Close relatives and government officials flew out of Zimbabwe on Monday to collect the body of ex-president Robert Mugabe from Singapore where he died last week, his nephew said.
Mugabe, a guerrilla leader who swept to power after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain and went on to rule for 37 years until he was ousted in 2017, died on Friday, aged 95.
Mugabe’s health deteriorated after he was toppled by the military and former loyalists in November 2017, ending an increasingly tyrannical rule that sent the economy into ruin.
A charter flight left Harare at 09:00 on Monday with family and senior party members and was expected to return with Mugabe’s body on Wednesday at 13:00 GMT, the nephew and family spokesperson Leo Mugabe told AFP.
Leo Mugabe said although he was devastated at his uncle’s death, he believed he was “rested” after the coup in November 2017 when his former trusted lieutenants turned against him.
“When he was 93, 94, he was able to walk, but the speed with which he deteriorated after the coup is just incredible, and I can imagine what was going through him and it’s why I’m saying he has rested,” he said.
“It was sudden, it was just like revolution overnight, he could not believe that those he trusted most turned against him, people that he depended upon turned against him.”
Although he sent his daughter to represent him at the inauguration of his former ally and successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe suggested his uncle never healed.
“I don’t quite think that healing process ended, it ate into him to such an extent that God just said he must rest… I think we must just celebrate his life,” he said.
Zimbabweans still struggle daily to access basic services and supplies, leaving many divided over how to mourn a former leader once hailed as a liberation hero but who later brutally repressed his opponents.
On arrival, Mugabe’s body will be taken straight to his rural village in Kutama, in Zvimba district, about 90km west of the capital Harare, for an overnight wake.
On Thursday and Friday the body will lie in state at Rufaro Stadium in Mbare township in Harare for the public to pay their final respects, Leo Mugabe said.
Those details were confirmed by Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa who told reporters the ceremony would “allow the public from all our provinces to pay their last respects to the illustrious liberation war hero”.
The 35 000-seater stadium is where Mugabe took his oath of office at a colourful ceremony when colonial Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith handed over the country.
There Mugabe hoisted the new Zimbabwe flag and lit the independence flame on April 18, 1980 – bringing hope for a new era after a long guerrilla war.
The official funeral will be held on Saturday at the giant 60 000-seater National Sports Stadium in Harare where foreign leaders are expected to attend.
“Then the (traditional chiefs will bury him on Sunday, where I don’t know,” said Leo Mugabe.
Minister Mutsvangwa said the government would give an update on Sunday’s final burial “as more information on the programme trickles in”.
The location of the burial remains unclear, with Mugabe’s family and president Mnangagwa’s government apparently at odds over whether it would be at his homestead northwest of Harare or at a shrine for liberation heroes in the capital.
His nephew said that in line with native Shona customs, traditional chiefs from Zvimba will have a final say on where the former leader will be buried.
As a national president he did not exercise the role of a traditional ruler, but Mugabe held the respected title of traditional chief of Zvimba rural district.
“If a chief dies, the announcement is not like how we announce any other person who is dead. Even his burial place remains a mystery,” the nephew said.
“The chiefs and the elders are the ones that determine which cave they are going to put him in and where they are going to bury him.”