a host of conspiracy theories that are still raging today. Was the intended speech changed at the last minute?
Then he begins and he’s a sad shadow of his usually articulate self. He looks his 93 years and his usually perfect diction and BBC English are gone. He rambles, slurs and mumbles for 20 minutes.
Incredibly, given the drama of the occasion and the roller-coaster of the past 13 days, it turns out to be a dull state-of-the-nation address. Six minutes in, he says the economy “is going through a difficult patch”, at which point the speech itself hits a difficult patch, from which it never recovers.
It’s about 15 minutes in that we all realise: he’s not going! Thousands of social mediators are frantically asking, #WTF? Indeed, despite being dismissed as ZANU-PF leader earlier that day, he even says he’s going to preside over the party’s December congress.
By the end, when he’s calling on the nation to “refocus”, and put “shoulders to the wheel” for the promising agricultural season, millions of mouths across the world have fallen open in horror.
“Asante Sana,” he says, signing off – Swahili for “thank you very much” – and with that he staggers to his feet, shakes more hands and is gone.
If it was a hostage video, he had flipped the script.
I confess I found a sneaking admiration for the Old Man at that minute.
They would have to hold a gun to his head to get him to go.
Months later George Charamba told me his version of events. Charamba said he wrote the speech for Mugabe and the President made alterations, but the intention was never to resign.
Chiwenga, on the other hand, expected Mugabe to go, and while he (Chiwenga) looks calm on screen, he’s furious when Mugabe doesn’t bow out.
“There was external calm against internal discord,” Charamba says of Chiwenga’s poker face.
Minutes after the speech, however, summoned to KG VI by the fuming General, Charamba gets a first-hand taste of some external discord when Chiwenga pins him against a wall, crushes his foot with his big military boot, and snarls at him: “What the fuck have you done, watengesa – you sold out!”
“Get your hands off me – don’t you know I have saved your future?” Charamba splutters back.
He tells Chiwenga that Mugabe couldn’t have resigned on live television with the military hovering over him like that.
This calmed the General down.
- Extract from Two Weeks in November: The astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe, a book by Douglas Rogers