Harare, Zimbabwe (CNN)Emmerson Mnangagwa has vowed to be a president for all Zimbabweans at his inauguration ceremony on Friday, during which he also paid tribute to veteran leader Robert Mugabe as his “father” and “mentor.”
Despite admitting he played a role in Mugabe’s demise, Mnangagwa used his first official address to the nation to show respect to Mugabe, whom he said he still personally considered his leader.
“He led us in our struggle for national independence. He assumed responsibility for leadership at a formative and very challenging time,” Mnangagwa said, adding later that the nation should “let bygones be bygones.”
Mnangagwa laid out his vision to re-energize Zimbabwe’s economy, including pledging to implement a series of reforms to boost exports, attract foreign investment and stabilize the financial sector.
Zimbabwe was once the bread basket of Africa, but its economy has been hurt by industrial mismanagement, food shortages, a collapsed currency and rampant corruption.
Tens of thousands of people filled the cavernous National Sports Stadium in the capital, Harare, cheering and dancing, and waving national flags as the former vice president was inaugurated, in scenes resembling fans at a football match.
As he took his oath, he swore to “protect and promote the rights of the people of Zimbabwe,” a promise that was met with wild applause by the crowd, many of whom had lived under Mugabe’s entire oppressive rule.
The new leader was adorned with a sash before receiving a 21-gun salute, firing of a cannon and a military aircraft fly past, in a colorful ceremony attended by African leaders and other dignitaries to mark the historic moment.
One supporter told CNN he wanted a new leader to “upgrade” the nation. “Mining, farming, education — what I’m saying, we need to upgrade everything.”
Mnangagwa will serve as an interim president until a leader is elected at the polls next year. He is expected to contest the election as well.
Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?
Known as “The Crocodile” for his political cunning and longevity, Mnangagwa fled the country after Mugabe fired him earlier this month, a dismissal that triggered the political turmoil and an apparent military coup in Harare.
He fled the country and returned to Zimbabwe on Wednesday, a day after Mugabe’s resignation, and made clear he had been part of the operation to unseat Mugabe.
Critics have questioned whether the new leader — who is said to have been behind some of Mugabe’s most ruthless policies — is able to bring about reforms and return civil liberties to a people who have been oppressed for so long.
Mnangagwa served as Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades and many Zimbabweans say he represents the status quo.
While working with Mugabe, he headed up the feared intelligence agency as well as the defense and justice ministries during times of state oppression and brutality, and is tainted by accusations of his involvement in the Matebeleland massacres in the 1980s.
“Knowing Emmerson Mnangawa, his character, he will have to work very hard to change his character so that he can define the future of the country and define his future as a democrat, as a reformer. That I doubt,” leader of the main opposition MDC-T, Morgan Tsvangiriai, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
But Tsvangirai attended the ceremony Friday, in a sign that he may be willing to cooperate with Mnangagwa’s administration.
There was no sign of Robert or Grace Mugabe at the ceremony. Zimbabwe’s state newspaper, The Herald, reported Mugabe may not attend, saying he needed time to rest.
The former president is likely to live out his last days in the comfort of his grand home in Zimbabwe. The couple was granted immunity from prosecution, the military has told CNN. Their safety has been guaranteed and they will be allowed to keep several of their properties.
Grace Mugabe had her own ambitions to take over the presidency. The military, determined to keep her from office, intervened when Mnangagwa was fired, fearing Grace Mugabe’s ascension.
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