A group of exiled Zimbabwean businessman proposed in 2007 that Mugabe could be persuaded to hand over executive power to a prime minister before leaving office completely three years later. American officials welcomed the idea, noting that it was "increasingly in circulation" in the capital, Harare, and "may not require outside intervention".
The plot came to nothing, although it does bear similarities to the power sharing deal that saw Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai become prime minister after violent elections in 2008.
A confidential memo from the US embassy in South Africa is entitled "Secret power sharing plan" and dated 30 January 2007. At the time Zimbabwe was plunging into an unprecedented economic crisis. The cable names a group of prominent Zimbabwean businessmen living in South Africa who were pushing for change but says their leader’s identity should be "strictly protected".
Executive power was to be shifted from Mugabe to a "technocratic" prime minister. "To get Mugabe to accept the deal, Mugabe would remain president until 2010 with some power over the security apparatus, but the prime minister would run the economy and get the country back on its feet," the dispatch says.
"All parties would work together to draft a new constitution. [The businessman] was open to ideas on who best to sell the plan, but suggested new UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, working through an envoy like former Malaysian PM Mahathir, as possible mediators."
Mugabe would have retained the power to appoint the ministers of defence, home affairs and national security. The prime minister would have appointed other cabinet members, particularly in the economic arena. Deployment of troops would have required the approval of both the PM and president.
In return for various reforms the international community was to agree on a phased lifting of sanctions, the "acceptance" of the extension of Mugabe’s term to 2010 and economic assistance to help rehabilitate the Zimbabwean economy.
The prime minister would have needed the backing of 85% of parliament and therefore the support of the opposition MDC.
The US embassy said it could not comment on the merits of the plan but found it "encouraging" that senior Zimbabwean businessmen abroad were discussing solutions to the country’s political and economic malaise.
"The four businessmen agreed that there is a ‘window of opportunity’ to bring positive change to Zimbabwe, opened by the deteriorating economic situation and Mugabe’s advancing age and declining health."
Little detail was given on how Mugabe, a hero of the liberation struggle who came to power in 1980, could be persuaded to stand aside.
Moeletsi Mbeki, a South African businessman and brother of its then president, Thabo Mbeki, recommended against South Africa playing the mediation role, arguing instead for a combination such as Ban and Mahathir.
An additional note from the US embassy in Harare suggests the MDC endorsed the concept. It says Tsvangirai told embassy officials that "this is Mugabe’s Plan B as he runs into growing resistance" and that the prime minister would be Simba Makoni, a former Mugabe ally turned rival.
"Significant outside intervention, therefore, may not be necessary; however, gentle encouragement from Pretoria is unlikely to be amiss. UN SYG [secretary general] Ban may not wish to engage on this issue at the beginning of his tenure, especially in view of the way Mugabe treated former UN SYG [Kofi] Annan.
"He fears for his future if he steps down – citing the Charles Taylor example [the former Liberian president now on trial for war crimes] – and perhaps even more importantly fears for the future of his wife and young children."
Another memo from the US embassy in Harare – with subheadings that include "How to get Mugabe out" – shows that a decade ago the MDC considered a "mass action" intended to force the president from office.
It details a breakfast meeting on 16 November 2000 between Tsvangirai and Susan Rice, then-president Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary for African affairs.
"Mass action would be intended to pressure president Mugabe to resign," it says. "The MDC understands the serious risks associated with mass action, Tsvangirai professed, and recognises that it is in the country’s best interest to avoid bloodshed."
Mass action would most likely have taken the form of a general strike that December, it adds. But brutal government retaliation was a genuine fear: "Tsvangirai believed the army wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a lot of people.
"Tsvangirai was frank, confident and relaxed. However he did not convince us that the MDC has a clear or well thought out plan for mass action or what it would accomplish.
"Everyone is focused on seeing Mugabe go but it will probably take a convergence of opposition from Zanu-PF, the military and regional leaders to force him out."
The MDC leader was seeking foreign assistance with little success. "Tsvangirai mentioned that on his last visit to South Africa he met with former president [Nelson] Mandela – who still exerts great influence in South Africa, he stated – and urged the leader to intervene in Zimbabwe. He did not receive a firm commitment from Mandela, however, and did not see [Thabo] Mbeki.
"Tsvangirai said that when he was in the UK recently he told the British to refrain from making public statements on land reform in Zimbabwe and to use their influence behind the scenes to resolve the problem."
Even in 2000 Tsvangirai said that ideally the MDC would like to see a "transitional arrangement" over two years where Mugabe’s Zanu-PF remained in power but brought in MDC ministers to arrest economic decline. Another eight years, with much bloodshed and hardship, were to pass before this became reality. – The Guardian