HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's incoming leader Emmerson Mnangagwa made a triumphant return Wednesday, telling cheering supporters that the country is witnessing "a new and unfolding democracy."
"I appeal to all genuine people of Zimbabwe to come together," Mnangagwa said. "We are all Zimbabweans ... we need peace in our country and jobs, jobs, jobs."
That was received enthusiastically by the crowd at the headquarters of the ruling ZANU-PF party, as Zimbabwe's economic crisis helped bring the downfall of Robert Mugabe, who resigned Tuesday after 37 years in power.
Mnangagwa said he had been in constant contact with military leaders during the tumultuous two weeks between his firing by Mugabe and his return to lead Zimbabwe. He will be sworn in Friday to serve Mugabe's remaining term until elections next year.
He praised the military and commander Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, "who have been able to manage this process very peacefully."
Speaking with his wife, Auxilia, by his side, Mnangagwa was flanked by two rows of security agents, who appeared alert to any possible security threat.
After emerging from hiding in neighboring South Africa, Mnangagwa met with its President Jacob Zuma and flew to Zimbabwe in a private jet.
The 75-year-old Mnangagwa fled Zimbabwe after Mugabe fired him, leading the military to move in and kick off a series of extraordinary events ending in Mugabe stepping down amid impeachment proceedings.
The jubilant crowd in the capital, Harare, celebrated his first public remarks. Some carried signs with his image, suggesting a organization behind the festive turnout. Signs read "Our Hero, Our Hope" and "Welcome back, Our Hero."
One man hoping to see Mnangagwa, Godwin Nyarugwa, said he was "very ecstatic" and that "we need change in this country, change in everything" after years of economic crisis. Nyarugwa said he had several university degrees but no job, a common theme among Zimbabwe's well-educated population.
"We have to try him and see," he said of Mnangagwa. "If he doesn't come up with something, we need to change him as well."
Zimbabweans were still reeling from Mugabe's resignation. They cheered and danced in the streets of Harare late into Tuesday night, thrilled to be rid of a leader whose early promise after the end of white minority rule in 1980 was overtaken by economic collapse, government dysfunction and human rights violations.
Now the focus turns to Mnangagwa, Mugabe's longtime deputy who was pushed aside as unpopular first lady Grace Mugabe positioned herself to replace him and succeed her husband.
That led the military to step in a week ago, opening the door for the ruling party and the people to publicly turn against the president.
It was not clear what the 93-year-old Robert Mugabe and his wife would do next. Mugabe, who was the world's oldest head of state, said in his resignation letter that legal procedures should be followed to install a new president "no later than tomorrow."
Zimbabweans woke up to the first day in 37 years without Mugabe in power. With some nursing hangovers, they looked over newspaper headlines such as "Adios Bob and Ta-ta President."
"I think this change of government is like a new breath of fresh air right across the country," said Patrick Musira on the streets of the capital. "Everyone was engulfed with excitement and they are looking for a better future, a brighter future with work."
Zimbabwe's new leaders are faced with a once-prosperous nation whose economy has collapsed, sending frustrated young people into desperate work as street vendors. Many have left the country altogether.
Mnangagwa is a former justice and defense minister who served for decades as Mugabe's enforcer, a role that earned him the nickname "Crocodile." Many opposition supporters believe he was instrumental in the army killings of thousands of people when Mugabe moved against a political rival in the 1980s.
So far in the current political turmoil Mnangagwa has used inclusive language, saying that all Zimbabweans should work together to advance their nation.
"Never should the nation be held at ransom by one person ever again, whose desire is to die in office at whatever cost to the nation," Mnangagwa said.
In a commentary, the state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper stressed the importance of presidential term limits, saying Mnangagwa "has the best wishes of most Zimbabweans, at least today."
Human rights activists warned that it will take more than replacing Mugabe to change Zimbabwe's fortunes.
"Mugabe the infrastructure, Mugabe the culture, Mugabe the ideology, Mugabe the system — what I prefer to call Mugabism — is still there. And we need to continue fighting," Maureen Kademauga told reporters in Johannesburg.
The activists called for free and fair elections to determine Zimbabwe's future. "The military works on orders," Dewa Mavhinga of Human Rights Watch said. "I believe they were given a command to be nice, to smile, for a while but we should not make the mistake of believing that overnight this was a revolution and everything is over."