Sir Richard Branson: The secret plan to get rid of Mugabe

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The British billionaire speaks exclusively to Guy Adams

Yes, there was a secret plot to oust President Robert Mugabe. Yes, Sir Richard Branson was one of its ringleaders. But the British billionaire has vehemently denied this week's extraordinary claims that he once offered a £6.5m bribe to persuade the Zimbabwean leader to stand down.

The mogul told The Independent exclusively that in 2007 he orchestrated covert meetings between Jonathan Moyo, a minister in Mr Mugabe's government, and several respected African statesman. And in a revelation that could send shockwaves through Harare's political establishment, Sir Richard revealed that he held direct discussions with Gideon Gono, the close ally of Mugabe who has for years bankrolled the regime as governor of the country's reserve bank, about removing the autocratic leader.

But Sir Richard claimed that the plan, revealed this week by Wikileaks, fell apart when he and his colleagues began to have serious reservations about whether Mr Moyo and his supporters were entirely suitable people to go into the business of nation-building with.

"I was approached by the man who was mentioned in the Wikileaks, Jonathan Moyo, and listened," he said. "Eventually, we decided not to do anything with him. We just weren't completely sure that his was the best approach.

"We have subsequently done some things for and in Zimbabwe, on some of the issues that were discussed at those meetings, but we ultimately just felt that working with him wasn't necessarily the right way forward."

But it is Sir Richard's description of his dealings with Mr Gono, far more influential than Mr Moyo and one of Mr Mugabe's inner circle, that will most raise eyebrows in Harare. Like his fellow supposed loyalist Mr Moyo, Sir Richard says that he held discussions with him about the possibilities of regime change.

According to Sir Richard, the scheme initially came into being because he had a chance meeting with Mr Gono at an airport in South Africa early in 2007. At the time, Zimbabwe was suffering from growing volatility in advance of a scheduled round of elections the following year.

They had a short discussion at which several ideas for Mr Mugabe's removal were raised. Those ideas were later fleshed out via email and then elaborated in several days of face-to-face meetings which Moyo, but not Gono, attended in Johannesburg in July that year. That account contradicts an earlier version of events from Mr Moyo, who told the Zimbabwean Daily News that he was the conduit between Sir Richard and Mr Gono, who refused to pass the message on to the Zimbabwean President. Mr Gono refused to comment on those claims, and could not be reached for further comment.

"I remember meeting Gideon Gono at an airport," Sir Richard said. "I can't remember whether I also met Moyo then. Maybe they were together ... We did later meet [Moyo], and we did put him up in Johannesburg for a few days, but we decided not to continue with him."

Mr Gono is a controversial figure in Zimbabwe, since his time as the nation's top banker has coincided with hyper-inflation that has exacerbated its economic ruin. His private life also makes headlines: last year, he was forced briefly into hiding amid rumours that he had pursued a five-year extra-marital affair with President Mugabe's wife, Grace.

Under the plan that Gono and Moyo helped hatch, Mugabe was to have been approached by Nelson Mandela and a collection of other respected figures from the region. They would have tactfully claimed they wished to protect his legacy, and safeguard Zimbabwe's future, by organising a peaceful transition of power.

Mugabe was to be offered immunity from future prosecution, as well as the chance to appoint an interim prime minister. In return, he would co-operate with a truth and reconciliation process modelled on South Africa.

The existence of the scheme was made public this week, when Wikileaks published a series of classified cables written by Eric Bost, the US ambassador to Pretoria. He had got his hands on several emails between Sir Richard and Mr Moyo, and was eager to outline their plan to his superiors in Washington.

The Daily News, which broke the Wikileaks story on Sunday, claimed in its coverage that Sir Richard had been prepared to "offer Mugabe a £6.5m incentive to stand down" as part of the plan. That element of the story is untrue, Sir Richard insists. "It was never discussed. It would have been cheap at the price, but it just happens not to be true."

Sir Richard said he was troubled by the revelation that a US diplomat had apparently been able to get hold of sensitive private emails. "Obviously, they must be listening in, or doing something. I have no idea how they got them. I've no idea how it happened," he said.

His recollection of the affair raises questions about the public statements that Mr Moyo, who is now a member of Zanu-PF's politburo, has made this week. On Tuesday, for example Moyo told The Independent that his only meeting with Branson had come in a check-in queue at Johannesburg airport in April 2007. "We chatted for about an hour and a half," Moyo said. "When he learned I was an MP, he was interested in my views. Mr Branson is a good man."

Although the 2007 scheme came to naught, Sir Richard said that the "elders," a group of world leaders he subsequently helped form, played a key role in setting up Zimbabwe's coalition government after the 2008 elections.

He stressed that his interest in easing Mugabe from office was in no way motivated by a desire to expand any of his Virgin ventures into Zimbabwe. "It was nothing to do with my businesses," he said. "Most of my time now, about 70 per cent, is spent on philanthropic work. And if I'm in a position to help with resolving conflicts, I believe I should do so."

Sir Richard was speaking at the Reagan Library just outside Los Angeles, where he appeared on Wednesday at a summit of Global Zero, an influential organisation of political, military, business, civic and faith leaders from around the world, who are campaigning for nuclear disarmament.

Who's who: Main players in the plot

Richard Branson The founder of the Virgin Group had the idea with his friend, Peter Gabriel, for a group based on the role of elders in traditional society to resolve disputes. They took the idea to Nelson Mandela, who helped to bring the group of global statesmen together. They include Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan. The group has worked in areas of conflict including Kenya, Cyprus, Darfur and Zimbabwe.

Jonathan Moyo He penned the draft document in which The Elders would tell Mugabe it was time for him to step aside "graciously and with dignity" to allow the country to move on, according to the leaked cable. Mr Moyo is a controversial figure in Zimbabwe who was a trenchant critic of the Mugabe regime before being brought into the fold and becoming the Information Minister. He was responsible for writing media legislation that led to Zimbabwe's only private newspaper being closed down. He was reported to have clashed with senior members of the ruling ZANU-PF and was forced out of his post after being accused of trying to interfere with the succession of Robert Mugabe. He says he advised Sir Richard on the people who should be invited to join The Elders.

Gideon Gono The head of Zimbabwe's central bank at a time of extreme financial crisis for the embattled population. Against the advice of economists he was responsible for the plan to print money that led to the hyperinflation that brought the country to its knees. Sir Richard says the two discussed how to get Mugabe to leave office.

Eric Bost The former US ambassador to South Africa became an unwitting player in the drama after the dispatch he sent from Pretoria in July 2007 was made public by WikiLeaks. In his note, he says that a contact provided his mission with the emails sent between Mr Moyo and Sir Richard as well as Mr Moyo's draft plan for the initiative. He was appointed to the post by President George W Bush in 2006 and left the country in January 2009.

Robert Mugabe Robert Mugabe has been in power since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980. Seen as a national hero, he now stands accused of overseeing Zimbabwe's utter collapse.

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