It had all been going so smoothly. With the President under house arrest, his allies scattered and the army in full control, the military's "exit pursued by a crocodile" strategy to end the long Robert Mugabe era had barely encountered a hitch.

But in his blue-roofed mansion, Mugabe was proving stubborn. South African mediators left empty-handed.

Not even his most trusted confidant, Father Fidelis Mukonori, could get the old man to realise that his time was up. Then, on Saturday, came the most surreal moment of a surreal week.

Clad in tasselled cap and gown, Mugabe doddered into a university hall to dole out graduation certificates to students with as much insouciance as a 93-year-old man could muster.

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Weary Zimbabweans, united as never before in wanting to see their leader of 37 years gone, seemed stunned.

Was "The Crocodile", as they call Emmerson Mnangagwa, losing the initiative to a wily despot who had so deftly and so ruthlessly outfoxed pretenders in the past? The answer, according to officials close to the generals leading the coup, is no.

His ruling Zanu-PF party has turned against him, ready to begin the process of formally removing him from power. It reportedly was meeting to dismiss Mugabe and reinstate Mnangagwa last night. The public has shown its support.

At the weekend hundreds of thousands of people, in scenes reminiscent of the downfall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, flooded the streets singing, dancing and hugging soldiers in an outpouring of elation at Mugabe's demise, while others marched towards his residence.

Mnangagwa, seen as the mastermind behind the takeover, had always known that persuading the President to accept the inevitable would always be the most difficult bit.

"He certainly will not do it easily, but I think the people will show him he's no longer wanted," said Dumiso Dabengwa, a former member of the party's politburo. After all, Mugabe had always said he would remain in power "until God says come, join the other angels".

 A protester, right, carries a sign referring to Mugabe's unpopular wife, Grace. Photo / AP
A protester, right, carries a sign referring to Mugabe's unpopular wife, Grace. Photo / AP

But Mnangagwa, who is every bit as ruthless as the man who mentored him for four decades, has always prided himself on his patience and cunning. Zimbabweans believe he is known as "The Crocodile" for his ruthlessness.

Mnangagwa offers a different explanation for his moniker: "It strikes at the appropriate time."

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Mnangagwa and his military allies had been planning their coup for at least a year, according to leaked documents. They were simply waiting to be given the opportunity to strike.

That came a fortnight ago, when the President dismissed Mnangagwa as his deputy and launched a purge of his allies from senior positions. It appears that the President had provided The Crocodile with the opportunity to strike.

For although many had viewed him as the President's most likely heir, Mnangagwa had known for some time that Zimbabwe's lovestruck leader intended to choose his wife Grace - 41 years his junior - as his successor.

Protesters march to demand the departure of President Robert Mugabe, one of Africa's last remaining liberation leaders. Photo / AP
Protesters march to demand the departure of President Robert Mugabe, one of Africa's last remaining liberation leaders. Photo / AP

In preparation, Mnangagwa, 75, had for years cultivated allies inside and outside Zimbabwe. Within the country he sought support from powerful factions within Zanu-PF, resentful of both Grace Mugabe and her "G40" faction of younger politicians.

Key among these was the army and its commander, Constantino Chiwenga. He also persuaded China and the West that, despite his bloodstained past as Mugabe's enforcer-in-chief, he represented the most pragmatic option to rescue Zimbabwe from its economic turmoil.

Two days after his dismissal, Mnangagwa slipped into South Africa to marshal his forces. General Chiwenga travelled to China on a "routine visit" where he is understood to have received Beijing's tacit approval to remove Mugabe, provided it could be done with a veneer of legality.

Last week, 24 hours after Chiwenga's demands for Mnangagwa's restoration went unheeded, armoured troop carriers rolled into the streets of Harare - ignored by the President, who blithely continued to lead a cabinet meeting.

The coup was swiftly executed. With a few bursts of artillery and rifle fire, the army captured the barracks of the Presidential Guard and seized the police armoury at the Chikurubi prison complex, thus neutralising two elements potentially loyal to Mugabe.

A crowd of thousands of protesters demanding President Robert Mugabe stand down gather in front of an army cordon on the road leading to State House in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo / AP
A crowd of thousands of protesters demanding President Robert Mugabe stand down gather in front of an army cordon on the road leading to State House in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo / AP

They then advanced on the President's residence, taking its occupants prisoner and confining them to the house. Nothing has been heard of Grace Mugabe since, although she is likely to be in custody at the first family's home.

With her faction ruthlessly suppressed, the generals now had only one thing left to confront: the President's bloody-mindedness.

While ordinary Zimbabweans want Mugabe gone, the military's intervention could swiftly lose support, and prompt condemnation from South Africa and the African Union, were the President's departure managed in an undignified way.

The transition plan is in place. Mnangagwa, it is understood, wants to be made interim president of a transitional unity government and appears to have won support from the democratic opposition. but first, Mugabe must surrender his leadership of Zanu-PF and be persuaded to resign.

However fretful Zimbabweans may be, it seems likely that Mugabe's graduation appearance was more a Dali-esque coda to his rule than the beginning of a startling comeback.

- Telegraph Group Ltd, Reuters