By Tsegaye Tadesse

Addis Ababa Former Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare, one of a select group of African leaders who relinquished power without fuss, took the helm of the African Union on Tuesday vowing to promote democracy and development.

At a ceremony held at the flag-bedecked AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, he took over as chairman of the AU Commission from Amara Essy, an Ivorian diplomat who oversaw the AU's transition from the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Diplomats said Konare's swearing-in marked a symbolic closing of the chapter of anti-colonial struggle which was the central concern of the former OAU, reborn as the AU at a summit in Durban, South Africa, in July 2002.

"As the boss of AU, Konare has to grapple with civil strife, political crisis, economic decline, drought, hunger and epidemics ravaging many African countries," an African diplomat who declined to be named said.

Konare's appointment has been welcomed in Mali, where his 10-year spell in office after decades of military rule was marked by an opening up to the West with economic reform and the ending of a low-level rebellion by desert Tuaregs.

Though still extremely poor, Mali is now seen as one of West Africa's more stable states.

"He is a man of conviction, an optimist who wants an Africa that can win and is not always moaning," said Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, vice president of Konare's old Adema party.

The AU, perenially short of funds, has been seeking money from international donors to establish a rapid reaction force to help end conflicts in the region. It has been very slow to take shape but officials expect it to be launched next year.

But critics say African governments lack the political will to create an effective AU and are reluctant to pledge funds.

"Africa needs peace and security because it is part and parcel of development," Konare told a news conference. "The survival of Africa is the survival of the world. Nobody could feel safe if Africa does not advance on the path of peace."

Critics say the OAU was little more than a talking shop where states routinely failed even to pay membership dues and summits achieved little. Admirers said the OAU, founded in 1963, was involved in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid and has helped to promote human rights.

On a visit to Maputo last week Konare said fundraising for agricultural reform to boost production and end hunger on parts of the continent was now a key priority.

Konare, in his mid-50s, made impoverished Mali a darling of Western donors for its economic reforms. He then won acclaim for stepping down gracefully in 2002 at the end of his decade long rule - in contrast to some of his peers.

Konare has spent a great deal of time abroad since leaving the presidency and was at one stage tipped as a possible United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Tuesday's ceremony, replete with colourful traditional garb, was attended by AU chairman and Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgise, diplomats and staff of the AU. The audience gave a standing ovation as Essy handed over the seal of office and AU flag to Konare.