TWO YEARS AGO Africa's leaders created the African Union, a continental body that aspires to deal with problems from war to bad governance to economic malaise, removing some of the burden from the United Nations and other outside bodies. At its recent summit in Ethiopia, the new union faced two tests: Responding to the genocide and famine in the western Sudanese province of Darfur and proving itself capable of censuring extreme misgovernment as exemplified by Zimbabwe. To its credit, the African Union did promise to send 300 troops to Darfur -- not enough to protect refugees from murderous militias in a region the size of France but still more than anybody else is sending. But on the issue of Zimbabwe, the summiteers performed a gross twist. The African Union's committee of foreign ministers endorsed a human-rights report documenting the abuses of Zimbabwe's regime. But then a meeting of the continent's presidents undid that decision.

The abuses in Zimbabwe do not rise to the horror of Darfur, where at least a third of a million people are likely to die in the near future. But Zimbabwe presents an example of the tragic destruction of a country by a single autocrat. The country's 80-year-old strongman, President Robert Mugabe, has ruled without interruption since independence 24 years ago; he has closed every independent newspaper, jailed and exiled his opponents, and dispatched thugs to drive commercial farmers off their land. In so doing, he has transformed one of Africa's most prosperous and stable countries into one that depends on food aid. Over the past five years, Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk by a third. School enrollment has plummeted, and infant mortality has doubled in a decade.

It should not be difficult for the African Union's presidents to recognize these facts and endorse a human rights report documenting some of them. But the African Union's leaders declined to endorse the report, saying that Zimbabwe's government must be given yet more time to respond to its charges. Likewise, it should not be hard for South Africa, the leading member of the African Union and a great advocate of "peer pressure" to improve governance, to recognize its own interest in forcing a change in Mr. Mugabe's behavior: South Africa is host to growing numbers of Zimbabwean refugees, and it has the power to bring Mr. Mugabe's regime to its knees by holding up electricity supplies at the border. But South Africa's rulers continue to advocate gentle persuasion as the best way to restrain Mr. Mugabe, even though years of this approach have yielded no advances.

At a news conference in South Africa last week, Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube, a brave critic of Mr. Mugabe, voiced his understandable frustration. Africa's leaders talk grandly of holding each other to high standards in order to pull the continent out of its malaise. But "all they do is back each other up and drink tea,'' the bishop declared bitterly.