IN ZIMBABWE they are waiting for rain. The region’s worst drought in a decade has withered the maize (or corn) crop, which came in at only about half the size of last year’s. The poor harvest has left at least 1.5m people—more than one in every eight—in desperate need of food aid.

For Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people, waiting has become a national vocation. For 15 years since he rigged a general election in 2000, Zimbabweans have waited for the chance to be shot of Robert Mugabe. He has ruled the country since its independence in 1980, and so gravely wrecked its economy that people are poorer today than they were 25 years ago. Of late, despairing of democratic change, they have simply waited for the 91-year-old to succumb to mortality.

The parched harvest and weak economy mean that their patience may soon be rewarded: if Mr Mugabe does not die first, it looks increasingly possible that he may be pushed out by his party, Zanu-PF, over which his ruthless control is slipping. To be sure, he has weathered economic and political crises before. But this time things are different.

One reason is that Mr Mugabe’s mental powers seem at last to be failing him. He recently read out the very same speech that he had delivered to parliament only three weeks earlier. Still more pressing is the fact that his government is running out of the money it needs to pay the public servants, especially policemen and soldiers, who keep it in power and whose wages gobble up more than 80% of public spending.

In previous crises Mr Mugabe could usually pull a rabbit out of the hat. When his popularity fell, he seized land from white farmers and gave it to his supporters. And when, as a result, the money ran out, he printed more. Now Mr Mugabe’s hat is out of rabbits. The government cannot borrow from abroad because it defaulted on its foreign loans in 1999; even China has balked at helping. Nor can it print money, because it was forced to adopt dollars to tame the hyperinflation that rampaged in 2008. And because Zimbabwe imports more than it exports, its supply of currency is shrinking, driving it into deflation. Official estimates of growth are divorced from reality. The amount of beer sold, a good measure of the economy, has dropped by 8% in the past year (see article). Electricity in Harare, the capital, is often cut off for 18 hours a day. Firms are shedding thousands of workers.

Zimbabwe’s only way out is to make peace with its creditors, which include the IMF and Western governments, in order to get new loans and forgiveness of its foreign debt, which stands at over 100% of GDP. This month the finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, will present a reform plan that includes spending cuts and changes to some of the laws that are holding back investment, such as one insisting that all firms are majority-owned by black Zimbabweans.

Be kind but firm

The dilemma for the West is whether to bail out the government with debt relief and new loans—or wait for the demise of the tyrant. The choice need not be so stark. Relative reformists such as Mr Chinamasa should be encouraged, despite his record as a serial human-rights abuser when he was minister of justice; even more sinister party chiefs are sharpening their knives for the succession.

Western governments should lay down firm conditions for aid. They must form a plan that makes assistance and debt relief depend on measurable economic and democratic reforms. But they need to hurry. If they act now they may influence the outcome for the better. If they wait until Mr Mugabe has gone, a precious opportunity may be lost.

-The Economist