BRITISH billionaire Sir Richard Branson has denied putting together a US$10 million fund to buy President Robert Mugabe out of power.
The money was part of Branson’s plan to persuade Mugabe to step down and “safeguard his proud legacy” with the help of Desmond Tutu and other African statesmen.
“It was never discussed,” Branson told Britain’s Independent newspaper when asked about the financial offer. “It would have been cheap at the price, but it just happens not to be true.”
Documents in our possession reveal how Branson made contact with former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who was to advise Branson’s ‘Elders’ panel on how to approach Mugabe.
Moyo admitted to Zimbabwe Today that he had a chance meeting with Branson at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg in April 2007, and the two men had a more than hour-long discussion on the plan to ease Mugabe out of power. Moyo was an independent MP at the time after he was kicked out of Zanu PF.
The Tsholotsho North MP said he later introduced Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono to Branson, although the latter later pulled out of the launch of the Elders panel.
Moyo, according to information disclosed by the former US ambassador to South Africa Eric Bost, advised the elders to urge Mugabe to support a constitutional ammendment, which would include “watertight” provisions on his immunity from prosecution and allow for a truth and reconciliation process.
“Moyo reached out to Branson, who owns Virgin Atlantic airlines as well as a game lodge and chain of gyms in South Africa, in early June to suggest the involvement of the former African leaders. Branson agreed to fund the initiative, including Moyo’s travel and technical assistance.”
We can also reveal details about Moyo’s plan, adding that he proposed the Elders visit Mugabe and urge him to support a new constitution amendment, giving him the chance to select an executive prime minister in exchange for standing down.
Moyo is even quoted as suggesting ”a script” for the elders’ encounter with the Zimbabwean president, including stressing that ”they respect him” and want to protect his ”proud legacy”.
Asked by Zimbabwe Today for his views on the leaked cable, Dr Moyo, who is a member of the Zanu-PF Politburo, initially said he could not comment on information ”given to the US ambassador by a third party” he named as the International Crisis Group.
Later however, in a lengthy phone call, Dr Moyo admitted having met Sir Richard Branson in a check-in queue at O.R Tambo airport in Johannesburg in April. ”We chatted for about an hour and a half. He told me that he was setting up a group of Elders with Peter Gabriel. When he learnt that I was an MP he was interested in my views. Mr Branson is a good man. We exchanged phone numbers and emails.”
Dr Moyo denied initiating a meeting with Mr Branson and claimed that the Virgin millionnaire had phoned him as a follow-up to the airport encounter. ”He asked my advice on who to appoint to his panel of Elders. I told him that the names he was proposing, including Desmond Tutu, were non-starters in Zimbabwe and I gave him more suitable names, including the former presidents of Namibia, Zambia, Ghana and Mozambique.”
He says he was labelled a Mugabe loyalist and had his advice rejected after he proposed that Branson drops Desmond Tutu, Graca Machel, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson from the panel and instead engage former African heads of state whom Mugabe respected, including Daniel Arap Moi, Kenneth Kaunda, Joaquim Chissano, Sam Nujoma, Ketumile Masire and Jerry Rawlings.
Branson, however, told the Independent that he did not remember meeting Moyo first and thought the man he met at the airport was Gono.
“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.”
Moyo said: “I am pleased that Sir Richard just about confirms everything that I have said about this initiative, except that he can’t remember whether he met me or Gono, or whether the two of us were at the airport.
“I am not sure whether that’s just a memory weakness or a cover-up. But whatever it is, it reminds me of racists in the American south who suffer from the folly that all black people look the same.”
Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson has expressed alarm that journalist-turned American informer Sydney Masamvu, whose name is listed in dozens of cables with instructions to “strictly protect”, was able to get hold of his emails exchanged with Moyo which were used as the source of Ambassador Bost’s cable.
The Independent said the Virgin boss was “troubled” by the interception of his emails by Masamvu, who has gained access to many government officials in the SADC region while wearing his other hat of researcher and political analyst for US-sponsored NGOs in South Africa.
“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.