HARARE (Reuters) - The body of Zimbabwe’s founder Robert Mugabe arrived at the country’s main airport on Wednesday, but his final resting place remained a source of mystery amid a dispute between some family members and the government.
Mugabe, one of the last “Big Men” of African politics who ruled the southern African nation for 37 years until he was ousted by his own army in November 2017, died in a Singapore hospital five days ago.
He is proving as polarising in death as he was in life, as the fight over where he will be buried threatens to embarrass his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and deepen divisions in the ruling ZANU-PF party.
The former president’s body arrived at Harare’s Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport shortly after 1330 GMT. A military guard of honour stood at attention as the casket was removed from the aircraft, draped in the national flag and accompanied by security chiefs.
“The entire nation of Zimbabwe, our people, across the board are grieved and are in mourning because the light which led us to independence is no more, but his works, his ideology will continue to guide this nation,” Mnangagwa said.
“On the day we shall lay him to rest, on Sunday, I appeal to you in your hundreds, in your thousands, in your millions to show your love of our great leader who has left us,” he added.
Mugabe’s wife Grace, dressed in black with a black veil, was next to Mnangagwa at the airport. Also present were Mugabe’s daughter Bona and Savior Kasukuwere, a former Mugabe cabinet minister and staunch ally who has been living in self-imposed exile in South Africa since early this year.
Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, the former general who led the coup that overthrew Mugabe, was conspicuous by his absence at the airport. He has been receiving treatment in China since July for an unknown illness
Crowds had gathered at the airport well before the scheduled arrival time, with some wearing T-shirts bearing Mugabe’s face and others with Mnangagwa’s image, while music blared from loudspeakers.
A convoy of 4x4 vehicles with number plates bearing the letters “RG Mugabe” and the former leader’s signature were also on the runway.
Leo Mugabe, a nephew and family spokesman, declined to say where Mugabe would be buried.
Mnangagwa said the body would be taken to Mugabe’s palatial home in the capital, known as Blue Roof, after a detour to a military barracks for prayers.
On Thursday, ordinary Zimbabweans and supporters are expected to pay their last respects to Mugabe at a Harare soccer stadium, where the body will lie in state before being taken to his rural home in Kutama, 85 km (50 miles) from the capital, he added.
Mnangagwa and his party want Mugabe buried at a national monument to heroes of the liberation war against the white minority Rhodesian regime.
But some of Mugabe’s relatives have pushed back against that plan. They share Mugabe’s bitterness at the way former allies including Mnangagwa conspired to topple him and want him buried in his home village.
Sunday’s burial will take place a day after a state funeral, but officials said the burial site would only be known after consultations with the family.
Mugabe left behind an economy wrecked by hyperinflation and deeply entrenched corruption, and a raging political rivalry between ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC.
The MDC said in a statement on Wednesday that it had postponed its 20th anniversary rally because of Mugabe’s funeral. It said: “Notwithstanding our legendary differences with Mr. Mugabe, we have no reason to exhibit barbarity by hosting a national festivity during his funeral.”
Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe and Alexander Winning; Editing by Alex Richardson and Giles Elgood