Leading article: The worst possible leader for the continent

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For the good of Africa and its international reputation it is to be hoped that the African Union can come up with a solution that avoids Sudan becoming its next chair. As host of the annual meeting, Sudan certainly has a strong formal claim to be permitted to lead the 53-state organisation over the coming year. Sudan has also gathered a surprising amount of support from fellow governments for its bid. But, make no mistake, a Sudan chairmanship would be an unmitigated disaster for the African Union. Not only would the leadership of a repressive and vicious state like Sudan discredit the good name of the African Union, an organisation whose goal is to promote democracy and human rights; it would result in even greater misery for the neglected region of Darfur.

What small pressure has been applied to the Sudanese government over its persecution of the non-Arab population of Darfur has come mainly from the African Union. And the only neutral military force on the ground is a contingent of 7,000 African Union peacekeepers. If Sudan were to become chair of the African Union, the neutrality of these soldiers would be compromised. Darfur rebels have threatened to pull out of peace talks if this happens. And even if the military mission survives, a Sudan leadership of the African Union would soon be in a position to starve it of funds.

None of this diplomatic wrangling should, however, distract our attention from the fact that the international community still has an urgent duty to alleviate the misery of the people of Darfur. Despite the ceasefire that was agreed in April 2004, the killings and rapes by government-equipped militias continue. The UN special representative in Sudan told the Security Council last week that groups of up to 1,000 militia on horseback continue to kill and terrorise local people at least once a month. The conflict has left 180,000 people dead and is now spilling over into neighbouring Chad. Darfur remains, by some distance, the most urgent humanitarian disaster in the world.

Even if the nightmare of a Sudan leadership of the African Union can be averted, that does not mean that the international community can go back to turning a blind eye. Diplomatic pressure must be exerted on African governments to cease their support for Khartoum. And rich nations also have a moral duty to bolster the African Union's peacekeeping operation in Darfur. The force is under-manned and poorly equipped - something that suits the Sudan government very well. If the African Union decides that it needs UN reinforcements - something that was strongly hinted last week - they should be provided without delay. This shameful conspiracy to ignore the suffering of Darfur must end.

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