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« Mugabe's departure? A surprising event, highly flexible coverage »

Did you foresee the resignation of Robert Mugabe, in power in Zimbabwe for 37 years?

For many people, Robert Mugabe was president for life. It was unthinkable that the old independence hero-turned dictator would not die in office. Our Johannesburg bureau had planed accordingly. At 93, he was an old man in frail health. It was certainly a surprise, which meant we needed highly flexible coverage. Even more so given how hard it is for the media to operate in Zimbabwe.

How did AFP get organised to cover this event?

The situation was confused for a long time. Mugabe had sacked his vice-president and there were rumblings in the ruling party and the army. The Johannesburg bureau was watching the situation like a hawk. On November 14, we got information that armoured vehicles were moving towards the capital. We checked them and sent out our journalist Susan Njanji, who is Zimbabwean. She got in without difficulty and was able to see how the land lay. On the second day, as tanks were controlling access to parliament, we sent a South African video journalist, who entered the country without a visa.

So you were able to send journalists in bit-by-bit?

Given that Mugabe had been placed under special watch, we realised that we needed more reinforcements. A Kenyan photographer, video reporter and technician were sent from Nairobi and got in without difficulty. However, two photo and video journalists from Johannesburg, who hold European passports, were turned back. We therefore decided to get a photographer and video reporter in via Victoria Falls. The Johannesburg deputy bureau chief was later able to get to Harare to coordinate the team.

Did we have enough staff for such an event?

Right at the beginning, we worked with our two usual correspondents, two local photographers and a VJ -- also Zimbabwean -- and the initial reinforcements. This team might have been enough for ordinary coverage but, given the magnitude of the events, we decided to deploy a bigger team. At the height of the crisis, we had six VJs including our Zimbabwean stringers, which proved very useful.

November 16, 2017 – Front page of the Times © AFP

November 21 and 22, 2017 – The BBC and CNN took AFP's live coverage from the Zimbabwean capital when Mugabe resigned.

Did you manage to produce any live coverage during this crazy time?

We managed to get an Aviwest box in. The difficulty in getting a 3G network played a few tricks on us but we were able to cover the main events live, in particular the announcement of Mugabe's resignation by the head of the parliament and the return of the vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa. Before that, we covered live the day of protests calling for the dictator to leave. Throughout the whole week, we had very good pick-ups.

Was it difficult to coordinate the different teams?

For photo, our network of stringers drawn up by Marco Longari, African photo coordinator, was priceless. As it was the main story, many of them hurried to Zimbabwe themselves. In text, once the lives were up and running, Johannesburg got into the game and could take material from the live broadcasts to feed into the stories. The alert on the resignation was done by the bureau from the live feed. This also enabled us to do more scene pieces.

Was it emotional for the Zimbabwean staff?

It was a big moment for them. Susan Njanji told the story in the Correspondent blog. She had decided to leave Zimbabwe in 2006 after measures came into force targeting journalists. At the time she was working for the AFP bureau in Harare. Even if she had returned for brief periods, she was very moved to be in her own country to see Mugabe leave.

Stéphane Orjollet

Stéphane Orjollet

Editor-in-Chief for Africa