Leaders Dare to Change Dark Continent; African Union Is Hopeful, but Doubts remain.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: AFRICA)

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LONDON - Fanfare, fireworks, dances by Zulu warriors and bare-breasted women, and a military flyby at a sports stadium before a cheering crowd of 30,000 in the balmy climes of Durban, South Africa, gave a spectacular greeting to the African Union this week.

It replaces the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which has been buried after 39 inglorious years. In that period, the body squabbled on every issue except ending apartheid and was helpless in the face of decades of misrule, coups, wars, famine, human-rights abuses and corruption on the continent.

Now, after the razzmatazz in Durban before 43 presidents and monarchs, lies a daring venture that could help transform Africa's image. It aims to move Africa toward dynamism, democracy and transformation, pulling itself up by its bootstraps, no longer to be perceived as a continent of helplessness and degeneration.

But this hope is accompanied by the fear, as expressed by some diplomats in Europe, that the mission statement could turn out to be brave but empty rhetoric.

"We are very excited," Bheki Khumalo, President Thabo Mbeki's spokesman, told The Washington Times in a telephone interview. "The Africans themselves are taking control of their own destiny. But we recognize it's not going to be easy, and we face huge challenges."

The immediate task, he said, is to set up structures to deal with civil wars and to ensure adherence to democratic values and human rights. Mr. Khumalo pointed to secret meetings, also involving U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that were leading to troop withdrawals from Congo and a return to tranquility in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

Mr. Khumalo's acknowledgement of Africa's shortcomings and his assertion that the continent has the will to address them is seen as an enormous advance. Mr. Mbeki had tried long and hard, for example, not to condemn too explicitly the abuses occurring just across the Limpopo River in neighboring Zimbabwe - hoping that quiet diplomacy and persuasion would check Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's support of violence against white farmers. The occupations of white-owned farms unleashed rapid economic collapse, hunger and turmoil.

Mr. Mbeki's efforts at diplomacy, despite support from Nigeria's experienced President Olusegun Obasanjo, bore little fruit. This demoralizing turn of events in part acted as impetus for major African democracies to demand a radical change of course.

The key to democratic change in Africa lies in two seemingly neutral words: peer review.

Messrs. Mbeki and Obasanjo have managed to get the African Union (AU) to endorse the idea that African states are no longer free to hide behind the OAU slogans of noninterference in one another's domestic affairs. The "peer review" mechanism will allow a committee of 10 leaders to evaluate one another's performance in achieving democracy and avoiding serious abuses of human rights.

"Peer review is a positive step, but only if the process is transparent and given teeth," said a statement from Human Rights Watch. "It must be backed up by institutions that can ensure proper scrutiny and enforcement of human rights."

That peer review does have some teeth was proved this year when a three-member Commonwealth committee, of which Mr. Mbeki was part, surprised doubters with swift action against Zimbabwe.

Days after that country's flawed election, conducted amid widely reported intimidation, had returned Mr. Mugabe to power, the panel's peer review declared the election was not free and fair and suspended Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth - a prestigious though not wealthy body that carries considerable clout among a quarter of the world's leaders.

The biggest and most obvious test for the African Union will come if and when an African leader is overthrown in a coup. …