In the village where Robert Mugabe was born and buried, his family and neighbours have a dream. They envision a big museum at his grave, attracting busloads of tourists, generating badly needed revenue and glorifying the man who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years.
But even as workers finish construction of an intimidating brick wall to control access to the Mugabe burial site, Zimbabwe has been gripped by a court case that could derail the museum plans, forcing the exhumation and relocation of its most famous leader.
In death, as in life, Mr. Mugabe still looms over the country that he ruled for decades: A seemingly inescapable and haunting presence, sometimes rumoured to have almost mystical powers, still capable of dominating the media, sparking hopes and bitter conflicts.
Two years after his death at the age of 95, workers are putting the final touches on a series of gates and a tall brick wall surrounding the Mugabe family house where the former dictator is buried, in the village of Kutama, about an hour’s drive west of Harare, the capital city. They chase away an unauthorized visitor, shouting at him for daring to take photos.
The wall, however, cannot protect Mr. Mugabe’s remains from the latest threat: A controversial court order to have him dug up and reburied at an official monument for Zimbabwe’s national heroes in Harare. The court case has angered the villagers, jeopardized the family’s plans and thrust Mr. Mugabe back into the national spotlight that he had commanded since the country’s liberation battles of the 1970s.
The case was launched by a local chief in Zvimba, the district where the village is located. But many people believe it is quietly supported by Mr. Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who toppled the former president in a 2017 coup.
The new President had tried vainly in 2019 to have his predecessor buried at the grandiose shrine known as the National Heroes Acre. Controlling the fate of Mr. Mugabe’s remains could help Mr. Mnangagwa to consolidate his power in the ruling ZANU-PF party, where factional tensions have persisted.
The villagers of Kutama are furious at the court case. “If someone comes here and says he wants to remove Mugabe, I would hit them with an axe,” says 83-year-old Cecilia Mpariwa, a neighbour who lives just down the road from the Mugabe home.
“Nobody in this village wants Mugabe to be reburied,” she told The Globe and Mail.
“It’s causing us lots of stress. Let him rest in peace. Who was it who helped us win this country back from the white settlers? Was it not Mugabe?”
Many villagers are convinced that the reburial plan is a sinister scheme by government officials to gain control of Mr. Mugabe’s body parts – which are thought to have special powers – or a mysterious sceptre that was rumoured to be buried with him. Reports in 2019 suggested that he was buried in a tamper-proof coffin to prevent raids on his remains. Several exiled Zimbabwean politicians from a faction allied to Mr. Mugabe’s widow, Grace, are among those who have spread the rumours.
“We hear that they want a traditional stick that they think was buried with him, and we hear that they want his brains,” Alice Nyamadzawo, a 33-year-old neighbour of the Mugabe home, said as she worked on laundry outside her house with her daughters.
“Even in death we should be respecting him and not having his remains moved around,” she said. “His grave is a source of pride for us here.”
Tonderai Laima, a taxi driver in the village, said the Mugabe remains must be left in peace. “His grave will generate money for this community. People from other countries will start coming here. But Mugabe was very clever, he was a brave and intelligent man, and people might want his brains for ritual purposes.”
After dominating Zimbabwe for nearly four decades after its independence, first as prime minister and then as president, Mr. Mugabe was finally ousted in 2017 in a military coup. Two years later, he died in a Singapore hospital. His death triggered weeks of wrangling over where he should be buried, while Ms. Mugabe maintained a near-constant vigil over the coffin.
The government began construction of a mausoleum for him at Heroes Acre – a shrine built under Mr. Mugabe’s rule in 1981 and often used by his government for the burial of ruling-party dignitaries. After weeks of resistance to the plan, Ms. Mugabe eventually succeeded in burying her husband in the courtyard of his home in his birth village, where he had wanted to be buried. The mausoleum at Heroes Acre remains half-built and empty.
This year, however, the controversy has been revived. A traditional court in Zvimba district, headed by a local chief, ordered that Mr. Mugabe must be exhumed and reburied at Heroes Acre.
The court ruled that Ms. Mugabe had improperly buried him at his village home, contrary to custom. It imposed a fine of five cows and two goats on her.
The Mugabe family appealed the ruling. It lost at a magistrate’s court, but it is now appealing to Zimbabwe’s High Court. In an affidavit, Ms. Mugabe said the legal uncertainty over the final resting place of her late husband was subjecting her to “intense mental torture each day.”
His family seems united in their determination to defend the village burial site. “We will not rebury, under any circumstances,” Leo Mugabe, a nephew of the late president, said in a reply to e-mailed questions from The Globe.
“This is going to be a secure museum, so that in the near future, visitors can come and witness something wonderful,” he said.
Another nephew, Dominic Matibiri, said Mr. Mugabe had always made it clear that he wanted to be buried in his birth village. “We can’t dig up his remains after two years. He has to be buried strictly according to his own words.”
Zimbabwe government officials have denied that Mr. Mnangagwa is still seeking to have Mr. Mugabe buried at Heroes Acre, two years after his earlier failed bid. But many analysts see links between the Mnangagwa government and the reburial campaign. In the Zvimba district, it was a staunch Mnangagwa loyalist, Tinos Manongovere, who filed the complaint that led to the decision by the traditional court.
“Mugabe himself used to make sure that people deserving to be buried at Heroes Acre were buried there,” Mr. Manongovere told The Globe.
“He would say that the dead have no power to decide where they should be buried. Being a hero himself, Mugabe has to lie at Heroes Acre.”
For most of his career, Mr. Mnangagwa lived in the shadow of his more celebrated liberation-war comrade, serving in Mr. Mugabe’s cabinets but lacking the charisma and oratorical skills that the long-ruling president enjoyed.
Some Zimbabweans have even suspected him of scheming with British interests to topple Mr. Mugabe, while others have feuded with him in the ruling party for years. Taking control of Mr. Mugabe’s burial site would be a way for the new autocrat to assert his power.
“He’s a little insecure about his lack of legitimacy and all the suspicions around him,” said David Moore, a Canadian scholar and author of Mugabe’s Legacy, a newly published book on Zimbabwe and its late president.
Joost Fontein, a University of Johannesburg anthropologist and author of The Politics of the Dead in Zimbabwe, to be published next year, predicted in an article last year that a furious Mr. Mnangagwa would find a way to respond to the Mugabe family’s defiance of his plans for a Heroes Acre burial.
“Mnangagwa’s government was deeply invested in ensuring that Mugabe took his place at the National Heroes Acre, in order to bestow his liberation legacy, ideology and legitimacy onto the new regime,” he wrote. “Many recognized Bob’s wishes [to be buried in his village] as a deliberate last snub to those who had ousted him.”
In an interview, Mr. Fontein recalled how Mr. Mugabe had often played politics with the dead, deciding where to bury them and using the burials at Heroes Acre for lengthy self-aggrandizing speeches.
“The person who had the last laugh here is Mugabe, because he didn’t let them use his body for this,” Mr. Fontein said. “He had the last laugh, because he said, ‘I’m not going to let you play the same game.’ ”
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