Virgin Group head Sir Richard Branson announces plans to launch a solo piloted submarine to the deepest points of the world's five oceans at a news conference in Newport Beach, California April 5, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT HEADSHOT BUSINESS MARITIME)

LONDON: 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 last week’s extraordinary claims that he once offered a £6.5 million 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 Mugabe’s government, and several respected African statesmen.

And, in a revelation that could send shockwaves through Harare’s political establishment, Branson revealed he held direct discussions with close Mugabe ally Gideon Gono about removing the old autocrat. As governor of the country’s reserve bank, Gono has, for years, bankrolled the regime.

But Branson claimed the plan, revealed last week by WikiLeaks, fell apart when he and his colleagues had serious reservations about whether Moyo and his supporters were suitable people to join in the business of nation-building.

“I was approached by the man who was mentioned in the WikiLeaks, Jonathan Moyo, and listened. Eventually, we decided not to do anything with him. We just weren’t completely sure his was the best approach.

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

But it is Branson’s description of his dealings with Gono, far more influential than Moyo and one of Mugabe’s inner circle, that will raise eyebrows in Harare. Branson says he also held discussions with Gono about the possibilities of regime change.

Branson says the scheme was prompted by a chance meeting with Gono at an airport in South Africa early in 2007. At the time, Zimbabwe was suffering from growing volatility before elections the following year.

They had a short talk in which several ideas for Mugabe’s removal were raised. Those ideas were later fleshed out via e-mail and elaborated in several days’ face-to-face meetings which Moyo, but not Gono, attended in Joburg in July that year.

That account contradicts an earlier version of events from Moyo. He told the Zimbabwean Daily News he was the conduit between Branson and Gono, who refused to pass the message on to Mugabe. Gono refused to comment.

Branson said: “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 Joburg for a few days, but we decided not to continue with him.”

Gono is a controversial figure, since his time as Zimbabwe’s top banker has coincided with hyperinflation that has exacerbated its economic ruin. His private life also makes headlines. Last year, he was forced briefly into hiding amid rumours he had pursued a five-year extra-marital affair with Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

According to the plan Gono and Moyo helped hatch, Nelson Mandela and a collection of other respected figures would have approached Mugabe. 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’s.

The existence of the scheme was made public last week, when WikiLeaks published a series of classified cables written by US ambassador to Pretoria, Eric Bost. He had got his hands on several e-mails between Branson and Moyo.

The Daily News, which broke the WikiLeaks story, claimed Branson had been prepared to “offer Mugabe a £6.5m incentive to stand down”.

That element of the story is untrue, Branson insists. “It was never discussed. It would have been cheap at the price, but it just happens not to be true.”

Branson says he was troubled by the revelation a US diplomat had apparently been able to get hold of sensitive private e-mails. “Obviously, they must be listening in, or doing something. I have no idea how they got them.”

His recollection of the affair raises questions about the public statements Moyo, who is now a member of Zanu-PF’s politburo, made last week. For example, on Tuesday, Moyo told The Independent his only meeting with Branson had come in a check-in queue at OR Tambo Airport in April 2007.

“We chatted for about an hour- and-a-half. When he learnt I was an MP, he was interested in my views. Mr Branson is a good man.”

Although the 2007 scheme came to naught, Branson said, The Elders, a group of world leaders he helped form, played a key role in setting up Zimbabwe’s coalition government after the 2008 elections. He stressed his interest in easing Mugabe from office was in no way motivated by a desire to expand any of his Virgin ventures into Zimbabwe, but was largely philanthropic. – The Independent