Mugabe seen in talks with military amid Zimbabwe political chaos
Posted November 15, 2017 11:56 p.m. EST
Updated November 16, 2017 12:24 p.m. EST
HARARE, Zimbabwe (CNN) — Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has been shown in talks with the commander of the country's defense forces, a day after the military seized control of the capital.
Photographs published by the pro-Mugabe Herald newspaper are the first images of the embattled leader since he was placed under house arrest Wednesday morning. The photos also showed a priest, reported earlier to be brokering talks for a transitional government.
The Herald's editor, Caesar Zvayi, also tweeted the images.
Mugabe as all but lost his grip on power as the country's military leaders and senior officials in his own party turn against him. But the fact that he has yet to make a public statement is an indication that military chiefs are having difficulty persuading him to go voluntarily.
Mugabe detained: South African President Jacob Zuma said the veteran leader was being held at home but was "fine." Rumors have swirled that Mugabe would make a statement but none has so far been forthcoming.
South African envoys: Two envoys dispatched by Zuma arrived in Harare for talks Thursday. Zuma, as chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), called for a meeting of the group in Botswana for Thursday.
Grace Mugabe: It was unclear whether the President's 52-year-old wife was at home with him in Harare. Robert Mugabe's efforts to position his wife as his successor infuriated the old guard in his party.
In the images, Mugabe appears calm as he talks with army leader Commander General Constantino Chiwenga, the man who warned the President on Monday that the military would intervene if party infighting continued.
Earlier, Zimbabwe's best-known opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, called on President Robert Mugabe to step aside.
A source at the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) earlier told CNN that transition talks had begun, saying that the embattled President's exit was a "done deal."
Tsvangirai, who had been receiving cancer treatment abroad, returned to Harare after the military took control In Harare and placed Mugabe under house arrest on Wednesday.
The political upheaval presents Tsvangirai with the best opportunity in years to influence the country's future. A senior member of Tsvangirai's party told CNN that talks were underway about a transitional government that includes the opposition were underway,
But in public, Tsvangirai was less definitive, calling the military takeover "unconstitutional" and questioning whether a transitional government was even the right approach. "You can't force the change (of) government by any means other than by the ballot box," he told CNN after a press conference, in which he called for Mugabe to step down.
Zimbabwe's military seized control of state institutions early Wednesday and placed Mugabe under house arrest, but insisted it was not staging a coup, throwing the country into political limbo.
Sources told CNN that transition talks were taking place in Zimbabwe to engineer a peaceful exit for Mugabe, who has ruled the country for 37 years and planned to contest the next election in 2018.
"There is a transition of power underway and it has tacit agreement from regional powers," the opposition party source told CNN.
It is unclear what role Tsvangirai might play in a transitional or future administration. While he has cast doubt on the transition talks, the timing of his return suggests he is looking to elevate his position.
Tsvangirai served as prime minister under a power-sharing deal with Mugabe after a disputed election in 2008, but Mugabe regained full control in 2013 amid further allegations of election fraud. Tsvangirai has called on Mugabe to step down many times, but this time his calls are joined by many other voices, including within Mugabe's own party.
Key to any transitional administration will be Emmerson Mnangagwa, the powerful former Vice President, who was widely tipped to become the country's next leader. Mnangagwa was dismissed by Mugabe last week, in a decision that triggered the latest political turmoil.
His dismissal fueled speculation that Mugabe was clearing the way for his wife, Grace, to take over the presidency in the event of his retirement or death.
Mnangagwa remains one of the most powerful figures in the country and derives much of his support from the military. He has not been sighted in Harare since he was fired and his whereabouts are still unknown.
It is unclear was mediating the talks, but two South African ministers have arrived in Zimbabwe to meet with authorities.
A crucial issue is whether Mugabe will be allowed to serve out the rest of his term ahead of next year's vote.
A separate meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was called by Zuma for Thursday afternoon. The meeting, to be held in Botswana, will include foreign ministers and delegates from neighboring Angola, Tanzania and Zambia.
Mugabe's allies turn
In a sign that power in the country is quickly shifting, several of Mugabe's longtime allies are turning on him.
The powerful War Veterans' Association, which is funded by Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, is planning on holding a large rally in Harare on Saturday to show its support for Mnangagwa. It is an indication that the group is confident that its favored candidate has the upper hand.
The head of ZANU-PF's youth wing, which had shown strong support for Grace Mugabe, issued an apology on state TV overnight for criticizing the head of the armed forces.
"I have since reflected and I personally admitted that I erred together with my entire executive to denigrate your highest office," Kudzanai Chipan said in his apology, insisting he he had not been coerced into making the statement.
"We are still young and make mistakes and we have learned a lot from this mistake."
Mnangagwa himself was once a loyal ally of Mugabe. He served as the leader's right-hand man for his entire rule, and their relationship goes back to the country's fight for independence.
The developments mark a sudden shift for ordinary Zimbabweans too, even though Mugabe's downfall appears to have been years in the making.
"There are military tanks on the streets, which has never happened before," said one Harare resident. "The military is obviously now in charge despite their insistence that it's not a coup. It is."
Soldiers are still deployed at the parliament, presidential palace and the state broadcaster. But the capital has been calm over the past two days, and activities are resuming as usual, said a university student.
"The soldiers outside the president's office are actually talking to folks passing by," the student said.
In his remarks on the military's move, South Africa's Zuma did not condemn the takeover Wednesday, a stance widely seen as tacit support for a change of government in the country.
A group of 115 civil society organizations called on Mugabe to peacefully step down, and for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) -- which Zuma chairs -- to step in a arbiter of the transition talks.
Mugabe's brutal rule
Mugabe, the only leader most Zimbabweans have ever known, ruled the landlocked country for 37 years with an iron fist.
He rose to power as a freedom fighter and was seen as Zimbabwe's Nelson Mandela. But he quickly waged a campaign of oppression to consolidate his position, extinguishing the political opposition through violent crackdowns.
Among them was a string of massacres in opposition strongholds, in which thousands were killed. Some of those campaigns of terror were believed to be orchestrated by Mnangagwa when he was the country's spy chief in the 1980s.
Mugabe's hardline policies also pushed the country into poverty. Its flourishing economy began to disintegrate after a program of land seizures from white farmers, and agricultural output plummeted and inflation soared.
Like his wife -- who is dubbed "Gucci Grace" for her extravagant shopping sprees -- Mugabe is criticized for his lavish lifestyle. Last year, he held an birthday party that reportedly cost $800,000 in a region hit by food shortages and drought.