Leading article: The African Union needs outside help to succeed

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Good news out of Africa is not as rare as is often supposed, but yesterday's headline was especially heartening. The continent's 53 leaders refused to bow to the insistence of Sudan's ruthless President, Omar al-Bashir, that it was his turn to be chairman of the African Union. He tried to get the job last year but the situation in Darfur - where government-backed militias have killed 200,000 people and made 2 million more homeless - led African leaders to choose the Republic of Congo.

Set things right in Darfur, Bashir was told, and you might get the job in 2007. But things have got worse, considerably worse, in the past 12 months. And the violence in Sudan's most remote Western province has now spilled over into the Central African Republic and neighbouring Chad, which had threatened to quit the AU if Bashir became chairman.

Despite some Through the Looking Glass bluster from the Sudanese about the need for African heads of state to "stick to their word" - something President Bashir has notably failed to do in his undertakings to end the genocidal violence in Darfur - Africa's leaders held the line. Indeed there were strong words at yesterday's opening session of the annual AU summit, with bold calls on the Sudanese government to stop attacking and bombarding Darfur.

But the time has come for the AU to get tough with Sudan. Its leaders continue to ignore the Security Council resolution for 22,000 UN peacekeepers to be allowed into Darfur to assist the struggling AU troops. Oxfam and the five other aid agencies in the area warn that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is now worse than ever.

The AU must now back calls for a no-fly zone in Darfur and it must endorse yesterday's call by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for "tough and effective sanctions" on the Bashir regime. The AU has a good track record here. It took over from the feeble Organisation of African Unity only in 2002 and within a year had launched its first military intervention, sending peacekeeping troops from South Africa, Ethiopia and Mozambique into Burundi. It has intervened with varying degrees of success in several places since, most recently in Darfur.

What is lacking is not political will but capability. President Mbeki of South Africa spoke at Davos of how the AU needs a clearer plan for building its peacekeeping capacity. But it also needs financial and logistical support, for which the European Union is the most obvious partner. Brussels needs to make this a priority. Only with EU help will effective interventions be possible, not just in Sudan, but also in Somalia, where another AU-mandated force is clearly needed.

The AU could yet become a cohesive instrument in advancing the continent's interests. It needs to act on many fronts. It must fight for a better trade deal as the Doha talks stumble into their final phase over the next six months. It must step up the war against corruption and for better governance; only then will it attract the foreign investment needed to reduce poverty. Its decision not to discuss this week a report which identifies crime, corruption, xenophobia and lack of accountability as major constraints in South Africa is unhelpful.

But Africa needs strong European partners if the agenda to promote democracy and development is not to founder. Without that, China - whose economic tentacles are spreading through the continent - will offer an alternative in which considerations of democracy and human rights play no part. The AU is not everything it could be. But yesterday's bouncing of Bashir shows it can be effective. What it needs is Western support and encouragement.