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To lead Africa

AS PROGRESS IS MEASURED IN Africa, the selection Tuesday of the president of the Republic of Congo to head the African Union represents an important step forward. At the same time, choosing Denis Sassou-Nguesso over President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir of Sudan is sort of like passing up Idi Amin in favor of Moammar Kadafi.

Actually, Amin, the notorious Ugandan dictator thought to have slaughtered about half a million of his own people, was selected to head the African Union’s predecessor organization in 1975 despite the fact that he was among the world’s most bloodthirsty tyrants. That’s how things were done at the Organization of African Unity, which was supposed to join African nations in the struggle against colonialism but mostly functioned as an enabler for corrupt dictatorships.

The African Union was launched in 2002 to change that. Structured much like the European Union, it is intended to promote democracy and economic growth among African regimes and to present a better diplomatic face to the Western world. It has already proved to be far more effective than its predecessor, playing an important role in continental peacekeeping operations and sanctioning two of its members for failing to hold fair elections.

The chairmanship of the union rotates annually to give each of Africa’s five regions equal time in the seat. This year it was thought to be East Africa’s turn, and the only official candidate for the post was Sudan’s Bashir. Yet Sudan is home to some of the worst human rights abuses in Africa. Despite its protestations to the contrary, Bashir’s government has supported or aided Arab militias in genocidal attacks on black villagers in Darfur. The union has sent peacekeepers to Darfur and is working hard to negotiate an end to the ongoing violence, so it would be more than a little ironic to appoint Sudan’s leader to the chairmanship.

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Not that the alternative is anything to celebrate. Sassou-Nguesso was “elected” in 2002 after his only serious opponent withdrew. Before that he had been an on-and-off military dictator since 1979. He is considered one of Africa’s more corrupt leaders, thought to have siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars from the Republic of Congo’s state oil company.

His country is one of the biggest oil exporters on the continent, but the oil wealth has not trickled down to its 3 million people, most of whom are desperately poor. That has fed near-constant rebellion.

Bashir withdrew his candidacy after it prompted an uproar, both within the union and internationally. He may well be back: The deal reached by a special union committee calls for him to assume the chairmanship in 2007. The delay is welcome, though, and his elevation can be made conditional on human-rights improvements in Sudan.

Had Bashir been selected, it would have destroyed the fledgling union’s credibility among Western nations. And Sassou-Nguesso isn’t all bad; he is a strong arbitrator who is respected as a peacemaker. But if the union is serious about fighting corruption, it will have to focus harder on finding leaders who aren’t themselves corrupt.

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