The family of Robert Mugabe have been ordered to exhume the remains of the late dictator for reburial at a monument to Zimbabwe’s national heroes, in a move likely to rekindle a row over the memory of one of Africa’s foremost revolutionary leaders.
A traditional chief made the order after accusing Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, of breaking local custom by interring him at his rural home.
Mugabe, whose increasingly authoritarian 37-year rule was ended by a coup in November 2017, was buried at his village of Kutama in 2019 after weeks of dispute with the government of his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Senior officials had made it clear they wanted the remains of the former dictator to be buried at Zimbabwe’s national heroes’ shrine outside Harare and may now get their way.
Though much of Mugabe’s rule was marked by violence, economic mismanagement and corruption, the former guerrilla fighter is still revered as a liberation leader for his role in the war against white supremacist rule. His funeral in Harare was attended by dozens of current and former heads of state from across Africa.
Mnangagwa was a close aide and ally of Mugabe and has sought to reinforce his own image through association with the former revolutionary leader. Much of the legitimacy of the ruling Zanu-PF party relies on the legacy of the late president.
Chief Zvimba, whose district includes Kutama, said he had received a complaint from a Mugabe clan member over the manner of his burial.
Chiefs in Zimbabwe have jurisdiction over their local subjects but it is rare for them to order families to exhume bodies for reburial. Many are local politicians who can broker their influence over communities with more powerful political actors.
After presiding over a village court last week, Zvimba on Monday issued a ruling that found Grace Mugabe guilty of breaking traditional norms by burying her husband in the courtyard of his home. He also fined her five cows and a goat. The former first lady did not attend the hearing.
“I give powers to those who are permitted by law to exhume the late Robert Mugabe’s remains from Kutama and rebury them at the National Heroes Acre in Harare,” said a copy of the ruling in the local Shona language.
The original complaint made by the traditional chief accused Mugabe’s widow of “abandoning Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s property which is scattered nationwide”.
A list of the former ruler’s estate published by a state-owned newspaper in Zimbabwe after the funeral listed $10m (£7.7m) in the bank, some small plots of land and a handful of modest properties.
The report of the relatively limited fortune was greeted with scepticism by many in the poor southern African country. Mugabe was thought to have amassed a portfolio of investments worth hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
Leo Mugabe, spokesman for the Mugabe family, immediately rejected the ruling. “He [Chief Zvimba] has no jurisdiction over Kutama. And even if the correct chief had made that ruling we would have appealed to the court,” he said.
When Mnangagwa had pushed for Mugabe to be buried at the monument for liberation war heroes shortly after his death, the family refused, saying Mugabe had expressed fears to close family members before his death that some of the people who ousted him would seek to conduct a traditional ritual with his body parts.