NEW YORK As the crisis in Zimbabwe deepens, the international community and particularly African leaders can play a significant role in saving the important southern African country from political and economic implosion.
African governments have been reluctant to challenge Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. For many years they seemed to prefer to defer to his liberation leader credentials. In some quarters, this reluctance has been amplified by a sense of discomfort with opposition standard-bearer and former trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Much of the international dialogue is focused on the power struggle between the two.
But while it is true that the presidential runoff election brought Zimbabwe's crisis to a boiling point, the struggle in Zimbabwe is not actually about these two men, and the real question before the international community is not whether to support Mr. Mugabe or Mr. Tsvangirai. It's about acknowledging that the people of Zimbabwe have civil and political rights.
Keeping Zimbabwe's citizens at the center of the debate would buck a disturbing trend in African elections. It can also create space for more effective international action. Too often, African elections are discussed as if they are held for the candidates, not for the voters.
In the lead-up to last year's flawed elections in Nigeria, I listened to a senior election official complain about the tardiness and even the cleanliness of voters, suggesting that they were an impediment to a hassle-free electoral exercise. His contempt for voters was reflected in the often chaotic conduct of the election itself, which left many Nigerians disenfranchised and has spurred numerous ongoing legal challenges.
Just a few months ago in Kenya, extremely dubious vote-tallying procedures marred a close election between incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga, triggering serious civil conflict with regionwide implications.
In the end, a power-sharing arrangement heroically brokered by Kofi Annan ensured that both men and their inner circles attained positions of power, but it's not at all clear that the Kenyan people got much beyond a respite from explosive postelection violence.
The bloated power-sharing government certainly provides rewards for party stalwarts, but it is ill-equipped to address the underlying grievances relating to land tenure, income inequality and corruption that fueled the unrest. The needs of political elites were accommodated, but the needs of the Kenyan people may well go unmet.
In Zimbabwe, the government's long delay in announcing election results after the March 29 elections raised the question just whose votes were these?
Apparently the electoral commission, which is controlled by the ruling party, felt that the count of the public's vote was information for private strategic use.
After mobilizing and deploying the ruling party's machinery of repression and intimidation to punish Zimbabweans for failing to hand him a victory, President Mugabe announced that no vote tally could ever spur him to leave power.
The current regime seems to consider a successful electoral process as one big, expensive government rally a celebration of themselves, rather than an opportunity for Zimbabweans to exercise some control over their own future.
Of course political leadership matters, and those contending for victory at the ballot box usually represent real and sizable constituencies. But it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the rights and aspirations of the citizens are much more important than the personalities contesting the race.
To do the right thing, African governments and regional organizations don't have to choose between Tsvangirai or Mugabe or any of the other politicians waiting in the wings. After all, that's not their call to make. Instead, they have to prioritize the dignity and rights of the Zimbabwean people.
That means that the unity government solution favored by many African Union members must be transitional in nature, and negotiations to get there must have at their core a clear, enforceable path to free and fair elections, real transparency, and accountability in government.
But shifting the focus to the Zimbabwean people, as a first step, starts with acknowledging that the current government of Zimbabwe has no legitimate claim to power and no standing to dictate the terms of a power-sharing negotiation, regardless of the sham runoff result.
Michelle Gavin is an adjunct fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations.