'We dare not squander the moment' - says President Mnangagwa

Source: 
Associated Press

HARARE: Zimbabweans must set aside "poisoned" politics and work together to rebuild the nation and re-engage the world, new President Emmerson Mnangagwa said Friday, delivering an inclusive message to an exultant crowd that packed a stadium for his inauguration.

Mnangagwa, blamed for a number of the crackdowns and damaging policies of his mentor and predecessor, the ousted Robert Mugabe, also promised that "democratic" elections will be held on schedule in 2018 and that foreign investment will be safe in Zimbabwe, a message aimed at laying the groundwork for economic revival.

"We dare not squander the moment," Mnangagwa said in a speech whose sense of promise matched the joyful mood of a nation hungry for change after Mugabe's 37-year rule. The former leader resigned Tuesday after pressure from the military, former allies in the ruling party and massive street protests.

Helicopters and planes flew in formation, an artillery unit fired a 21-gun salute, honor guards with fixed bayonets high-stepped and Zimbabwean pop star Jah Prayzah had people dancing on a day celebrating a new stage in the nation's history. Such an occasion had seemed almost impossible to contemplate for many Zimbabweans as the years dragged on under the 93-year-old Mugabe, who took power after the end of white minority rule in 1980.

Mnangagwa, 75, was fired as vice president by Mugabe on Nov. 6 in a dispute over the growing presidential ambitions of Mugabe's unpopular wife, Grace. The former justice and defense minister, however, had been one of Mugabe's closest confidants, raising questions about just how much change and reconciliation there will be on his watch.

The new president praised Mugabe, who will remain in the country but did not attend the inauguration, for his "immense contribution" to Zimbabwe's emergence as a nation after a guerrilla war by black nationalists. However, he sought to reinforce the idea of a "new Zimbabwe," a refrain commonly heard in the streets of the capital, Harare.

"We must work together. You, me, all of us who make up this nation," Mnangagwa said, urging the millions of Zimbabweans who have left the southern African country to contribute to their homeland's reconstruction.

Mnangagwa referred to one of Mugabe's signature policies, saying farmers will be compensated for the often violent land seizures starting around 2000 that drew international condemnation and sanctions and contributed to the country's economic slide. It is unclear where Zimbabwe would get the funds for such compensation.

The program that saw land seized from white farmers and given to black Zimbabweans will not be reversed, but efforts to make farms more productive will be intensified, he said.

"As we bear no malice towards any nation, we ask those who have punished us in the past to reconsider their economic and political sanctions against us," said the president, who himself remains under U.S. sanctions for his activities as Mugabe's enforcer, a role that earned him the nickname "Crocodile."

Mnangagwa was minister of state security during the army killings of thousands of people when Mugabe moved against a political rival in the 1980s, and was justice minister around the time that the farm takeovers started. He was in the Cabinet at the time of a violent crackdown on opponents in the 2008 presidential election.

In a show of regional support for Zimbabwe's new leader, the presidents of Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia attended the inauguration, with the crowd cheering Botswana's leader Ian Khama for his past calls for Mugabe to step down.

Zimbabwean military commander Gen. Constantino Chiwenga also got a big cheer from the tens of thousands in the stadium. His forces staged a takeover last week amid alarm over a perceived power grab by a ruling party faction loyal to Grace Mugabe. The act of sending tanks into the streets triggered the national clamor leading to her husband's resignation.

However, the national police commissioner, Gen. Augustine Chihuri, was booed when he pledged allegiance to the new president, reflecting public anger over perceived corruption in police ranks.

While Mnangagwa said "let bygones be bygones" in his speech and has warned against retaliation, human rights activists and lawyers already were reporting moves against some figures linked to Mugabe's wife.

Ignatious Chombo, the finance minister under Mugabe, was assaulted after the military swept in and will appear in court Saturday in connection with allegedly corrupt land deals, said his lawyer Lovemore Madhuku.

He said charges against Chombo, who has not been seen in public since the military takeover, were read out Thursday while he lay in bed at a government-run hospital.

Elsewhere in the capital, long lines formed outside banks, a common sight in a nation struggling with cash shortages and other severe economic problems that the new president will have to confront.

As inauguration crowds streamed by, Sharon Samuriwo sat on a ledge, watching. She said she hoped Mnangagwa would learn from the errors of his predecessor, but acknowledged that the path ahead for Zimbabwe is unknown.

Still, she said, "after 37 years, we've got someone different."

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