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After nearly four decades, the Organization of African Unity is no more. The OAU, founded in 1963, was dissolved this week. It was reborn as the African Union with the same membership and the same ambitions. Fortunately, there is one big difference between the new organization and the old one: The AU has the right to intervene in member states in cases of war crimes. If Africa’s leaders can muster the will to act on that right — some would say international obligation — then there is hope for the AU. Unfortunately, there are few grounds for optimism.

The OAU was established in May 1963 as a platform for African nations to fight colonialism, promote independence and build continent-wide solidarity. The organization’s membership reached 53 states, and the rhetorical support given to African identity triggered hopes that it could provide a vehicle for the assertion of Africa’s interests on the international stage. That was not to be. Those hopes were strangled by the grim postindependence experience. African nations, among the most resource-rich countries in the world, were looted by corrupt leaders who were more interested in personal enrichment than helping their own people. At the time the OAU was formed, African nations were on the same level as many Asian nations. Today, Africa is home to many of the world’s poorest states while Asia is considered the most vibrant region of the world.

While many Africans blame the colonial experience for this history, many others say the blame lies closer to home. The OAU’s emphasis on national sovereignty gave heads of state the freedom to steal, insulated them from scrutiny and led to criticism that the organization was a “trade union of dictators.” The OAU’s slide into irrelevance was clear in the aftermath of the Cold War, when tribal tensions exploded, conflict broke out across the continent, and African leaders either turned a blind eye to or tried to profit from the violence.

The AU is designed to remedy this sad state of affairs. Modeled after the European Union, the new organization is designed to promote good governance as well as economic cooperation and development. It will have several institutions, including a parliament, a court, a bank and a peace and security council modeled after the United Nations Security Council. The principle of democracy is laid out in its founding charter. Significantly, members also have an obligation to intervene when war crimes are being committed. Mr. Levy Mwanawasa, the president of Zambia and outgoing OAU chairman , explained that “it is imperative as we establish the African Union that we strengthen the principles of democracy, good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

If that sounds too good to be true, it may be. The AU is the brainchild of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, no great friend of democracy. Zimbabwe’s leader, Mr. Robert Mugabe, who has presided over the virtual destruction of that country in the name of ensuring his continued rule, was in attendance at the AU’s founding meeting and no one condemned his policies. In fact, Mr. Mwanawasa welcomed the “legitimate” presidential elections held in Zimbabwe last year, a ballot that was stolen by Mr. Mugabe and his thugs.

The biggest test for the AU is making a reality of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or NEPAD, which pledges to improve economic and political governance for the people of Africa. Western nations have promised to step up their aid and assistance to Africa if they become more democratic. That commitment is shaky on both ends. The African will to break with the past is hard to see when the NEPAD steering committee includes Mr. Gadhafi and kleptocrats like Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi.

The Western part of the pledge is equally suspect. At their G8 summit last month in Canada, the assembled leaders talked about a “new deal” to help Africa but refused to make any firm commitments. In particular, there was no agreement to help international debt reduction efforts, other than fixing the $1 billion shortfall in the current program. Recent decisions, such as the West’s continuing support for agricultural subsidies, make it clear that short-term political calculations are likely to prevail over long-term concerns.

Given the skepticism surrounding Africa’s future, the AU begins with a heavy burden. Nonetheless, the organization’s charter and its operating principles make it clear that African leaders know what must be done. Most important, they accept that the burden for putting Africa on course rests on African shoulders. This willingness to accept responsibility is essential if the AU is to be a success.

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