Mugabe's body arrived from Singapore on Wednesday in Harare where he was given an honour guard
Mugabe's body arrived from Singapore on Wednesday in Harare where he was given an honour guard AFP / Zinyange Auntony

Zimbabwe ex-president Robert Mugabe's family and the government squabbled over his burial on Thursday, with the place of the ceremony -- and even its date -- unclear after relatives snubbed a plan for him to be entombed at a national monument.

Mugabe died in Singapore last week aged 95, leaving Zimbabweans torn over the legacy of a leader once lauded as a colonial-era liberation hero, but whose autocratic 37-year rule ended in a coup in 2017.

Tensions erupted after President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government proposed a burial for the former guerrilla fighter at the National Heroes Acre in Harare, while the family said he would be buried at a private ceremony, possibly in his homestead of Kutama, northwest of the capital.

"His body will lie in state at Kutama on Sunday night... followed by a private burial -- either Monday or Tuesday -- no National Heroes Acre. That's the decision of the whole family," his nephew Leo Mugabe told AFP.

In a statement, the family accused Mnangagwa's government of trying to strongarm them into a public funeral against Mugabe's final wishes.

Some family members are still bitter over Mugabe's ouster and the role played by Mnangagwa, a long-time ally from their days as guerilla fighters who eventually turned against him.

Mugabe fired Mnangagwa as first vice president in 2017 -- a move many perceived as an attempt to position his wife Grace to succeed him after nearly four decades of iron-fisted rule.

Soon after, Mugabe was toppled by protesters and the army in what was seen as part of a power struggle within the ruling ZANU-PF party between pro-Mnangagwa factions and Mugabe loyalists siding with his wife Grace.

Mnangagwa, who praised Mugabe as a national hero, sought to downplay any dispute on Thursday, saying he was still in talks with the deceased leader's wife.

"We said we will bury him on Sunday, but how, it will decided," Mnangagwa said, addressing mourners at Mugabe's Blue Roof residence. "The family will have the final say."

Leo Mugabe said later there was no feud, claiming only that the funeral would be private for family members only. But he said there was no plan for a burial on Sunday and that the date was still not set.

"The obvious situation we are having here is there's only one Robert Mugabe," he told reporters. "They (family) don't want you to know where he is going to be buried."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Cuban former leader Raul Castro and a dozen African presidents, including South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, are among those expected to attend Mugabe's state funeral on Saturday in Harare.

Liberation hero

Several thousand people gathered in 35,000-seat Rufaro stadium in Harare on Thursday to file past Mugabe's open casket under a white tent in the centre of the sports field, led by Grace wearing a black veil.

A brief stampede broke out and several people were slightly injured as supporters rushed to see the casket where the former leader lay in a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie, an AFP correspondent said.

Mugabe took his oath of office in the stadium when colonial Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith handed over the reins of the country. He hoisted the new Zimbabwe flag and lit the independence flame on April 18, 1980 -- bringing hope for a new era after a long insurgency.

"The government should let him be buried at his rural home if that it is what he wanted," said taxi driver Desire Benhure, 28. "Otherwise he will become a ghost."

The former leader had been travelling to Singapore regularly for medical treatment, but his health deteriorated rapidly after his ouster, which allies say left him a "broken soul".

Mugabe's body arrived from Singapore on Wednesday at Harare airport, where Mnangagwa and Grace stood together as the former leader's remains were given an honour guard.

Zimbabweans have been split over the death of a man once hailed for ending the former British colony Rhodesia of white-minority rule and bringing more access to health and education to the poor.

But many Zimbabweans will remember his tyrannical leadership and economic mismanagement that forced millions to escape a country crippled by hyper-inflation and shortages of food, drugs and fuel.

Mugabe's legacy is marked by the mass killing of the minority Ndebele people in a military campaign in the early 1980s known as Gukurahundi, which took the lives of an estimated 20,000 alleged "dissidents".

His violent seizure of white-owned farms helped ravage the economy, sent foreign investors fleeing and turned Mugabe into international pariah -- even if his status as a liberation hero still resonates in Africa.

Zimbabweans still struggle to survive, with a once-vaunted public health system now a shambles and the economy still in crisis.

A massive fuel price hike this year sparked nationwide protests which led to a government crackdown on opposition and clashes in which at least 17 people were killed after soldiers opened fire.