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Senior officials of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF have voted to expel Robert Mugabe as head of the ruling party in what could be a fatal blow to his hopes of clinging on as president days after the army took control.

As members of the party’s Central Committee convened at Zanu-PF headquarters in Harare on Sunday, Chris Mutsvangwa, who heads the country’s war veterans association, said the army must persuade Mr Mugabe to leave by midday. “If not, we will take over,” he said. “We will bring back the crowd and they will do the business.”

After the vote, Zanu-PF members erupted into ecstatic dancing to celebrate their historic decision to recall Mr Mugabe as party president.

The party is also expected to reinstate Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president whose sacking two weeks ago triggered the crisis. That could clear the way for Mr Mnangagwa, who has been closely associated with Mr Mugabe since Zimbabwe’s liberation war, to become acting Zanu-PF head and the country’s leader.

However, unless Mr Mugabe resigns or is impeached from the national presidency, constitutionally he will continue to be president of the nation.

Before the business of the day began, at which point journalists were expelled from the hall, Obert Mpofu, the party’s deputy commissar, said that Mr Mugabe had provided “solid leadership and left behind a lifetime of achievements.” But in the past five years, he said, he had come under the influence of his wife, Grace, and those around her. They had “usurped power” and were “looting national resources”.

Simbi Mubako, who was a member of Mr Mugabe’s first cabinet and who knows the president well, said it was a sad day for Zimbabwe, but that it was necessary. “At one time he was probably the brightest head of state in the world,” he said. “But at his age, those skills are fading [and] the wife was running things.”

Mr Mubako said Mr Mnangagwa, whom he taught in the 1970s when he was in exile in Zambia, was “a very determined man, very strong-willed.” Mr Mnangagwa, he said, was best placed to take over as head of Zanu-PF and as president of Zimbabwe. “He’s got the most distinguished record of service to the party and the struggle.”

Mr Mugabe’s expulsion from Zanu-PF, following a vote by all 10 provincial branches of the party, comes after tens of thousands of jubilant Zimbabweans poured on to the streets of Harare on Saturday to demand his exit and to celebrate what they expected to be the final hours of his near 40-year rule.

Newspaper posters in Harare, where senior members of Zanu-PF are meeting on Sunday to discuss Robert Mugabe’s expected expulsion as party leader © EPA

Though most people now see the writing on the wall for Mr Mugabe, people close to him are still holding on to the possibility that he can cling on as president.

“This drama is still between the president and the soldiers,” said George Charamba, Mr Mugabe’s longtime spokesman, who said he had been with the president 20 minutes before he spoke to the Financial Times on Saturday evening.

Zanu-PF’s determination to expel Mr Mugabe and even the popular mood against the president were “derivative” actions, he said.

Mr Mugabe would meet General Constantino Chiwenga, commander of the defence forces on Sunday to discuss the armed forces’ demands, he added. Whether Mr Mugabe would yield to the situation or dig in his heels “is entirely his decision and he has not given a hint as to what he intends to do,” he said.

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