Widow Grace Mugabe, in a black dress and veil, sat next to President Emmerson Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s casket, draped with a Zimbabwe flag, was wheeled by top military generals to the podium.
The former’ leader’s body will be displayed at historic locations for several days before burial at a site that is still unannounced, indicating friction between the ex-leader’s family and the government.
Mugabe, who died at 95 in a hospital in Singapore on Friday, was a guerrilla leader who led the fight to end white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, and ruled Zimbabwe from its independence in 1980 until he was deposed in 2017.
During his 37-year authoritarian leadership, Zimbabwe descended from prosperity to economic crisis marked by hyperinflation, unemployment and a drastic drop in living conditions for its 16 million people.
Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s closest ally and vice president before ousting him with the military, addressed the crowd of more than 1,000 at the airport, praising Mugabe as “our revolutionary commander … an icon of pan-Africanism” and “the man who created our nation.”
Mnangagwa said the body will be taken to nearby military barracks for prayers before going Wednesday evening to the family’s home in the posh Borrowdale suburb.
Harare otherwise remained bustling, with vehicles lined up for scarce fuel, vendors selling vegetables and currency dealers selling cash.
WATCH: Zimbabwe’s former President Mugabe dead at 95
Earlier, about 500 mourners gathered in Zvimba, Mugabe’s birthplace some 85 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Harare. The former leader’s body will be taken there on Thursday, as well as to a stadium in the capital’s poor Mbare neighborhood for public viewing before it is moved Saturday to the National Sports Stadium, where African heads of state, dignitaries and the public will attend a service.
Where and when the former strongman will be buried has not been announced, sparking speculation of a disagreement between the government and Mugabe’s wife and other family members. The government had earlier stated that Mugabe would be buried at the Heroes’ Acre state monument, a burial place reserved for top officials of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party who contributed to ending white colonial rule. But some family members said he should be buried at his birthplace, according to Zimbabwean traditions.
Leo Mugabe, Mugabe’s nephew and the family’s spokesman, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that relations are good between the family and Mnangagwa, but he would not disclose where Mugabe would be buried.
Mnangagwa “has been looking after the president, paying all the bills, sending the charter flight, inviting all the foreign dignitaries — I think he has been extra good,” Leo Mugabe said. “We went to thank him yesterday for what he has done this far. Now we really appreciate what the government has done.”
Leo Mugabe’s grateful comments appeared to indicate a reconciliation between the family and Mnangagwa following his statement to the media last week that Mugabe had died “a very bitter man” because he felt betrayed by Mnangagwa and the army generals who were his allies for close to four decades before they put him under house arrest and forced him to resign.
It had long been expected that Mugabe would be buried at Heroes’ Acre, a monumental burial location atop a prominent hill that features a grandiose towering sculpture of guerrilla fighters, and which Mugabe had built with help from North Korea. Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, is buried there next to a gravesite long reserved for the leader.