October 17, 2019

Robert Mugabe, Even in Death, Divides Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe, Even in Death, Divides Zimbabwe


HARARE, Zimbabwe — Even in death, Robert Mugabe, the former strongman leader of Zimbabwe, has remained a source of contention, this time caught in a dispute between his family and the government over where to bury him.

Mr. Mugabe, who spent more than three decades in power before being ousted in 2017, died last week at age 95 at a Singapore hospital. And even as his body was being transported back to his home country, his family and the government were arguing about his final resting place and whether his burial would be public or private.

Now, a week after his death, it seems that issue may finally have been resolved.

The family of Mr. Mugabe, the freedom fighter turned authoritarian ruler, had demanded that his body be buried in his home village in a private ceremony. But the government wanted a public burial at the National Heroes Acre monument in Harare, the capital, alongside other prominent government figures from his ZANU-PF party.

Mr. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Mugabe, was buried at Heroes Acre after her death in 1992.

By Friday, it appeared that the two sides had reached a compromise, with Leo Mugabe, the former president’s nephew and family spokesman, saying that his uncle would be buried in a private ceremony at Heroes Acre after being transported home for rituals conducted by clan chiefs.

“Chiefs from Zvimba, his home area, have agreed; the private burial will take place at the Heroes Acre at a day to be announced,” Leo Mugabe said in a statement. “If the family would feel compelled to invite government representatives at the private burial ceremony, it will do so — that would be up to the family.”

He later told South Africa’s state broadcaster, SABC, that a government ceremony would be held at Heroes Acre for Mr. Mugabe on Sunday, with a private burial taking place there in about a week.

The current government’s relationship with the former president and his family had been fractious since his ouster. His downfall was due in part to the political ambitions of his second wife, Grace Mugabe, who was eager to succeed him in office.

Instead, his onetime right-hand man, Emmerson Mnangagwa, took power. While Mr. Mugabe stayed largely out of the spotlight after his ouster, his legacy hung over the country’s politics. During the 2018 election campaign that Mr. Mnangagwa went on to win, the former leader had resurfaced to voice support for the opposition candidate.

Some interpreted the government’s insistence that Mr. Mugabe be buried at the national monument as a desire to signal unity within the governing ZANU-PF party, and his family’s intention to orchestrate a burial elsewhere as a public — and final — insult.

Alex Magaisa, an academic who was an adviser to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, wrote on his blog that Mr. Mugabe probably “foresaw that the occasion would give Mnangagwa, his protégé turned nemesis, an unprecedented platform from which to milk political capital.”

“It is impossible to sugarcoat the snub,” he wrote.

On Friday, Mr. Mugabe’s coffin, draped in his country’s flag, was brought from his lavish “Blue Roof” mansion to Rufaro Stadium in Harare, where thousands of mourners lined up for a second day to bid him farewell. The stadium was the site of his swearing-in as Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader in 1980.

Supporters on Friday chanted “Gushungo” — Mr. Mugabe’s clan name — and sang, beat drums, ululated, whistled and danced on the stadium’s terraces.

For many in the country, Mr. Mugabe’s star had faded before his death, as he spent his final years living in obscurity in his Harare mansion. But on Friday, mourners at the stadium lavished the former leader with praise.

Edwin Mpofu, a ZANU-PF party employee, said he had traveled nearly 300 miles, from the country’s Matabeleland North Province, to view the open coffin.

Mr. Mpofu said he did not mind whether the burial ceremony was public or private as long as Mr. Mugabe was laid to rest at the national monument. “We have lost a hero,” Mr. Mpofu said. “Surely he has to be buried at the Heroes Acre. He helped a lot of people.”

Owen Nyakadya, another supporter of Mr. Mugabe, emerged from the stadium with tears in his eyes after viewing the former president’s body.

“President Mugabe personally empowered us,” he said, adding that he believed Mr. Mugabe should be buried at Heroes Acre.

“If he is not buried there, it would appear as if we are belittling his efforts in liberating us as a nation and economically empowering us,” Mr. Nyakadya said.

Others thought Mr. Mugabe’s family should have the final say.

Clever Nhidza said after viewing the leader’s body that if the family wanted a private ceremony, the nation should respect that.

“As Africans, we have our own traditions, and they should be respected,” he said. “What the family says should be done.”



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