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Africa's in-house cops

By rejecting a thug as its leader, the African Union takes a step toward building credibility.

February 01, 2007

WHEN AFRICAN leaders met this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they fell short of their goal to get commitments for 8,000 troops for a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. But what has attracted less attention is that, for the first time, the rest of the world is counting on Africa to police itself -- and the continent is nearly in a position to do it.

The African Union's 7,000 peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan, though grossly undermanned and underfunded, represent the closest thing to security and justice that blighted land knows. The AU has encouraged better governance through its peer-review mechanism in countries such as Rwanda and Uganda and headed off violence in turbulent regions such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. And now the organization is the best hope for averting a security implosion in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are on the verge of pulling out after sweeping an Islamist movement out of power in December.

Not too bad for a group that's less than 5 years old and is on shaky financial and administrative footing. Perhaps the best evidence to date that the AU is building legitimacy and effectiveness came Monday, when members deftly dodged a leadership crisis. Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who has presided over a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, expected to be first in line for the AU chairmanship after being put off last year. As expected, Bashir made a strong push in Addis Ababa for the chairmanship, only to be snubbed once again.

To declare the AU a success because it didn't choose a mass murderer as its leader sets the bar pretty low. Yet it's a major change from the days when its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, was steered by the likes of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. And the nature of the man the AU chose is significant. Ghanaian President John Kufuor is a legitimately elected leader whose country last year won the largest grant to date from President Bush's Millennium Challenge Corp., meaning that it passed a test for transparency and good governance that few other Third World regimes have managed. Kufuor is an ideal choice.

Having AU peacekeepers as an option to stabilize a failed state such as Somalia is a boon to the international community, whose own peacekeepers, from NATO to the United Nations to the U.S. military, are badly overstretched. The organization might still have a long way to go, but the distance it has come in its short history is striking.

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