HARARE: The casket of former president Robert Mugabe is escorted by military officers as it departs after a state funeral at the National Sports Stadium on Saturday.—AP
HARARE: The casket of former president Robert Mugabe is escorted by military officers as it departs after a state funeral at the National Sports Stadium on Saturday.—AP

HARARE: Zimbabwe gave former president Robert Mugabe a state funeral on Saturday with African leaders paying tribute to a man lauded as a liberation hero but whose 37-year rule was defined by repression and economic turmoil.

Mugabe, who died in Singapore last week aged 95, left Zimbabwe deeply torn over his legacy as the country still struggles with high inflation and shortages of goods after decades of crisis.

He died on an overseas medical trip almost two years after former army loyalists forced him out in 2017, following a power struggle over what was widely perceived as a bid to position his wife Grace as his successor.

Mugabe’s casket, draped in the green, black, gold and red Zimbabwe flag, was marched slowly into Harare’s national stadium as a military band played and crowds chanted and drummed, though less than half of the 60,000 seats appeared taken.

African leaders and senior officials from Cuba, Russia and China all praised Mugabe as a pan-African hero for his past as a colonial-era guerrilla leader.

“We honour and remember our African icon. He had many allies and followers... Our motherland is in tears,” Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa said.

Doves were released over the stadium before soldiers fired a 21-gun salute from artillery cannon.

Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe ally who turned against him, praised Grace in a signal of reconciliation, and called for sanctions on Zimbabwe to be lifted in the post-Mugabe era.

“We say give our country a rebirth and a new start. Remove the sanctions now, we don’t deserve them.” South African leader Ramaphosa’s speech was briefly interrupted by jeers and whistles from the crowds until he apologised for recent xenophobic attacks on African migrants, including Zimbabweans, in Johannesburg.

As a former anti-colonial rebel, Mugabe is credited with helping to end white-minority rule in Zimbabwe.

But his nearly four-decade rule was marked by repression, the brutal silencing of dissent and violent seizure of white-owned farms, making him an international pariah.

Though still lauded as an African icon, at home many Zimbabweans will remember Mugabe more for the increasingly tyrannical rule and economic mismanagement that forced millions to flee the country.

Many are struggling to survive despite Mnangagwa’s vows of more investment and jobs in the post-Mugabe era.

“The fruits of his tenure are the shortages. That is what we remember him for,” said Steven, a consultant shopping near the stadium.

“He has made sure there is no opposition and he succeeded. There is no reason to go to his funeral.”

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2019