The decision on Sunday by Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to pull out of the presidential run-off election scheduled for Friday was unfortunate, but he had little choice in the face of intimidation, harassment and other obstacles placed in his way by President Robert Mugabe and his supporters.
Mugabe, who came second to Tsvangirai in the March 29 elections, regards himself as president for life and uses elections simply to gauge his popularity.
At a conference in South Africa recently, a senior Zimbabwean police official told me that it has never occurred to Mugabe that presidential elections could determine whether he remains in power.
The 84-year-old Zimbabwean President has no respect for democracy, good governance or the rule of law, which puts him at odds with the principles, norms and institutions to which the African Union adheres.
Following the March 29 parliamentary elections, in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change won more seats than Mugabe's ZANU-PF, the President ordered the sacking and arrest of some election officials.
Besides political harassment, Zimbabweans face serious economic and social problems. Inflation increases by thousands of per cent every month and the country's currency has little value.
There are widespread food shortages throughout the country, and the little food that is available in the rural areas is being distributed on the basis of political affiliation. Unemployment is immeasurably high, and schools and hospitals are in extremely poor shape.
As a journalist, I reported on Zimbabwe for several years before Mugabe took power in 1980, and the economy he inherited was one of the richest in Africa. Now Zimbabwe is a shadow of what it was and is sliding towards the abyss.
What needs to be done to improve the situation there? Little is likely to change in Zimbabwe without outside intervention. Three organisations need to consider seriously how they can take prompt action to restore democracy, resuscitate the economy and place Zimbabwe once again on the road to prosperity.
The main responsibility should be with the UN, which should step in to ensure that elections do not proceed unless they are demonstrably free and fair. The UN Security Council should call an emergency meeting and pass a resolution requiring that the presidential run-off elections are postponed until both the candidates and their supporters are able to campaign freely.
The second organisation that needs to address the Zimbabwe situation immediately is the African Union. The AU was formed in 2002 principally to promote and protect human rights, enhance democratic structures and encourage good governance. Its inaugural meeting took place in Durban, thereby signalling the important role South Africa was expected to play in promoting democracy throughout the continent.
In January 2007, the AU adopted a charter on democracy, elections and governance that seeks to eradicate corruption, embed a culture of peace and establish an enabling environment for democratic consolidation, including the institutionalisation of opposition political parties. The AU aims also to promote the separation of powers and checks and balances, representative government through free and fair elections, and civilian control of the security sector.
Several AU member states have expressed concern about what has been taking place in Zimbabwe in recent weeks. For example, Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame said last week that the Zimbabwean Government had ignored the AU principles.
Some of Zimbabwe's neighbours, including Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia, have also criticised the Mugabe regime over what has been taking place in the country. The AU's Pan-African Parliament has sent election observers to Zimbabwe.
The union needs to go beyond mere observation and consider immediate action, such as the suspension of Zimbabwe, because the grave situation in the country undermines the AU's principles.
The third organisation that needs to take immediate action is the Southern African Development Community, which has also sent observers to the run-off elections. SADC countries should have great interest in a peaceful Zimbabwe because its problems have spilled across the borders and are causing instability in Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia.
While I was in southern Africa last month, I learned that most of Zimbabwe's neighbours are unhappy with Mugabe's leadership and willing to support any action that change the course of events and improve Zimbabwe's prospects.
However, South Africa, which has considerable leverage over Zimbabwe, has evidently not been keen on taking determined action.
Had South Africa put sufficient pressure on Mugabe, he probably would no longer be in power.
President Thabo Mbeki's lack of decisive action has delayed the resolution of Zimbabwe's problems.
The tragedy of Zimbabwe is that the international community is unlikely to act unless the AU is solidly behind it.
However, the AU will not firmly support any move that is not initiated by the SADC, and the latter, in turn, will not act without South Africa taking the lead.
Sam Makinda is professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University in Perth.