Emmerson Mnangagwa has been sworn in as the third president of Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980, taking the oath of office in front of 70,000 people in Harare’s main sports stadium.
Mnangagwa raised a loud cheer when he pledged that “free and fair elections” would be held next year as scheduled and that the “people’s voice would be heard”.
The 75-year-old former spy chief was fired by Robert Mugabe as vice-president nearly three weeks ago, a tactical error by the ageing autocrat that triggered a military takeover, his impeachment by parliament, and finally his resignation on Tuesday.
Mnangagwa said “Mugabe’s immense contribution” to Zimbabwe should be recognised. “He fought for our freedom … let us all accept and acknowledge his immense contribution to our nation,” the new president said to muted applause.
People sang and danced in the stands and raised banners reading “Dawn of a new era” and “No to retribution”, even as human rights activists began to report worrying details of attacks on close allies of the former first lady, Grace Mugabe, and their families.
Mnangagwa is a stalwart of the ruling Zanu-PF party, and is widely known as “the Crocodile” – a liberation war nickname suggesting tenacity and ruthless cunning.
Critics have questioned his role in the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in 1983, when an estimated 20,000 people were killed in a crackdown on Mugabe opponents by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. Mnangagwa has denied any part in the atrocities.
Many Zimbabweans, especially the ethnic Ndebele who bore the brunt of the Gukurahundi slaughter, will see his appeal on Friday to “let bygones be bygones” as an attempt to gloss over his nation’s darkest chapter.
Despite his long association with a brutal government that presided over Zimbabwe’s decline, Mnangagwa promised democracy and reached out to other countries for help.
Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was present at the ceremony, after an invitation was delivered late on Thursday night.
Mugabe’s head of police was booed and whistled by the boisterous and jubilant crowd when he took his oath of loyalty to the new president, while General Constantino Chiwenga, who led the military takeover, was cheered.
Dozens of senior military officers watched the ceremony, wearing rows of medals pinned to sharply pressed uniforms and white gloves and carrying swords.
“The people are the heroes here … We did everything for the people,” Chiwenga said after the ceremony.
Elias Mudzuri, MDC vice-president, said he was optimistic. “It is important that we go into elections and the people are allowed to express themselves,” he said.
There were loud cheers for a fly-past of four military helicopters and a salute by three artillery guns. But the most energetic reaction was prompted by the popular songs played before the ceremony, to which many on the concrete terraces danced.
Mnangagwa has promised he will create jobs and make efforts to attract foreign investors. The new president said land reforms that led to the violent seizure of thousands of white-owned farms from 2000 would not be reversed, but promised compensation.
Toka Manzi, a 23-year-old labourer, said he was happy. “During the Mugabe era we were very oppressed. Everywhere there were spies and you could not discuss anything in public. There was no justice, no equality. When Mugabe committed a crime it was not a crime. He was a liar and a thief,” he said.
Janet Masela, 38, had arrived at 7am by bus from her home in Hatfield. “So many of my friends and neighbours have come. I wanted to see the start of the new era. We hope for change. I’m hoping maybe one day I will get a job so I can look after my little boy. I am a widow so it is very difficult,” she said.
The ceremony started 13 minutes late with a prayer that described the patience and endurance of the Zimbabwean people and spoke of forgiveness. Hawkers sold snacks, flags and portraits of the new president for the astronomic price of $12.
Panache Mpofu, 19, laughed and said: “That is too expensive even for our new leader even if we love him. It is a new era, I know, but we are not all rich yet.”
Mugabe did not attend Friday’s swearing-in, but party officials have said he will remain in Zimbabwe. Officials have promised he will be safe and that his legacy as a war hero in the fight for independence from white minority rule will stand.
Sean Mnangagwa, the president’s 30-year-old son, said that people close to his father knew how seriously he was taking his new responsibilities.
“When he had to leave we did not know if he would make it, but he did. It was a very difficult time. My mum wept when she saw him again at the airport when he came back.”