Richard Branson, Jonathan Moyo, Gideon Gono and the hare brained scheme to bribe Robert Mugabe out of power

Oct 15, 2011

by Chido Makunike

US diplomatic cables released to the public by Wikileaks show that well-known British businessman Richard Branson was one of many who pre-occupied themselves with how to ease long term Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe out of power. It adds to the increasing evidence of the unusual, astonishing interest in influencing Zimbabwean affairs by the British media, government and private individuals like Branson. What Branson’s clumsy efforts do is simply give more credence to Mugabe’s contention that neo-colonialism and preserving kith and kin interests are the main reasons for the levels of attempted British intervention in Zimbabwe, rather than any concern for ’human rights and democracy.’ Mugabe may be a despot, but on the issue of Zimbabwe, this serves as more confirmation of just how soiled are British hands.

Rather than reflecting the business acumen for which he is renowned, the Branson regime-change initiative seems to have been astonishingly amateurish. Mugabe remains firmly ensconced in power, and Branson and his motley crew of alleged co-conspirators have egg plastered all over their faces.

In the (UK) Independent:

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.  "It was never discussed. It would have been cheap at the price, but it just happens not to be true."

According to the story, the mixture of bribery and flattery was to be mediated by ‘the elders,’ a group of former global power brokers brought together by Branson to attempt international trouble shooting. Among others, they include Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu. 

If a bribe was really offered, it would show just how little Branson and his band of regime change plotters understood the man they were proposing to take on. The idea feeds on the thought that all Africans can be bought, that they are incapable of resisting the lure of money over ideas, belief, conviction.

There is simply nothing in Mugabe’s history to suggest that he is remotely buyable. Furthermore, a bribe by a British private businessman, delivered by a group of ‘statesmen’ Mugabe has expressed contempt for (‘sellouts’ to westerners for him) would be the ultimate humiliation. Mugabe would have seen through many aspects of the plan regardless of how it was packaged, and dismissed it as one more western attempt to see him go, and rejected it with anger and contempt. Of all the many ways to attempt to coax or push Mugabe out of power, this would have been one of the most hare brained. There is simply no way it could have worked.

Central banker Gideon Gono and one time Mugabe minister Jonathan Moyo already have a lot to answer for to Mugabe in light of Wikileaks. It has recently become clear that at treacherous times for Mugabe, these people considered as confidants of his were meeting with American diplomats and expressing less than full loyalty to him. Moyo, in particular, has in the last several weeks been frantically trying to explain and justify his meetings with the Americans in newspaper columns.  

The leaked cables suggest that Gono and Moyo were among many who expressed the view that Mugabe had long overstayed in power. Gono, officially as well as personally close to the Mugabes, is also said to have spilled details to the Americans about the president’s long-rumored prostrate cancer.

Just when it had begun to sink in that many of the people close to Mugabe were having secret meetings with officials of a foreign power he considers his enemy, the Branson bribe plot opens up yet another angle of betrayal. Both Gono and Moyo have been cited as intermediaries in the alleged Branson plan to flatter and buy Mugabe out of power.

Again in the Independent:

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.

Mugabe has on several occasions expressed barely disguised contempt for Mandela. Adored as he is in the West for being the face of ‘forgiving Africa,’ for roughly the same reasons he is dismissed as having sold out black South Africans in exchange for western accolades. It might have been difficult for people like Branson to comprehend, but the Mandela who is an African saint for the West would probably have had a hard time just getting to meet Mugabe, let alone ‘organising a transition of power.’

Even if Mugabe had agreed to meet Mandela out of politeness, he certainly would not have had the time of day for the likes of Tutu and Annan. It is quite predictable that he would regard them as ‘tools of the imperialists,’ and in any case both have been openly critical of Mugabe in a way he would neither forget nor forgive. Moyo has said he advised Branson & Company that the makeup of the group mooted to approach Mugabe was a non-starter. That they did not understand this shows how out of their league they were from the start.

Their long failed initiative having finally come to light, Branson and Moyo are obviously keen to cover their backs. Many people in Zimbabwe and in Britain would like Mugabe gone, though for quite different reasons. However, Branson will not win any plaudits, especially in Zimbabwe, for the revelation that a foreigner, and a Briton at that, cooked up what was effectively a mercenary plot.

 Many/most Zimbabweans may want Mugabe retired, but that is not at all the same as saying they would be welcome an exit plan with British fingerprints on it. Even for Mugabe opponents, there is much evidence to suggest that Britain’s keen interest in Zimbabwean affairs is not about ‘promoting democracy and human rights.’

There is simply no way for Britain to deny the suspicion/charge that its unusual interest in Zimbabwe is out of sympathy for white and British business interests, and a desire to see at least a dilution of Mugabe’s land reform. It is obviously, naturally a sore point for dispossessed whites of mostly British stock and for ‘mother Britain,’ but there is no significant sentiment for reversing it amongst black Zimbabweans, even those who think Mugabe should now go. Mugabe sticks in the craw of the British for deeper and different reasons than Zimbabweans’ reasons for wanting political change at the top.    

Jonathan Moyo would certainly understand this, even if Branson and his other co-conspirators did not. Independent of his selective bootlicking of Mugabe (when he has not been a Mugabe critic/opponent), Moyo has also expressed a Britain-distrusting nationalism in his writing and his statements. It is therefore very odd that he got mixed up in Branson’s bizarre plot.

It is true that at the time Moyo had been sidelined by Mugabe and was in a bitter, foul mood of rejection and listlessness. The former ZANU-PF minister and big man in town was then (2007) an independent MP without the benefits of membership of the ruling party and closeness to Mugabe. In his resentment he had once more reverted to being a trenchant Mugabe critic.

But even then, it seems reckless, even for a man often referred to as a political prostitute, to go as far as participating in what he would have known would have been, if discovered, seen by Mugabe as unforgivably plotting with the British imperialists for his downfall. While Moyo has got away with a lot over the years in his sometimes love/sometimes hate relationship with Mugabe, the Branson plot was crossing a dangerous line from which it would be very difficult for Moyo to turn back in his relationship with Mugabe. It is no wonder that even before this latest Wikileaks revelation, Moyo has seemed in a panic to ascribe innocent or noble motives to his clandestine meetings with Mugabe’s bitter foreign foes.

Their abortive secret plan having never got off the ground, and now unexpectedly revealed to the world, it is amusing how Branson and Moyo have sought to distance themselves from and downplay the role of the other. Both assert that they initially met by accident at an airport in South Africa. Moyo suggests it was love at first sight, and that just from that first ‘accidental’ couple of hours meeting, the plan to sweet talk Mugabe out of office begun to take shape.

On being questioned about the plot recently, Moyo says his advice to Branson and his elders group about how best to approach Mugabe was rejected because he was ‘labelled a Mugabe loyalist.’ This sounds like a self-serving explanation by Moyo. After all, his being an embittered, disaffected ‘Mugabe loyalist’ might have been just the quality that made him initially seem like a useful tool to Branson.

Moyo, then relatively in the political wilderness, says he then put Branson in touch with the close-to-Mugabe Gideon Gono to take the plan further. The excited Gono is reported to have given Moyo the okay to give his contact details to Branson, whose books on business Gono had apparently read. Perhaps Gono was star-struck by Branson, although even that could not account for the dangerous, obvious foolishness of somebody in his position participating in the alleged scheme, if he in fact initially did so. Even if a then particularly embattled Mugabe had been looking for a safe way out of power, it is very hard to conceive that a plan such as Wikileaks has made public would have been one he would have acceded to.

Moyo at first generously described his one time pal Branson as ‘a good man’ in an interview about the scheme. But interviewed separately, Branson was dismissive of Moyo, and suggested that Moyo’s involved was deeper than Moyo had indicated.

Said Branson, "I remember meeting Gideon Gono at an airport. 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."

Branson’s ‘I can’t remember’ is of course possible, but it does not at all sound plausible. And in spilling the beans that he had actually hosted Moyo in Johannesburg ‘for a few days,’ he contradicts Moyo’s version of events, which is that their ‘accidental’ airport meeting was the only one they had. Where Moyo was trying to make his association with the plot seem as brief and fleeting as possible, Branson suggests that Moyo was in it quite deep before it all fell apart for whatever reason.

While he is still struggling to explain his meetings with the Americans at a time they were particularly vocal in their criticism of Mugabe, now Moyo has the additional burden of trying to extricate himself from allegations of plotting against Mugabe with a British neo-colonial capitalist!  How does Moyo dig out of this one?

His ‘good man’ peace offering to his co-conspirator Branson haughtily spurned, Moyo came out swinging in vintage style:

‘’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.”  

In about a two day period, the ‘good man’ Bronson has turned into something rather different for Moyo! This is of course one of the strongest kinds of ‘collateral damage’ that can be attributed to Wikileaks: in the scramble for people named in the once secret US cables to protect their reputations, livelihoods and their very lives, many who had once worked together are now viciously turning on each other. 

There are many layers of significance in Moyo’s lashing out at his previously ‘good man’ Branson in the racially loaded way he does. Moyo succeeds in pointing out the absurdity of a man, Branson, prepared to use his personal resources to drive regime-change in Zimbabwe claiming to not be able to tell apart his chief implementing agents.

Although Branson talks about Gono and Moyo in an offhanded ‘who are they’ way, it is extremely unlikely that someone with as much interest in Zimbabwean affairs as he obviously did/does would not have recognized either man, even long before he met them. At different times and in different ways, Gono and Moyo were each once the face of Mugabe’s government to the world. 

Gono and Moyo do not share the slightest physical resemblance, hence the dubiousness of Branson’s claimed failure to distinguish whether he met one of them or the other, or both. That kind of memory failure is of course possible (Branson is no doubt a busy man, meets lots of people, etc), but Moyo’s immediate suspicion that it is Branson’s way of slapping him in the face is also entirely understandable, and not entirely without foundation. What seems like an over-reaction by Moyo is partly the ghost of old-style, deeply entrenched colonizer-colonized relations coming to the fore.

Purposely or unwittingly, Branson’s implied ‘I couldn’t tell Gono and Moyo apart’ is reminiscent of old-style British colonial attitudes to Africans. It makes Gono and Moyo look even more foolish for having had dealings with Branson. It also undermines his claim that his only motivation for the bizarre idea was simply his humanitarian concern for the suffering-under-Mugabe Africans of Zimbabwe. He is so overcome with concern for those Africans but he can’t even tell apart two of the most prominent, famous ones he dealt with rather closely on a rather important mission.

It is possible that Moyo’s retort is an unfair slur on an ‘innocent’ Branson who is just genuinely, simply memory challenged in this case. But the point that is being made here is just how treacherous are Zimbabwe-Britain relations, how deep racial issues on both sides inform attitudes, and why it is preferable that former colonizer Britain and its citizens keep as far away from the intricacies of solving ‘the Zimbabwe Crisis’ as possible.

Britain obviously had a key role in shaping the country that is now Zimbabwe. Perhaps it might in future again have another important, different role. But at this juncture in Zimbabwe’s progression, no matter how well-intentioned it might be, almost no good at all can come from British interference in which way Zimbabwe goes. The chances of that interference going sour are much greater than they are of producing a good result, for Zimbabwe or for Britain. Change in Zimbabwe that has too much of a British association is almost guaranteed to prolong the country’s troubles.

Mugabe has a deep understanding of how African sensibilities have been affected by the colonial experience, and how that affects modern day relations/attitudes to Britain. For example, he has very effectively painted Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC as dim-witted African tools of imperialism. His message has been, ‘‘the foreigners who are supporting/funding Tsvangirai to depose me do not respect Africans and are using them (Tsvangirai/MDC) for their own ends.’’

To westerners this sounds absurd and paranoid. But it strikes a responsive cord with many Africans because they can so easily recall incidents from their own lives where they have felt this way in their interactions with colonialism and its after affects. The MDC has lost both support and ‘face,’ in Zimbabwe and in much of Africa, by being so carelessly close to Britain, whose reasons for wanting ‘change’ in Zimbabwe are not necessarily the same as those of Zimbabweans. It has not been particularly difficult for Mugabe to portray the MDC as imperialist stooges. This is an insult that still has a lot of sting in Africa.

Branson’s ‘I can’t remember if it was Gono or Moyo’ conjures up many of these latent, just-below-the-surface elements of relations today between Africans with their former colonizers. Moyo offered the olive branch of ‘Branson is a good man’ and Branson contemptuously slapped him with an effective, ‘I couldn’t even really tell you apart from that other African, Gono, who I wanted to hire to buy out that third African, Mugabe.’         

Branson, Gono and Moyo have all been ‘outed’ in many more ways than the obvious, and none of them look good in this caper.

Whatever the exact details, Gono and Moyo were already in a tight, uncomfortable position for having anything at all to do with this plot, no matter how innocent they may claim their meetings with Branson were. But their being effectively spurned and diminished by their British ‘boss’ has additional implications.

 For whatever reason, Branson found Gono and Moyo not useful to the achievement of a plan that was silly to begin with anyway. Where they were once important enough to his plan for him to pursue and reportedly host them, now, a mere four years later, Branson effectively says he can’t even really remember them!

In Zimbabwean ideological terms, Gono and Moyo fell into just the trap that Mugabe has repeatedly said ‘the imperialists’ were busy laying: seeing Africans only as tools to achieve their ends, and dismissing them from the mind/memory as soon as they are seen to no longer be useful to serving those ends. This is Mugabe’s characterization of Tsvangirai and the MDC’s role in the country’s politics: to reverse Mugabe’s aggressively pro-African policies on behalf of local and international interests just like Branson.

Branson’s way of effectively dismissing Gono and Moyo in how he explains his recollection of events brings up and confirms a central argument of Mugabe’s: ‘the whites/British are accustomed to being in control in Zimbabwe, using Africans as tools where necessary. I, Mugabe, have upset that age-old dynamic, and that is why so many elements of the British machine detest me so deeply. That is why they will do anything to remove me and reverse the changes in the racial dynamics of power that I have set in motion in Zimbabwe.’ 

These are peripheral issues to the plot in discussion, but they are important to understanding both the deep British interest in Zimbabwe, as well as how Mugabe has explained and deflected it in both obvious and subliminal ways that all Africans can very easily relate to.  

It may never be known how much of this Mugabe may have known about. Even if he was not aware of all the details that are now coming out, Mugabe runs a very tight ship intelligence-wise, so it would not be surprising if he had at least a whiff of these ‘machinations of the imperialists who want to reverse the gains of the Zimbabwean revolution.’

Branson’s ‘elders’ tried to visit Zimbabwe in 2009 and were unceremoniously turned down by the government. At the time it seemed heavy handed and petty to refuse their visit. More recently, but long before this Wikileaks purported Mugabe buy-out scheme hit the headlines, Branson expressed an interest to invest in Zimbabwe in some unspecified big way. That initiative was met with official hostility which seemed puzzling and irrational at the time.

However, in the hindsight of the latest Wikileaks revelations, it could be that Mugabe had already long pegged Branson as a hostile force and part of Britain’s manifold efforts to push him out of power.

Why is Branson so particularly interested in Zimbabwe, of all the countries in Africa and the world that are said to be lacking ‘democracy and human rights?’ Could Branson be more concerned about the ‘democracy and human rights’ of Zimbabweans than he is of Saudi Arabians, Iraqis, Chinese, Burmese or Somalis? If so, lucky Zimbabweans, but it would still be interesting to understand why Zimbabwe so particularly touches British emotions.

Branson: ‘‘It has nothing to do with my businesses. Most of my time now, about 70 percent, is spent on philanthropic work. And if I’m in a position to help with resolving conflicts, I believe I should do so.’’

There you have it. He is just a lone, rich, innocent do gooder who saw a possible opportunity to help with ‘resolving conflict’ in Zimbabwe! He also explained his recently expressed interest in doing business in Zimbabwe as philanthropy. Just to help out the poor Zimbabweans, you understand.

Somehow, coming out and simply saying ‘‘I see Zimbabwe as a potentially very good business proposition’’ would be a lot more believable than casting all the tremendous time, effort and money expended on regime change as philanthropic do-goodism. Even if that’s what it really is for Branson, his whole approach, including the claimed (and of course denied) Mugabe buy-out plot, simply reeks of neo-colonial paternalism.

It is another manifestation of the complex, messy lingering dynamic of post-colonial relations that very often, in how people from the ex-colonizer say they wish to ‘help’ the ex-colonized, they actually get in way over their heads and often do more harm than good.

Zimbabwe needs political change, including the idea that presidents come and go. Zimbabwe is struggling very painfully to find its own way to achieving a system of political progression. The help that foreigners can usefully give in this painful process is very limited. When it is underhanded like Branson’s initiative, and when it also comes from the direction of the ex-colonial power, officially or otherwise, it will almost always come to no good.     

What is emerging from Wikileaks is that if Mugabe once seemed paranoid about western efforts to ease or push him out of power, his paranoia was not unjustified after all. Many Zimbabweans want him to step aside after 31 years in power, but there are British and other foreign motivations for removing him that do not coincide with those of Zimbabweans.

Branson’s nursery school plot to attempt to buy Mugabe out of office shows the astonishing stake in Zimbabwe that some British and other foreigners feel they have. That stake sure as hell isn’t principally for the generality of Zimbabweans to enjoy ‘democracy and human rights.’ Which is also exactly why, in addition to the mess of the colonial past, British involvement of almost any sort in ‘change’ in Zimbabwe is almost guaranteed to end up badly.    



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