HARARE (Reuters) - The family of Zimbabwe founder Robert Mugabe is pushing back against the government’s plan to bury him at the National Heroes Acre monument in Harare and wants him to be buried in his home village instead, three relatives told Reuters.
Zimbabweans have been confused about when and where they would get to pay their last respects to Mugabe since his death in a Singapore hospital on Friday after a long illness.
Mugabe had dominated Zimbabwean politics for almost four decades from independence in 1980 until he was removed by his own army in a November 2017 coup.
Revered by many as a liberator who freed his people from white minority rule, Mugabe was vilified by others for wrecking one of Africa’s most promising economies and ruthlessly crushing his opponents.
The Zimbabwean government said in a memo sent to embassies on Sunday that it planned to hold a state funeral for Mugabe in the National Sports Stadium on Saturday, with a burial ceremony on Sunday, but it did not say where the burial would be held.
The choice of Mugabe’s resting place has been a topic of discussion since the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported last month that Mugabe would snub the offer of a burial at National Heroes Acre - a site reserved for the country’s heroes - because he felt bitter about the way he was removed from power.
If Mugabe is buried in Kutama village, 85 km (52 miles) from Harare, it would be a major rebuke of his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the ruling ZANU-PF party that Mugabe helped to found.
A Mugabe relative who is helping with funeral arrangements told Reuters that the family had compromised by agreeing to have a state funeral led by the government on Saturday but is insisting that Mugabe would be buried at Kutama, his place of birth. The relative, speaking from Singapore, asked not to be named.
Two other relatives in Zimbabwe also said the family had agreed that Mugabe, affectionately known as “Mudhara” (Old man in the Shona language) by his supporters, would be buried at Kutama.
“The family has made a decision that Mudhara will be buried at Kutama - that is the position - but the government is still engaging the family to try to have him buried at (National) Heroes Acre,” the relative in Singapore told Reuters.
“What is clear is that there is no agreement on the place of burial. Even the government statement does not address that issue. It is not settled.”
The memo sent by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to embassies in Harare said heads of state would be expected to leave the stadium immediately after the funeral ceremony because officials would be busy with preparations for the burial.
Mnangagwa’s spokesman George Charamba, in comments to The Sunday Mail newspaper, denied that the government and Mugabe’s family were at loggerheads over where the former president should be buried.
He said the provisional plan was for the burial to be at National Heroes Acre.
The Sunday Mail said Mugabe’s body was expected back from Singapore on Wednesday afternoon and that Mnangagwa, members of Mugabe’s family and traditional chiefs from Mugabe’s Zvimba district would receive the body at Harare’s Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.
Leo Mugabe, the former president’s nephew, told Reuters on Sunday that Mugabe’s family and traditional chiefs had finalised their preferred program for his burial but it had yet to be approved by the government.
He was not available for comment after Reuters saw the government memo or after it spoke to the three other Mugabe relatives.
At the packed Sacred Heart Cathedral in Harare, where Mugabe used to attend Catholic Mass with his first wife Sally and second wife Grace, people prayed on Sunday morning for their departed former leader.
“We are praying for our relatives who have died. Without forgetting to pray for our former president, Comrade Robert Mugabe. ... We are asking God if there is anything that he did wrong in his life that he be forgiven,” the priest told the congregation.
Chris Sambo, a former soccer administrator who used to arrange matches for Mugabe in Kutama, said the southern African country’s Catholic community had lost one of its most important members.
Tsitsi Samukange, another churchgoer, said Mugabe should be praised for fighting for his country.
“I think everyone can admit that without the work he did we would not be as independent as we are,” she said.
“You know when you fight, in a fight sometimes you lose your teeth? And we became poorer. But that’s a fight and he did it, and we should give him that.”
Many Harare residents said they were saddened by Mugabe’s death and that it marked the end of an era.
But his ousting in 2017 was accompanied by celebrations across the country of 13 million and critics at home and abroad viewed him as a power-obsessed autocrat who unleashed death squads, rigged elections and ruined the economy to keep control.
Additional reporting by Gift Sukhala; Writing by Alexander Winning; Editing by Ros Russell and David Goodman