Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo had advanced plans to form a political party to challenge President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party, leaked United States embassy cables show.

The United People’s Movement (UPM) “planned to actively exploit existing tensions in ZANU PF” and “would aggressively hammer wedge issues to further divide the ruling party”.

Plans to form the party were drawn up in late 2005, the cables released by WikiLeaks claim, but Mnangagwa and Moyo never came out publicly to back the new party.

The revelations show the depth of disquiet with ZANU PF’s direction under President Robert Mugabe’s leadership over the last decade. Almost all his top allies including Vice President Joice Mujuru and Vice President John Nkomo have been revealed to have told American diplomats privately that they thought the party needed a change of leadership.

Mujuru, the US embassy cables show, was behind former Finance Minister Simba Makoni’s bid for the presidency in March 2008. The Vice President and her late husband, Solomon, had promised to quit ZANU PF two days before the election to publicly-back Makoni but chickened out, the diplomatic dispatches claimed, over concerns that Mugabe would target their business interests.

In a November 22, 2005, dispatch to Washington, the US embassy’s Charge d’Affaires, Eric T. Schultz, reflected on a meeting held with former ZANU PF MP Pearson Mbalekwa days earlier.

Mbalekwa, described as the UPM’s “principal”, told Schultz that Moyo – who had exiled himself from ZANU PF after running as an independent in Tsholotsho North – was part of the national executive.

“He claimed Emmerson Mnangagwa was satisfied with the movement’s progress and remained quietly behind the group but would not comment on plans for Mnangagwa’s association to be publicly disclosed,” Scultz wrote.

Months earlier, Schultz had met Mbalekwa who “openly wondered how the West would react to a Mnangagwa presidency”.

The decision to form the new party, Mbalekwa had told the American diplomats, was taken after “Mugabe’s cynical manipulation of last year’s presidium vote (2004) and the subsequent purges associated with the Tsholotsho meeting” where Mnangagwa and allies including Moyo, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, former Transport Minister Chris Mushowe, war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda and ZANU PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo allegedly plotted a palace coup.

Mbalekwa claimed Mnangagwa, Moyo and others had realised that “change within the party would be impossible as long as Mugabe remained in charge”.

“Accordingly, growing numbers of disaffected ZANU PF had been collaborating and were getting prepared to launch a ‘third force’…,” Schutlz said in another cable dated July 18, 2005.

Commenting about the possible development in his November cable, Schultz said: “The UPM’s most identifiable principals – Emmerson Mnangagwa and Jonathan Moyo – each carry heavy liabilities with both domestic and international audiences for their association with past ruling party oppression.

“In addition, like the opposition MDC, it lacks resources or a reliable platform from which to deliver its message in an environment where the ruling party directs the full power of the state to its advantage.

“That said, Zimbabwe’s dysfunctional political landscape and leadership vacuum suggest obvious opportunities for a third force and the UPM is well-positioned, especially in the event of a ruling party crack-up over Mugabe’s succession, to take advantage of those opportunities.”

The planned party never took off the ground. Moyo rejoined ZANU PF in 2008 and Mnangagwa was given the powerful post of Defence Minister in a 2009 cabinet announcement by Mugabe.