The leaders of southern Africa were gathering in Zambia for emergency talks on Saturday to discuss the post-election crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe despite Robert Mugabe's decision to skip the summit.
With still no result from a presidential election held two weeks ago, tensions are visibly mounting in Zimbabwe whose economic meltdown under Mugabe has scorched the whole region.
But while the Zimbabwean president has chosen to absent himself from the gathering of his peers from the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), his self-proclaimed successor Morgan Tsvangirai will have a golden opportunity to press his case it is time for 84-year-old Mugabe to go.
In a statement issued on the eve of the extraordinary summit in Lusaka, Tsvangirai called on Mugabe to quit and appealed to participants to ensure democracy prevails in Zimbabwe.
"He should recognise that he has lost and let me get on with making our great country great once more," Tsvangirai said.
"This is an historic moment for SADC and a defining moment for Africa. We can show the world that we, Africa, can solve our own problems and safeguard democracy and the rule of law."
Southern African leaders have been heavily criticised over their traditional reluctance to criticise Mugabe, who has presided over his country's economic demise during his 28-year rule, which began with independence in April 1980.
Nevertheless many in SADC are fed up with the economic mess on their doorstep with inflation in Zimbabwe now well into six figures, unemployment at over 80 per cent and average life expentancy down to 36 years of age.
Some three million Zimbabweans have left their homeland to find work or food, mostly to its giant neighbour South Africa whose president Thabo Mbeki has been trying to mediate between Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party and Mugabe's Zimbabwe Africa National Union, Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
Diplomatic sources in Zambia said Mbeki had been trying to help broker the formation of a national unity government and Mugabe's decision to stay away will be seen as much as a reverse for the South African's so-called "quiet diplomacy" as for SADC as a whole.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has branded the situation in Zimbabwe as a disgrace to southern Africa, is among those who are hoping SADC reads the riot act to Mugabe.
"We are communicating with the leaders who have organised that summit. And we would call upon them to take a firm stand, and take a firm stand for democracy in Zimbabwe," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Mugabe's decision to stay away, reported by state radio, reflects his growing isolation and he is likely to be furious at the decision by Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa to invite Tsvangirai to SADC's high table.
Instead he has decided to send several of his chief lieutenants, including Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to Lusaka.
Secretary for foreign affairs Joey Bimha, who is also attending, told state radio the summit was "unnecessary" as the Zimbabwe electoral commission was still busy collating results.
Analysts have predicted SADC will issue a strongly-worded call for the results to be issued without delay but there is little prospect they will urge one of their fellow heads of state to resign.
The failure to release the results a fortnight on from polling, and nine days after the outcome of a simultaneous parliamentary election was declared, has been derided by the MDC as a ploy by Mugabe to avoid acknowledging defeat.
With Tsvangirai having already proclaimed himself the rightful winner, the MDC says its leader will not contest any second round run-off against Mugabe.
In Zimbabwe itself, tensions were obviously rising ahead of the summit with riot police on street corners of the capital and reports of threats and intimidation in rural areas, traditionally Mugabe's support base.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Friday he was "appalled" by signs that Mugabe was using violence in the wake of the elections and warned that the patience of the international community "is wearing thin."
Undaunted, the opposition has called for a general strike on Tuesday, the day after a court is due to rule on an MDC bid to force the electoral commission to publish the presidential election result. (AFP)
African leaders debate Zimbabwe crisis