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There is a note of inevitable, impending tragedy as the Zimbabwe crisis deepens. An ageing dictator, egged on by a headstrong wife almost half his age, turns on a comrade with whom he once shared the tribulations of an independence war.

Top officers in the army, rally round their fallen peer — vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa — and warn the ailing tyrant that, should the purge of liberation war veterans continue, they will intervene. This is an unprecedented step, and one that signals how close things are to getting out of hand.

Robert Mugabe’s presidency is coming to a messy end. As the once monolithic Zanu-PF movement fractures, the spectre of a breakdown in law and order grows ominously.

But this need not be. Given the travails that Zimbabweans have been dragged through during the latter part of Mr Mugabe’s 37-year rule — the economic turmoil, hyper-inflation, corruption, and gross violation of human rights — it is something of a miracle that their country has not already fallen further apart. It can still be fixed.

There are no religious tensions to complicate the task. The country has a skilled and literate workforce. Its infrastructure, its roads, railways and communications are enviable by continental standards. And there is a diaspora at least a million strong in the UK and South Africa that yearns to return home, and that could bring with it the talent and capital required to begin rebuilding.

Above all, the military, until on Tuesday at least, had remained in the barracks. They need to be encouraged to stay there. Guaranteeing their pay would be a start. But more broadly the benefits of reform need to be spelt out clearly. Equally, the Zimbabwean on the street needs to have a blueprint for what the future might hold.

This week the outlook looked bleak. Harare was on edge as troop and tank movements sparked speculation that a coup was under way. The Zanu-PF youth league, which backs Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband, threatened to resist. It was unclear whether the generals were genuinely preparing to take control, or instead staging a show of force.

Either way, a coup is no answer to the crisis sparked by the succession battle that is under way. Nor is leaving Mr Mugabe’s wife a clear path to a dynastic presidency, a scenario that has begun to look plausible as her grip over her husband has grown, and as her potential rivals, such as Mr Mnangagwa, are swept out of the way.

Given how much is at stake, it is surprising that regional and continental institutions have not responded sooner. It is for Zimbabwe’s long-suffering population to determine what happens next. But they deserve to know that the outside world is ready and willing to help.

Someone with the stature of Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, should lead a group of eminent persons backed by the African Union to take stock of the country’s needs, assess emergency food aid requirements but also look forward. This means elaborating a programme that will put books back into schools, medicine into clinics and seeds into fields. Britain, the former colonial power, would be wise to keep a low profile. But it could offer to co-ordinate.

Would Mr Mugabe even accept such an initiative? Quite possibly not. But this should be no deterrent. After all, this is more than a crisis in Zimbabwe. If it turns into a conflagration, it would affect the 287m people of Southern Africa. Offering hope, at this critical stage, will be more effective than a counsel of despair.

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