Robert Mugabe demands UK return tribal skulls

President Mugabe and wife Grace raised issue of tribal skulls at Heroes' Day rally this week. Picture: AFP/Getty
President Mugabe and wife Grace raised issue of tribal skulls at Heroes' Day rally this week. Picture: AFP/Getty
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What matters more to Zimbabweans: #BringBackOurSkulls or #BringBackOurEconomy?

The #BringBackOurSkulls hashtag was trending in Zimbabwe this week after president Robert Mugabe accused London’s Natural History Museum of displaying skulls of early Zimbabwean freedom fighters.

It’s disgusting. It is just like what they did to our Cecil

Grace Mugabe

Speaking during a speech to mark Heroes’ Day, the 91-year-old president accused the UK of “racist moral decadence, sadism and human insensitivity” in holding on to what he said were trophies of war.

Mr Mugabe says the skulls belong to seven chiefs executed after they led an uprising against British settlers in 1896-7.

But some Zimbabweans suspect Mr Mugabe is trying to divert attention from fresh signs of economic collapse following a post-2000 crisis, with thousands of jobs being shed. Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation axed nearly 300 jobs this week.

Mr Mugabe says the job losses were “unacceptable” and promised parliament will amend the law to stop them. But parliament is in recess and any changes will take some time to effect.

Higher education minister Jonathan Moyo revived suspicions the skulls issue was a diversion when he tweeted: “How can we focus on the economy when the skulls of Mbuya Nehanda & Sekuru Kaguvi are displayed in a British Museum?” The two tribal leaders were hanged in 1898.

Social entrepreneur Nigel Mugamu said: “Some people are busy tweeting #BringBackOurSkulls but I prefer reality: #BringBackOurEconomy,”

Local blogger @joeblackzw joked that Zimbabwe now had a “skulls-based economy”.

The UK has confirmed the issue of Zimbabwean human remains had been raised. The British embassy in Harare said: “The issue of the potential repatriation of Zimbabwean human remains was first discussed in December 2014.

“The UK has since invited Zimbabwe to appoint technical experts to meet their museum counterparts in London, in order to discuss some remains of Zimbabwean origin.”

Both Mr Mugabe and wife Grace have tried to link the skulls to the media frenzy over Cecil the lion, killed by a US dentist on an illegal hunt in Hwange National Park early last month.

The Zimbabwean first lady told crowds in northern Binga on Thursday: “It is disgusting that you come and behead someone and make his head a trophy, going with it to show the Queen just like what they did to our Cecil.”

But the Natural History Museum said: “It is not clear whether any remains in our collection are related to the events referred to in Mr Mugabe’s speech.”