Robert Mugabe is moving at lightning speed to ensure that his fraudulent re-election as Zimbabwe's president wins the crucial endorsement of fellow African leaders. Hence the decision to race from the coronation ceremony in Zimbabwe – even before the election results are declared – to the African Union summit in Egypt, where the old gambler intends to bounce Africa's leaders into accepting his victory.
If all goes to plan, dissenting voices at the summit will be muffled, enabling Mugabe to return home in glory. Vowing defiance of Western colonialists, this will be the cue to throw paltry and insincere concessions in the direction of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change, purely for the sake of publicity.
This dismal scenario is not far-fetched. African leaders have proved loath to criticise the guerrilla leader who toppled Ian Smith's white Rhodesia, and feelings of racial and political solidarity have traditionally trumped concerns over Zimbabwe's breathtaking collapse under Mugabe's brutal but cack-handed rule.
Yet there is still hope that this dreadful vision may be confounded, Mugabe deprived of a diplomatic triumph and his iron grip on power shaken. A misplaced instinct for solidarity among African leaders is breaking down, not before time. Kenya's leaders have spoken out against the nonsense of an election in which only one candidate took part and the opposition was driven from the field by terror. Botswana has also made known its deep unhappiness over the state of its neighbour. Pan-African observers of the Zimbabwe election have declined to bless the poll, insisting it was neither free nor fair. Clearly, they were swayed by the defiance of many Zimbabweans who refused to vote, spoiled their ballot papers, or even cast votes for the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, though he had by then withdrawn as a candidate.
Until now, Mugabe has been able to rely on nods and winks from Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, the only country with real leverage over Zimbabwe. It would be too much to expect a change of heart from Mbeki at this late stage; but sharp criticism of the Mugabe regime from the new ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, as well as from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and, in recent days, from Nelson Mandela, shows that black South Africans no longer feel as bound by ties of loyalty to Zimbabwe's boss as they did. Of course, neither Tutu, Mandela nor Zuma will be attending the African Union summit, so their voices will have no direct impact on discussions. But we must hope the growing chorus of protest against the Harare regime from within Africa itself will have an effect on the deliberations.
This is indeed Africa's moment, for good or ill. If the summit allows the bloodstained charade of Mugabe's election to pass unnoticed, hopes for the continent's democratic development will have been radically set back. Similarly, if the summit denies Mugabe the fig leaf of legitimacy that he craves, his regime will be embarrassed and forced on the defensive.
Resolution of Zimbabwe's crisis is urgent. Discussion of its government as a tyranny often misses the point. This is not an otherwise economically "normal" country, disfigured by a politically repressive regime. It is a country where the economy is collapsing with such terrifying speed that a large proportion of the population faces only two options: flight, or death by starvation. It is still not too late to salvage something of Zimbabwe's vanished prosperity and prevent its further descent into hopeless turmoil. But it depends on Mugabe's speedy exit from the stage. If the Egyptian summiteers disappoint him, that day may come sooner than we think. The African Union must do the right thing.