The body of Zimbabwe’s ex-president, Robert Mugabe, arrived home on Wednesday to an honour guard in a country divided over the legacy of a former liberation hero whose 37-year rule was marked by repression and economic ruin.
Mugabe, a guerrilla leader who rose to power after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain and governed until he was ousted by the military in 2017, died on Friday in Singapore, aged 95.
His health deteriorated after he was toppled by former loyalists in November 2017, ending an increasingly iron-fisted rule that left the country mired in financial crisis.
Always divisive, Mugabe’s final resting place is still in dispute, with his family and President Emmerson Mnangagwa apparently split over where the former leader’s body will be buried on Sunday.
Around two thousand supporters, family members and government officials were on the tarmac at Harare airport to welcome Mugabe’s remains as they arrived from Singapore.
Soldiers stood guard along a red carpet as military officers walked solemnly alongside the coffin drapped in the green, gold, black and red national flag.
Mugabe’s wife, Grace, wearing a black veil, sat with Mnangagwa as a military band played a gospel song.
“The light which led to independence is no more, but his works, his ideology will continue to guide this nation,” Mnangagwa said.
Mugabe died on a medical trip to Singapore, where he had been travelling regularly for treatment. A delegation including a vice president headed flew to Singapore to bring him home.
The body was later taken to Mugabe’s Harare villa, known as the Blue Roof for its blue pagoda-style structure, where family and supporters gathered to mourn.
“He was the father to all of us, so I came to pay my last respects,” said Francis Matongwa, 16, who came with his mother.
Mugabe’s body will be laid out for the public in Rufaro stadium on Thursday, before heading to his homestead Zvimba for a wake.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, former Cuban leader Raul Castro and a dozen African presidents, including South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, are among those expected to attend Mugabe’s state funeral on Saturday in Harare, Zimbabwe’s presidency said.
Even after his body arrived home, though, Mugabe’s final burial place was still far from clear.
His relatives and Mnangagwa’s government are apparently at odds over whether it would be at his family home in Zvimba, northwest of Harare, or at a shrine for liberation heroes in the capital.
Some family members are still bitter over his ouster, and the role his former ally Mnangagwa played. Mugabe fired Mnangagwa in 2017, in what many believed was an attempt to position his wife Grace to succeed him.
Zimbabweans took to the streets in protest and the army finally forced Mugabe to resign.
“If they really felt that Grace had overstepped the boundaries, they should have dealt with the issue with respect,” his aunt Josephine Jaricha told AFP. “They stabbed him in the back. Robert is at peace now.”
Relatives have said that in line with native Shona customs, traditional chiefs from Zvimba will have a final say on where the former leader will be buried.
“If it has been decided by the chiefs, they have not told me,” the ex-president’s nephew Leo Mugabe told AFP. “The family and the chiefs will make the decisions.”
From hero to tyrant
At home, Zimbabweans have been divided over how to mourn a man once hailed for ridding the former British colony Rhodesia of white-minority rule but who later purged his foes in a campaign of massacres and executions known as the Gukurahundi.
His increasingly tyrannical leadership and economic mismanagement prompted millions to flee a country crippled by hyper-inflation and shortages of food, drugs and fuel.
Following his death, Mnangagwa announced Mugabe had been declared a “national hero”, flags flew at half mast across Harare and news of his passing was splashed across newspaper front pages.
Yet Harare residents at the time appeared largely unconcerned, with shops remaining open and people going about their daily errands.
On Thursday and Friday the body will lie in state at Rufaro Stadium in Mbare township in Harare for the public to pay their final respects. Officials plan to bus people in from the provinces to attend.
The 35,000-seat stadium is where Mugabe took his oath of office at a colourful ceremony when colonial Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith handed over the reins of the country.
There Mugabe hoisted the new Zimbabwe flag and lit the independence flame on April 18, 1980 — bringing hope for a new era after a long guerrilla war.
The official funeral will take place on Saturday, at the giant 60,000-seat National Sports Stadium in Harare.