As the dictatorial president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe occupied the national pulpit and wrote his own colourful story.
It is a well-tuned narrative about a man who liberates a nation from the grasp of white supremacists. It’s a story of defiance as the hero stares down the west over the invasion of white-owned farms. It’s a tale about a president who sacrifices everything for his people and promises to never retire.
But there are some serious issues with the story and they are causing all sorts of difficulties as the country prepares to bury its former president.
Ask any church minister about a funeral and they will tell you that there is plenty of selective storytelling involved – but the problem in Zimbabwe is that Mr Mugabe’s family members and government officials cannot agree on which story they are telling.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has got a tale about how he served Mr Mugabe as his loyal lieutenant for 40 years, working to develop a unified and patriotic nation respected by the rest of the world. It is also works as propaganda with the country now struggling with hyper-inflation, widespread electricity blackouts, and general economic chaos.
Mr Mnangagwa will roll out his message at a day-long commemorative event at Harare’s National Sports Stadium on Saturday. But the family and friends of Mr Mugabe do not accept the thesis.
Instead they accuse Mr Mnangagwa of betrayal after he dislodged the former president in a coup in November 2017. It left him, “a very bitter man,” says Leo Mugabe, the former strongman’s nephew.
This is a different narrative, laced with accusations of ingratitude and greed – and it has led some members of the Mugabe family to demand a private burial to protect the memory of their loved one. “Imagine people you trusted, people that were guarding you, looking after you, (turning) against you,” said Leo Mugabe.
Relatives demanded that Mugabe be buried in his home village, Zvimba, but President Mnangagwa wants his former boss interred at the national cemetery, Hero’s Acre. It seems Mr Mnangagwa may have won the argument when he tweeted “we’re building a mausoleum for our founding father at… the Hero’s Acre.” You probably saw that one coming.
Members of the opposition MDC party, who have their own stories to tell of beatings and abductions at the hands of Mr Mugabe’s thugs, were surprisingly charitable after the dictator’s death. The leader of the MDC, Nelson Chamisa, said he was “rising above political differences and personal animosities”, adding “this is the time for mourning not political point scoring.”
Everyone in Zimbabwe has got a story to tell about Mugabe and they usually defy the selective storytelling which features at commemoration services.
One woman, called Sheron, told me she has been waging her own internal argument about the former president.
“He was a good man even though there were many things that (went) wrong. Every country has tough times but we want to forgive him and try and concentrate on what is happening now.”
Funerals can be tricky when the story is not clear and Zimbabweans will be disagreeing about Robert Mugabe’s for years and years to come.
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