Mugabe's fall: A personal account

Ben Freeth on his experiences in Zimbabwe through the old tyrant's final days in office

The forced resignation of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe: A personal account

Zimbabwean activist Ben Freeth describes the remarkable lead-up to the resignation of Mugabe and the country’s euphoria when he was finally forced to step down

I was at a fuel station in Harare at 5.48 pm on Tuesday 21 November, our son Stephen’s 16th birthday, when I got the message from a senator friend, Mike Carter. It simply said: “He has resigned.”

I phoned him up immediately. I knew Mike wouldn’t have sent me a message like that if it hadn’t happened but we had heard so many rumours and Mugabe was a man of such trickery. “Did you hear it with your own ears?” I asked.

Mike told me that while they were busy with impeachment proceedings in Parliament, the Speaker was given a letter which he read out. Mugabe had resigned with immediate effect!

I ran to the nearby supermarket and bought a bottle of sparkling wine [my funds didn’t stretch to champagne!] In the check-out queue people were already beginning to dance. Horns were hooting. People were hugging me. News was spreading like an out of control wild fire before a great wind.

As I walked out of the supermarket, I suddenly burst into tears. I broke down - laughing and crying at the same time.  All the pent up emotion of the moment, the years of trauma and fear, the sheer relief, released itself as I walked to my car. I was doubled over. My eyes were completely blinded by tears. They were running like rivers down my cheeks.

I tried to phone my wife, Laura. I couldn’t get her on the mobile because she was out walking the dogs near the King George VI barracks. She was in the bush of the botanical gardens. At the same sort of time, she later told me, in the semi gloom of the darkening dusk, she suddenly heard the voices of men raised in a chanting and harmonious song of exuberance that reverberated through the African bush. It was the soldiers singing. Deep African soldiers’ voices were celebrating in harmony. She realised that it was finally happening. All over the country everyone realised it was happening.

Zimbabwe was in a state of exuberance.  Mugabe was gone. After 37 years, the army, the people, the Senate, Parliament, the ruling ZANU PF party that he has presided over for half a century, even his personal guards, all completely disowned him, and he was finally gone. It is really so absolutely amazing that it almost defies belief.

I cannot describe the joy that this news brought to all Zimbabweans: the ruling party, the opposition, black, white, old, young, rich, poor … everyone’s hearts were bursting with happiness! That evening and far into the night we celebrated in the streets amongst tens of thousands of others who had spontaneously taken to them. Horns blared. People were dancing on the roof tops of cars and lorries and buildings - and even tanks! During one interview I did with Fergal Keene from the BBC out there, we found ourselves being mobbed and hugged. The next one was up on a balcony of the Meikles hotel overlooking the euphoria, with the sound of it pulsating through the African night.

On reflection, I cannot think of such a bloodless coup ever having taken place, where the constitution has been followed - almost painfully - and where a peaceful “people power” process, combined with a legal process, has been followed to impeach the President in the midst of the coup! I believe it is unique in history.

I see God’s hand in so many areas.

On Monday last week the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe held their AGM and for the very first time there was true repentance and unity within the church.

The Cindy Jacobs prophesy of 1998 talked about the church having “division” and about the "accuser’s" (being Satan’s) "discouragement.” Much of that was dispelled on Mondayat the church’s AGM. My very dear friends, Brian Oldreive and Craig Deall from Foundations for Farming messaged me at the end of the AGM to say something amazing had happened. They were so excited. If it had been anyone else I would have been sceptical. We knew that the heavens were moving.

The prophesy at the end of proclaimed that “the army will be used to stop war and bloodshed.” The next day, Tuesday, there was the coup. The country had been lining up for a show down between forces loyal to the Mugabe’s and forces loyal to Mnangagwa. 

I knew there was going to be a showdown.

That night I waited up, listening. I was sure we would soon hear gunfire from our position near State House and near the main King George V1 (KGVI) army barracks. Aftermidnight I heard lorries. I woke Laura up. “I can hear army lorries,” I said,“listen to the diff whine.The troops are moving in.”

I crept downstairs in the darkness of the early hours and gingerly got into the car to drive around. Neither at State House nor at the barracks were there any troop movements. I drove back. We all knew that something was going to stir. We were on the cusp of war. What could we do? 

I had been in Bulawayo when I got news of the church AGM where the heavens had been moved. Soon after I got the message, I heard the troops were finally moving. We were eating out at “The Cattleman” to celebrate the end of our sons’ exams - and the freedom that our elder son, Josh, had just attained by getting to the end of his entire school career. Francis, the owner kept coming to us for the updates that were pouring in on my phone. Troops were moving against Mugabe. Armoured personal carriers were being filmed on mobile phones moving in on Harare. Was this the beginning of freedom or was this going to be war?

I said to the boys, “We need to get to Harare to Mum and Anna. If the radio station is taken by the end of supper we will drive up immediately.”

By the end of supper there was nothing new. We decided to get a few hours’ sleep and drive up at 4 am. At 2.33 am I got a message from Stuart Gilmour near President Mugabe’s residence. He had just heard shots from there. I phoned him: “How many shots did you hear?"

“About 30,” he said. “It wasn’t wild shooting on automatic. They were single shots. Phooo ; phooo; phooo like that. Now it’s all gone quiet. ”

My mind raced. We got ourselves organised and got into the car and started driving. Was this going to be war? Which units of people with guns would back General Constantino Chiwenga, who supported Mnangagwa, and which would be with the Mugabes?

At the toll outside Bulawayo we were told of soldiers ahead. “They are being harsh,” the lady said. 

It was still dark when we heard the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) had been taken. We were tuned in and heard General Moyo give a statement. It was surprisingly reassuring.

I felt the need to pray out loud. As I was praying we came around a bend. Ahead were soldiers, lots of them. I slowed down. They were in full battle dress. All of them were heavily armed. I wound down the window and put my hand out smiling: “You are in control,” I said, “Well done!”

There were a number of cars being searched. The soldier shook my hand and smiled and after a quick look in the car waved us on. We kept counting as we crossed the Munyati river. There were different units with different berets.  We kept being stopped - but with my words of encouragement they kept waving us on. We counted over 200 soldiers at that block – but a lot of them were in the bush and there could have been many more.

At the next toll we heard that some of the soldiers had made other people kneel in the water of the river. We thanked God we had got through it safely.

There was another lot of soldiers making people disembark from buses and walk near the small town of Norton. I asked a woman why she was being made to walk. She was very nervous. She didn’t want to reply.

When we got to Harare we saw armoured personal carriers and more soldiers and were made to do a U-turn.

I was phoned and asked to go to the airport to pick up a Swedish TV journalist. He had heard of rumblings and was first on the scene. The airport had also been taken over by the army. I got through them after a cursory search. I asked a car park attendant when they had arrived. He was too afraid to tell me. "Ask them," he said.

We were tense going past the soldiers but they didn't search his bags. When we got to Parliament and passed armoured personnel carriers with big guns in the almost deserted streets, the Swedish journalist said, "This is my second one." 

"Second what," I asked as we went past another military vehicle.

"This is my second coup. The first was Burundi." I suddenly realized it was really happening. 

 Getting home safely was a great relief.

The Cindy Jacobs prophesy talked of “the river going to flow through Zimbabwe.” The next few days were nervous days. There was an almost total news blockout. Nobody knew what was happening. We were all unsure. The one huge relief for everyone was the dismantling of the hated police extortion road blocks. Would the army remain disciplined though? 

Media were arriving from all over the world. Some were turned back but others got through. We were all waiting to see what was going to happen. Rumours were flying. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) carried on its jingle music as though nothing had happened.

We then heard that the army had given its permission for a solidarity march. There was nothing official. ZBC remained quiet. But on Friday afternoon social media started to run. I put out a message on WhatsApp to my whole phone list to support it.

On Saturday morning we marched. Everyone came out. People who had never ever marched before took to the streets. Old people and little children and mothers with babies, black people and white, Christians and Moslems, business men and beggars, war veterans and farmers, ruling party people and opposition...

As we marched up 4th Street towards State House amongst all the hundreds of thousands of other marchers that day, there was an atmosphere of total joy. The lid of fear had come off. Everyone was smiling and laughing and there was for the first time in Zimbabwe’s entire history a feeling of total unity.

I said to my friend James: "This is like a river. We are the river. We are flowing bank to bank, slowly towards the sea. People are moving. The whole river of Zimbabwe is moving. This is a river!" I was mesmerized by that thought. I posted it on Facebook.

I was later sent the Cindy Jacobs prophesy of the river. I had forgotten about her talk of the river. I suddenly thought that that was the river. The river was flowing.

There was not a single policeman to control that river. A few soldiers blocked the entry into State House but there was no mood of violence amongst the crowd. Not a stone was thrown. Not a shop was looted. Not a car was smashed up. Not a tyre was burnt. At one point the crowd sat down in front of an armoured personnel carrier and the vehicle stopped. Not a drop of blood was spilt. And all of us had a joy that was beyond believing.  

Three days later Mugabe finally resigned.

One of my first messages, minutes later, was from Christina Lamb from the Sunday Times. She didn't say, "Congratulations!" She didn't ask for any news or try and give me any news at all. She just simply said, "You can go to that mountain now."

She was right. I had told the Andes Aconcagua team we were going to have to cancel two days before. But Christina was right. We could now go. We could go to try to celebrate on the highest point on earth outside the Himalayas. What better way to raise the flag - and the replica cross that we had put in Kilimanjaro two years ago?

So here I am in Chile! We are due to climb Mount Cerro el Plumo at 5,430 metres this week to acclimatize. Then we go to Argentina to attempt to climb Mount Aconcagua.

It's a fundraising climb. There is much work left to do. Step one has been amazing. But justice and the rule of law need a lot of work before we are out of the woods. There is so much to rebuild - and although step one has happened, we have still got a very long way to go.

It's all very like climbing mountains really. Step one leads to step 2 and then 3 and 4 until eventually after many, many more we get there. Some of those steps are old man, shuffling steps. But each tiny step gets us closer. Sometimes the cloud comes down and we don't know if we are going the right way. Then we take God’s hand, look at the compass and walk on in faith. Having the privilege of taking these steps, both here in the Andes and also back in Zimbabwe, with an amazing family and amazing friends is so very, very special. 

Back in Zimbabwe our open-pollinated maize crop is germinating well; over 4,000 families have seed which has been distributed to the poorest of the poor to grow food for zero dollars; training is ongoing; the legal cases continue - and justice will "flow like a river" too, as we persevere on that road, straining forward, looking ahead, not being daunted, forever persevering.

Keep praying! Now is the time where Zimbabwe needs so much prayer. Thank you for all your support and prayers! They are bearing fruit! As I said at the end of a number of over 40 interviews I have given for TV, radio, and other media in recent weeks: "It's God, God, God all the way!"

Ben Freeth is Executive Director of the Mike Campbell Foundation.