Now playing
02:24
Mediator: Mugabe was moved by protests
emmerson mnangagwa robert mugabe zimbabwe pkg curnow cnni_00003505.jpg
AFP/Getty Images
emmerson mnangagwa robert mugabe zimbabwe pkg curnow cnni_00003505.jpg
Now playing
02:14
ZImbabwe's Mnangagwa secures election victory
CNN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/GETTY IMAGES
Now playing
02:53
Zimbabweans vote in first Mugabe-free election
Now playing
05:49
A taste of Zimbabwe's economic future
Now playing
07:03
Zimbabwe's biggest modern dance hall star
The Herald
Now playing
01:38
Explosion at presidential rally in Zimbabwe
Getty Images
Now playing
01:26
Zimbabwe's Mnangagwa sworn in as President
emmerson mnangagwa robert mugabe zimbabwe pkg curnow cnni_00003505.jpg
AFP/Getty Images
emmerson mnangagwa robert mugabe zimbabwe pkg curnow cnni_00003505.jpg
Now playing
01:25
Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?
Protesters calling for the impeachment of President Robert Mugabe demonstrate outside the parliament building in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Ben Curtis/AP
Protesters calling for the impeachment of President Robert Mugabe demonstrate outside the parliament building in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Now playing
01:51
Celebration on Harare streets as Mugabe resigns
epa06342344 People celebrate outside parliament after hearing the news that President Robert Mugabe resigned in Harare, Zimbabwe, 21 November 2017. Zimbabwe's parliamentary speaker on 21 November said Mugabe has resigned as President via a letter to parliament after having been president of Zimbabwe for 37 years. This comes days after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital to call for President Mugabe to step down.  EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK
KIM LUDBROOK/EPA-EFE
epa06342344 People celebrate outside parliament after hearing the news that President Robert Mugabe resigned in Harare, Zimbabwe, 21 November 2017. Zimbabwe's parliamentary speaker on 21 November said Mugabe has resigned as President via a letter to parliament after having been president of Zimbabwe for 37 years. This comes days after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital to call for President Mugabe to step down. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK
Now playing
00:49
Zimbabweans: Resignation is the work of God
Zimbabweans gather to pray for the country in a park opposite the parliament building in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe should acknowledge the nation's "insatiable desire" for a leadership change and resign immediately, the recently fired vice president and likely successor to the 93-year-old leader said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Ben Curtis/AP
Zimbabweans gather to pray for the country in a park opposite the parliament building in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe should acknowledge the nation's "insatiable desire" for a leadership change and resign immediately, the recently fired vice president and likely successor to the 93-year-old leader said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Now playing
02:11
Unrest grows outside Zimbabwe parliament
HARARE, ZIMBABWE:  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe clenches his fist to salute Zanu PF comrades in Harare, 03 May 2000. Mugabe launched his ruling party election manifesto today ahead the upcoming elections. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO  ODD ANDERSEN. (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
HARARE, ZIMBABWE: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe clenches his fist to salute Zanu PF comrades in Harare, 03 May 2000. Mugabe launched his ruling party election manifesto today ahead the upcoming elections. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO ODD ANDERSEN. (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:58
Robert Mugabe: What you need to know
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during the Zimbabwe ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) youth interface Rally on November 4, 2017 in Bulawayo. / AFP PHOTO / ZINYANGE AUNTONY        (Photo credit should read ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images)
ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during the Zimbabwe ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) youth interface Rally on November 4, 2017 in Bulawayo. / AFP PHOTO / ZINYANGE AUNTONY (Photo credit should read ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:20
Source: Mugabe agrees to resignation
Monitoring for coverage of coup.
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation
Monitoring for coverage of coup.
Now playing
01:16
Zimbabwe's Mugabe refuses to resign
A man holding a flag of Zimbabwe takes part in a demonstration of University of Zimbabwe's students, on November 20, 2017 in Harare, to demand the withdrawal of Grace Mugabe's doctorate and refused to sit their exams as pressure builds on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to resign.
Zimbabwe's President faced the threat of impeachment by his own party on November 20, 2017, after his shock insistence he still holds power in Zimbabwe despite a military takeover and a noon deadline to end his 37-year autocratic rule.
 / AFP PHOTO / -        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images
A man holding a flag of Zimbabwe takes part in a demonstration of University of Zimbabwe's students, on November 20, 2017 in Harare, to demand the withdrawal of Grace Mugabe's doctorate and refused to sit their exams as pressure builds on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to resign. Zimbabwe's President faced the threat of impeachment by his own party on November 20, 2017, after his shock insistence he still holds power in Zimbabwe despite a military takeover and a noon deadline to end his 37-year autocratic rule. / AFP PHOTO / - (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:17
Mugabe's prolonged exit fraying nerves
FILE - In this April 7,  2016 file photo Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends a meeting with the country's war veterans in Harare.  Mugabe seemed almost untouchable for much of his nearly four-decade rule. Shrewd and ruthless, he managed to stay in power despite advancing age, growing opposition, international sanctions and the dissolving economy of a once-prosperous African nation. Now, the apparent abrupt end of the Mugabe era is launching Zimbabwe into the unknown. It's a humbling close to the career of a man who crushed dissent or sidelined opponents after leading Zimbabwe since 1980. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
FILE - In this April 7, 2016 file photo Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends a meeting with the country's war veterans in Harare. Mugabe seemed almost untouchable for much of his nearly four-decade rule. Shrewd and ruthless, he managed to stay in power despite advancing age, growing opposition, international sanctions and the dissolving economy of a once-prosperous African nation. Now, the apparent abrupt end of the Mugabe era is launching Zimbabwe into the unknown. It's a humbling close to the career of a man who crushed dissent or sidelined opponents after leading Zimbabwe since 1980. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
Now playing
01:11
Zimbabwe's ruling party fires Mugabe

Story highlights

Robert Mugabe had been president 37 years

He resigned after being placed under house arrest

(CNN) —  

As a young priest, the Rev. Fidelis Mukonori collected evidence of atrocities during Zimbabwe’s brutal civil war. The reports filtered to Robert Mugabe, then a leading figure in the liberation struggles.

Decades later, Mukonori helped persuade Mugabe to relinquish power.

In his first interview since Zimbabwe’s apparent coup and peaceful transfer of power, Mukonori described hours of debate and discussion at the presidential residence, State House, and Mugabe’s personal residence.

Mukonori met daily with Mugabe, who is 93 years old and had been the nation’s leader for almost four decades.

The Rev. Fidelis Mukonori
Centre for Peace Initiatives in Africa
The Rev. Fidelis Mukonori

He became lead negotiator because both Mugabe and the military trusted him. The 70-year-old Jesuit priest from Zimbabwe said he’s mediated between bitter political rivals in the past.

“I’m a tough nut to crack,” he said. “I’ve done this before.”

Mukonori said his strategy was never to argue with Mugabe, but rather to listen and convince Mugabe he could exit the political stage with nobility.

Zimbabwe’s society struggled under Mugabe’s rule

“He is a debater, he is a thinker, he argues intelligently, he can philosophize,” Mukonori said. “It was a question of making President Mugabe see what was happening in the country economically and politically at that time and what was at stake with regard to issues pertaining to the soldiers moving in.”

Mugabe was under house arrest by the military when he resigned Tuesday. Troops were reportedly stationed at Zimbabwe’s Parliament and the presidential palace.

“The fact that the soldiers had taken that step – Mugabe didn’t disagree that there were issues but he wondered why it had to be done that way,” Mukonori said.

Since the military had insisted that this wasn’t a coup, but rather a way to settle a factional battle within the ruling ZANU-PF, they had to either get Mugabe to resign or face a protracted impeachment battle in Parliament to give the power transfer a constitutional flavor.

As the days dragged on, pressure mounted on Mukonori and the generals to make something happen.

Mukonori said he repeatedly assured Mugabe of his contribution to Zimbabwe as a liberation hero and father of the nation. Though vilified by much of the world, Mugabe is still revered by the military and ruling party leadership.

“The generals always treated him with respect during the discussions, they even saluted him,” Mukonori said. “He knew he would love to leave with dignity.”

Despite this, Mugabe seemed determined to hang on – even for a few more weeks.

A deal was reached, but after 37 years in power, Mugabe still wanted to systematically transfer power to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice-president who was waiting in the wings in exile and was constantly in contact with the generals.

When Mugabe addressed the nation on state television last Sunday evening, almost everyone expected him to resign. But flanked by his generals, Mugabe rambled through a lengthy speech. There was no resignation.

The process required a lot of patience, Mukonori said.

“Listening of a 93-year-old is not the same as listening of a 23-year-old or a 17-year-old,” he said.

In the end, the cries of demonstrating Zimbabweans persuaded him to go, Mukonori said.

When tens of thousands streamed into the streets of Harare to demand Mugabe step down, the priest seized the moment to make a breakthrough.

“It moved him,” Mukonori said. “It moved him in this sense that he realized that they are speaking to say this is enough.”

When Mugabe resigned, there was unbridled joy as Zimbabweans both here and abroad celebrated the end of his rule.

Mukonori said the ex-president was invited to the swearing in of Mnangagwa but declined, given the “charged” environment.

He said he still speaks to Mugabe almost every day. He said the former president has offered to give advice to the new president, despite most Zimbabweans wishing for a clean break.

“He has not vanished from life, he is not dead,” Mukonori said. “But he has vanished from the limelight. His brains are still very sharp and working.”