ZVIMBA, Zimbabwe (AP) — Security was tight as the family of longtime Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe prepared on Saturday to bury him at his rural home. A highly private farewell was taking place for one of Africa’s most divisive figures after a weeks-long family dispute with the administration that forced him from power.
The coffin, draped in the country’s flag, was carried in by military pallbearers as Mugabe’s veiled wife, Grace, looked on. The tent displayed a photo of Mugabe holding up his fist in a gesture of defiance. Many mourners wore T-shirts saying “Liberator” and “Torch bearer.”
“It is a day to celebrate the lessons we learned from our father,” an army chaplain told the gathering. “It is a day to thank him.”
Only approved guests and funeral parlor vans were allowed, a decision out of sync with the local tradition that funerals are free for all to attend. One elderly neighbor threw a tantrum after being blocked at the gate.
Mugabe’s family earlier had agreed to a government request to bury him at a shrine in the capital only after a hilltop mausoleum was built to set him apart from former comrades. But the government on Thursday abruptly announced the family had changed its mind, leaving it with scaffolding around the partially completed memorial.
A spokesman for the ruling ZANU-PF party, Simon Khaya Moyo, called the private burial “most unfortunate.”
In a statement, Moyo added that “we indeed respect the wishes of families of deceased heroes, hence we are saddened when maneuvers that border on political gimmicks begin to unfold on an issue concerning an illustrious liberation icon.”
Mugabe, who led the bitter guerrilla war to end white-minority rule in the country then known as Rhodesia, was Zimbabwe’s first leader and ruled from 1980 for 37 years, from years of prosperity to economic ruin and repression.
He was forced by the military and ruling party to retire in late 2017 as thousands cheered in the streets. Mugabe died this month in Singapore at age 95.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a once-trusted deputy who helped oust Mugabe from power, was not expected to attend the burial. State-run media reported that the government would be represented by the home affairs minister.