By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - African leaders were embarrassed by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and already encouraging him to step down before the army began moves last week to oust him, according to a secret Zimbabwean intelligence cable seen by Reuters.
The cable, dated Oct 23 and written by someone within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) to an unknown recipient, also says Mugabe spoke to South African President Jacob Zuma about his rivalry with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president whose sacking by Mugabe prompted the army action.
The 93-year-old president stepped down on Tuesday, the speaker of parliament said, in the middle of impeachment proceedings from his own ZANU-PF party and after a week of pressure from the military and crowds which thronged the capital at the weekend.
Two party officials said Mnangagwa would take his place.
The cable, one of a series seen by Reuters this year which give a detailed, insider's view of Zimbabwean politics, described intelligence officials warning Mugabe he would face "fierce resistance from the military" if Mnangagwa was removed.
First seen by Reuters before the army intervened, it said the 16-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) led by Zuma was pressuring Mugabe to resign and Zuma had suggested offering him a senior African Union role to ease him out.
Zuma's spokesman, Bongani Ngqulunga, dismissed the account as "completely untrue and scandalous". "President Jacob Zuma did not communicate with President Mugabe about former Vice-President Mnangagwa at all about the issues you mention."
Regional support allowed Mugabe to overcome an election setback in 2008 and could have held the key to his future as leader this time round.
SADC leaders met on Tuesday to discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe; Zuma and his Angolan counterpart, Joao Lourenco, were set to travel to Harare on Wednesday.
"All SADC leaders and African leaders want Mugabe to retire. Mugabe is seen as an embarrassment to the whole African continent," the document said.
A Zambian government source said Zuma, at the SADC meeting in Luanda, floated the idea of an AU position for Mugabe although the consensus was that he was too old.
"GRAND OLD MAN"
Reuters was not able to verify the assertion of widespread African opposition to Mugabe in the Oct 23 cable, which contrasts with his image as the respected "grand old man" of African politics.
Botswana President Ian Khama is the only African leader to have openly called for him to step down. Khama told Reuters on Friday Mugabe should go and allow for "an opportunity to put Zimbabwe on a path to peace and prosperity".
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a longtime strongman leader like Mugabe, condemned the de facto seizure of power by the army, which put troops on the streets of Harare and took over the state broadcaster.
Uganda, which is not in the SADC, reiterated its support for Mugabe on Tuesday. "Mugabe is one person who couldn't care what the West thought. He spoke out for Africans' rights, pan Africanism," said Okello Oryem, Uganda's state minister for foreign affairs.
SADC and the African Union (AU) have avoided characterizing last week's intervention by the military as a "coup", a definition that would carry diplomatic consequences. The AU had no immediate comment on the account in the cable.
The cable said Zuma told Zimbabwe's longtime leader that Mnangagwa, a former security chief known as 'The Crocodile', was a "tricky customer" with "many lives" and that by taking him on Mugabe was "playing with big fire".
Mnangagwa is widely expected to take over as president. His whereabouts are unknown after he fled the country citing fears for his safety. His political allies were not immediately available for comment.
The same cable said Zimbabwean intelligence officers and SADC leaders told Mugabe the army would not accept Mnangagwa being fired as vice-president to pave the way for Mugabe's 52-year-old wife, Grace, to succeed him.
"Mugabe was openly told by senior CIOs that the military is not going to easily accept the appointment of Grace," it read. The intelligence services of other countries in the region also knew the military might rebel and step in, it continued.
"SADC leaders also shared the same sentiments with the CIOs," the cable said.
Reuters reported in September that Mnangagwa was plotting to succeed Mugabe, with army backing, at the helm of a broad coalition. (nL4N1LL3V1)
The plot posited an interim unity government with international blessing to allow for Zimbabwe's re-engagement with the world after decades of isolation from global lenders and donors.
(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in KAMPALA, Katharine Houreld in NAIROBI and Chris Mfule in LUSAKA; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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