Four months after his overthrow, former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was back on familiar territory on Friday, splashed across the front pages after lambasting his successor as a “disgrace”.
The 94-year-old’s first media interview since his forced resignation in the wake of a November military takeover caused a stir on the streets of the capital. Groups of people milled round piles of newspapers stacked high on pavements.
“People pretend that they don’t like the old man but the moment he opens his mouth they all want to hear what he is saying. Look, the newspapers are almost sold out,” said Kelvin Chijokoro, a street newspaper vendor.
Mugabe’s attacked the legitimacy of new President Emmerson Mnangagwa and told South African state broadcaster SABC he had never thought his former protege would turn against him.
Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe security chief nicknamed ‘The Crocodile’, refused to get sucked into a slanging match, saying Mugabe was simply enjoying his constitutional right to free speech – a right routinely denied to Zimbabweans during Mugabe’s 37 years in power.
“He is entitled to express himself freely, as is the case for any private citizen,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.
Pointedly, the state-owned Herald newspaper, which has switched from being Mugabe’s propaganda mouthpiece for the last three decades to Mnangagwa’s, ignored the interview.
Mugabe, one of last ‘Big Men’ of African politics, had been the dominant political force in Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980 and many citizens had come to believe he would die in office.
His comments were the main topic of conversation in a hair salon in downtown Harare on Friday.
“He should live with the reality that he is not in power anymore and Zimbabwe is better without a dictator like him,” said hair stylist Rosemary Wakatama.
Zimbabweans were even more forthright on Twitter
“Goblin (Mugabe) is a bitter, egocentric and vindictive geriatric. He is finished. Get out of that freaking suit and rest old man,” said @mmatigari.
Mnangagwa has been feted by African leaders and the West. But many have said they will be watching elections in the next five months as the first major test of his rule.
Some Zimbabweans agreed with Mugabe that his successor was illegitimate.
“Let’s go back to constitutionalism, no matter how much we hate Mugabe the fact is, this was a coup d’etat and I feel sorry for Zimbabweans going forward,” said @JonesMasango.