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Focus on Zimbabwe's people, not Mugabe

Leadership matters, but the rights of citizens are more important than the candidates.

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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.

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