Robert Mugabe attends graduation in cap and gown, in first appearance since Zimbabwe’s military coup

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe arrives to preside over a student graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University on the outskirts of Harare CREDIT: AP

 

It may prove the last public engagement in his years as head of state, and Robert Mugabe was clearly not enjoying himself on Friday morning.

Dour and preoccupied, the 93-year-old president could hardly raise a smile as scholars, joyful at their graduation, walked up and bobbed their heads in respect.

Mr Mugabe is chancellor of most of Zimbabwe’s higher education institutions and being capped by the ageing president, who is usually cracking jokes and full of beans, is often a highlight of graduation ceremonies.

But Friday’s ceremony for mature and postgraduate students at the Open University, alongside the sprawling suburb of Hatcliffe, 15 miles north of Harare, was different.

Mr Mugabe has been under house arrest since Tuesday night, when the military turned on him in an attempt to force him to step down.

This was his first public appearance since, and both he and his captors seemed determined to put on as much a veneer of normality as possible.

As usual, the police band was there in honour of the head of state, and there was a crowd of thousands – though whether they had turned out for the president or their relatives was hard to tell.

And when Mr Mugabe arrived, it was clear that he had been allowed to keep his massive security contingent of police and presidential guards.

Mr Mugabe always travels with about a dozen other vehicles behind him, and all other traffic and pedestrians have to halt immediately when the wailing of his sirens is heard.

If other vehicles do not stop, outriders armed with AK 47’s fire warning shots – one of many long running grievances that have contributed to his downfall.

This is a university with scarce resources and not much infrastructure; the ceremony took place under a giant tent.

For the 3,000 students claiming their postgraduate degrees, it was a joyful experience.

They clapped madly as each of their classmates walked on to the stage to receive their doctorate or masters degree. Throughout it all, Mr Mugabe remained seated and barely reacted to the speeches and applause.

One student graduating drew particularly loud applause when her name was announced. Mary Chiwenga is the second wife of General Constantino Chiwenga, the armed forces chief who presided over Tuesday night’s coup and who is now in charge of key parts of the country. She is best known for organising the Miss Zimbabwe competition.

But she did not show up for the ceremony, and a young man picked up the certificate on her behalf – sparing a potentially awkward scene.

When the cheering was over, and the choirs had completed their choruses, Mr Mugabe slowly rose to his feet, surrounded by his contingent of plainclothes security men, and very slowly walked unaided down the red carpet and out of the tent.

No one was particularly interested in Mr Mugabe. All were respectful, but there was no ululating as before, no shouts of political support.

He has been ruling the country for most of their lives, but the graduates were more excited about their own achievement yesterday than the dramatic political events unfolding around them. “I know about it. All will be OK as long as we have peace and tranquillity,” said Charity Kadungure, 64, who received her doctorate in finance, when asked about the military takeover.

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