Mugabe, one of the last “Big Men” of African politics, ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years until he was ousted by his own army in November 2017. He died in a Singapore hospital five days ago aged 95.
He is proving as polarising in death as he was in life, as the fight over where he will be buried threatens to embarrass his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and deepen divisions in the ruling ZANU-PF party that he helped form decades ago.
The former president’s body arrived at Harare’s Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport shortly after 1330 GMT. A military guard of honour stood at attention as the casket was removed from the aircraft, draped in the national flag and accompanied by security chiefs.
“The entire nation of Zimbabwe, our people, across the board are grieved and are in mourning because the light which led us to independence is no more, but his works, his ideology will continue to guide this nation,” Mnangagwa said.
“On the day we shall lay him to rest, on Sunday, I appeal to you in your hundreds, in your thousands, in your millions to show your love of our great leader who has left us,” he added, without saying where Mugabe would be buried.
Mugabe’s wife Grace, dressed in black and wearing a veil, was next to Mnangagwa at the airport. As she left the tarmac in a vehicle behind the hearse, Grace could be seen wiping away tears and being consoled by one of her sisters.
Also present were Mugabe’s daughter Bona and son Bellarmine and Savior Kasukuwere, a former Mugabe cabinet minister and staunch ally who has been living in self-imposed exile in South Africa since early this year.
Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, the former general who led the coup that overthrew Mugabe, was notably absent at the airport. He has been receiving treatment in China since July for an unknown illness.
Crowds had gathered at the airport well before the scheduled arrival time, with some wearing T-shirts bearing Mugabe’s face and others with Mnangagwa’s image, while music blared from loudspeakers.
A convoy of vehicles with number plates bearing the letters “RG Mugabe” and the former leader’s signature were also on the runway.
Leo Mugabe, a nephew and family spokesman, declined to say where Mugabe would be buried.
Mnangagwa and his party want him buried at a national monument to heroes of the liberation war against the white minority Rhodesian regime.