Venture inside a government ministry in Zimbabwe and you will probably encounter a cavernous, echoing shell.
By David Blair
One diplomat recently visited a cabinet minister in Harare, only to find him completely alone, save for his secretary, in an empty building stripped of furniture.
Leave aside Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic and mass starvation, now the state itself is falling victim to President Robert Mugabe. Hyperinflation has ensured that anyone paid in Zimbabwe dollars in effect earns nothing at all. Entirely understandably, civil servants have given up working and the government is steadily shutting down.
On the face of it, this resembles the "death throes" of Mr Mugabe's regime, which Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa, referred to this week. Yet how might the old dictator actually depart? Is his demise really imminent?
Mr Mugabe, who turns 85 in February, might be removed from the scene by nature, an event that would bring indescribable relief to Zimbabwe. But aside from dying in office, there are remarkably few ways in which an African despot might lose power.
Some can be discounted immediately. Mr Mugabe will obviously not resign or depart after an election defeat. Nor is it likely that Zimbabwe's weakened, impoverished people will ever be able to overthrow him. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change is too divided and inept to mobilise an uprising of any kind. Morgan Tsvangirai, its leader, shuttles around the conference halls of Africa and Europe, spending much of his time anywhere but in Zimbabwe.
The only other possibilities are a coup – either a military takeover or an internal putsch within Zanu-PF party – or massive external pressure. No one knows whether Zimbabwe's generals are considering a move against Mr Mugabe. They have done supremely well out of his rule, taking their pick of formerly white-owned farms and treating the state's reserves as their own piggybank.
The hardline securocrats who sit on the Joint Operations Command, notably General Constantine Chiwenga, the overall military chief, do not care about Zimbabwe's collapse and they are utterly indifferent to outside criticism. Self-interest is all that matters – and at the moment, that seems best served by keeping Mr Mugabe in power. His presence allows this venal clique of generals to continue looting their country.
This calculation might change. The generals might one day judge that Mr Mugabe has outlived his usefulness and their privileges would be safeguarded by a new leader. This choice could be forced on them by, for example, an organised mutiny among the army's lower ranks, whose wages are now worthless.
But Mr Mugabe is fully aware of this danger and he will do whatever is necessary to continue buying the loyalty of his generals. As for the chances of a party coup, Mr Mugabe has plenty of enemies inside Zanu-PF, which is probably more divided than ever before. Yet he has always been skilled at playing factions against one another. It seems unlikely – although not wholly impossible – that this knack will suddenly desert him.
This leaves external pressure as the only means of forcing Mr Mugabe's departure. For the first time, he is finding it increasingly difficult to claim the support of his brother African leaders. In the past three years, every one of Zimbabwe's four neighbours has acquired a new president, leaving Mr Mugabe more isolated than ever.
Old allies have fallen by the wayside, symbolised by the downfall of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa. Today, Mr Mugabe is not on speaking terms with the governments of two of his neighbours – Botswana and Zambia – and his relations with South Africa are increasingly strained.
Elsehwere, Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister, has openly called for Mr Mugabe to be overthrown, by force if necessary, and Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town, has gone so far as to urge the invasion of Zimbabwe.
This remains an almost inconceivable option. No African army would intervene in Zimbabwe – and the country is simply not important enough for any Western government to contemplate this option.
But suppose Zimbabwe's neighbours decided to ban Mr Mugabe and his allies, notably the generals, from travelling to their countries. Suppose they also froze any assets and investments they might hold elsewhere in Africa. Suppose, in short, that southern Africa replicated the measures taken against Zimbabwe's regime by America and every member of the European Union.
This remains highly unlikely – but no longer impossible. Already, it seems inconceivable that Mr Mugabe could pay private visits to Botswana or Zambia. If his fellow African leaders were willing to punish him in this way, the humiliation would rankle deeply. Mr Mugabe would be robbed of much of his prestige and his self-image as a revered African freedom fighter would be tarnished.
If so, Zimbabwe's generals might start wondering whether their ageing figurehead was worth retaining. In this way, external pressure might provoke the internal convulsion that remains the biggest threat to Mr Mugabe.
Britain should urge African leaders to follow the EU's counter-measures against Mr Mugabe. The biggest danger faced by the old dictator is humiliation.