The Zimbabwean government plans a state funeral for longtime ruler Robert Mugabe in a sports stadium in Harare next Saturday, with a burial ceremony a day later, it said in memo sent to embassies on Sunday.
Zimbabweans have been confused about when 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.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who worked closely with Mugabe for decades before helping to oust him, granted Mugabe the status of national hero within hours of his death.
The memo sent by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to embassies in Harare and seen by Reuters said the funeral would be in the National Sports Stadium but did not specify where the burial would be.
It 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.
The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported last month that Mugabe didn’t want to be buried at National Heroes Acre - a site reserved for the country’s heroes - because he felt bitter about the way he was removed from power.
In comments to The Sunday Mail newspaper Mnangagwa’s spokesman George Charamba denied that the government and Mugabe’s family were at loggerheads over where the former president should be buried and 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 earlier on Sunday that Mugabe’s family and traditional chiefs had finalised their preferred programme 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.
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 bring him forward to God. We are asking God if there is anything that he did wrong in his life that he be forgiven,” the priest told the congregation, speaking in the local Shona language.
Chris Sambo, a former soccer administrator who used to arrange matches for Mugabe in his home village of Kutama, said the southern African country’s Catholic community had lost one of its most important members.
Tsitsi Samukange, another churchgoer, said Mugabe was a devout man who fought 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, (right)? And we became poorer. But that’s a fight and he did it, and we should give him that.”
Many Harare residents said at the weekend that 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.