HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe's new President Emmerson Mnangagwa vowed Friday he will work to reduce crushing unemployment and return the country to prosperity after years of decline, as the nation cheered a new beginning after the extraordinary exit of Robert Mugabe.
"Our economic policy will be directed for job, job, job creation," Mnangagwa told the crowd of 60,000 witnessing his inauguration at a stadium in the capital, Harare. Zimbabwe's unemployment rate is estimated to be 80 percent.
"We must work together. You, me, all of us who make up this nation," Mnangagwa said, urging the millions of frustrated Zimbabweans who have left the country to return.
Mnangagwa, fired earlier this month as vice president, takes power after the whirlwind events that ousted the 93-year-old Mugabe, who had been the world's oldest head of state. Mugabe succumbed to pressure to quit from the military, the ruling party and massive demonstrations amid fears his unpopular wife would succeed him.
The new president's speech struck notes of inclusion and reconciliation after years of growing despair over Mugabe's 37-year rule.
"We should never remain hostages of our past," the longtime Mugabe ally said, urging the nation to let bygones be bygones. "We ask those who have punished us in the past to reconsider."
Mnangagwa said farmers would be compensated for the often forceful land seizures that drew international condemnation and sanctions and contributed to the country's economic slide. But the program that saw land taken from white farmers and given to black Zimbabweans will not be reversed, he said.
The new president also sought to reassure the international community and attract badly sought investment.
"All foreign investment will be safe in Zimbabwe," Mnangagwa said, addressing fears following Mugabe's moves to nationalize lucrative resources such as diamonds, platinum and gold.
Mnangagwa also pledged that "democratic" elections will be held next year as planned, and promised to change the "poisonous, rancorous and polarized" political climate.
And yet he opened his speech by praising Mugabe, who is regarded well by many in Africa for his role in ending white-minority ruled Rhodesia and taking power in 1980. Mugabe should be "lauded and celebrated," Mnangagwa said, to tepid applause.
A smiling Mnangagwa greeted the crowd with a raised fist. The military, fresh from putting Mugabe under house arrest just days ago, quickly swore its loyalty to the new leader.
The swearing-in ceremony was attended by a few regional leaders including the presidents of Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia. The crowd was entertained by Zimbabwean pop star Jah Prayzah, whose song "Kutonga Kwaro," which means "The Way He Rules" in the Shona language, has become a theme song for the new presidency.
Mnangagwa, a former justice and defense minister, was a key Mugabe confidante for decades until the two fell out over the presidential ambitions of Mugabe's wife, Grace.
Mugabe, one of Africa's last remaining liberation leaders, quit Tuesday as impeachment proceedings began. In the end, he was isolated and exhausted, showing few of the political skills that made him a prominent but polarizing figure on the world stage.
Mugabe did not attend the swearing-in, and ruling party officials have said he will remain in Zimbabwe with their promise that his legacy as a "hero" will stand.
Mnangagwa assured Mugabe and his family of their "maximum security," the state-run Herald newspaper reported, adding that the two agreed Mugabe would not attend Friday because he "needed time to rest."
Ahead of the inauguration, people danced in the stadium stands. Banners read "Dawn of a new era" and "No to retribution," even as human rights activists reported worrying details of attacks on close allies of the former first lady and their families. Mnangagwa has warned against "vengeful retribution."
Elsewhere in the capital, long lines formed outside banks, a common sight in a nation struggling with severe cash shortages.
"Attending the inauguration will not bring food for my family," said Kelvin Fungai, a 19-year-old selling bananas from a cart. Many young people are well-educated but jobless, reduced to street vending to survive.Comment on this story
Elsewhere, there were signs of hope. Black market rates for cash have tumbled since Mugabe left office. Before he stepped down, one had to deposit $170 into a black market dealer's bank account to get $100 cash. On Friday, $100 cash was selling for between $140 and $150.
As the inauguration crowds streamed by, Sharon Samuriwo sat on a ledge, watching. She said she hoped Mnangagwa would learn from the errors of his predecessor, and acknowledged that Zimbabwe's future is unknown.
Still, she said, "after 37 years, we've got someone different."
Associated Press writer Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg contributed.