Zimbabwe's former President Robert Mugabe knew it was "the end of the road" days before he quit, and appeared relieved when he signed his resignation letter after 37 years in power, a Catholic priest who mediated his ouster said Sunday. Fidelis Mukonori, who has known Mugabe for decades, told the AP that Mugabe, under immense pressure, wanted a gradual and "smooth" transition to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president he fired and who is now Zimbabwe's new leader. Mugabe had to resort to "Plan B"—an immediate resignation—after Mnangagwa did not return from exile at Mugabe's request. The interview revealed some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the final, frantic days of Mugabe's rule, which began with promise after the end of white minority rule in 1980 and unraveled under pressure from economic decline, government dysfunction, and restrictions on freedoms.
Events moved quickly after the military deployed troops in Harare on Nov. 14. The 93-year-old leader resigned a week later, and Mnangagwa was inaugurated on Friday in a joyous ceremony attended by tens of thousands of people yearning for change. While Mugabe had realized several days before his resignation that he couldn't stay on as president, he clung to the idea that he could remain in his post at least until a ruling party congress next month to ensure a "smooth handover," Mukonori said. In a televised address on Nov. 19, Mugabe shocked many Zimbabweans who had expected him to announce his resignation by instead saying that he would preside over that congress, even though the ruling ZANU-PF party had fired him as party leader just hours before. "I sympathize with the people in the street. They didn't know what was happening," Mukonori said. "The man had already realized that this is the end of the road."