JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) -- Robert Mugabe's brazen power grab in Zimbabwe's election saga has left cracks in one of African leaders' unspoken rules: Never turn on one of your own.
The fact that even several nations are refusing to recognize Zimbabwe's ruler of 28 years marks an unprecedented change in Africa that offers a glimmer of hope for a brighter, more democratic future.
A younger generation of African leaders appears willing to break from the clubbiness that has characterized the governing elites on this continent where authoritarian rule has long been the norm.
Among the most outspoken has been Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president who is the continent's only female leader.
On a visit to South Africa this week, she was the first African leader to support proposed U.N. sanctions against Zimbabwe's leaders, saying they send a "strong message" that the world will not tolerate violence to retain power.
"It's important, because it's the first time that we are seeing on the African continent that leadership has transitioned from the old perceptions," said Chris Maroleng, a South African political analyst.
"We're seeing more leaders beginning to embrace their own democratic notion," he added.
They include Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, a lawyer who is his country's third leader since independence in 1964; former army commander Seretse Ian Khama of Botswana, Africa's most enduring democracy; and Nigeria's Umar Yar'Adua, only the third civilian leader since 1966, though he still is fighting a court battle over his fraud-riddled election.
Mugabe's June 27 runoff "was neither free nor fair and therefore the legitimacy of his presidency is in question. He cannot wish that away," Kenya's Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told The Associated Press.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who won the most votes in March elections, withdrew from the runoff against Mugabe after weeks of military-orchestrated violence left dozens of his supporters dead, thousands severely beaten and thousands more homeless as they were chased from villages, fled attacks or had their houses burned down.
Two days after the vote, Mugabe was declared the winner and flew to an African Union summit in Egypt where he was seen hugging many leaders, gaining the veneer of legitimacy that he sought.
"President Mugabe was accepted by his peers ... so he is legitimate," Congo's Foreign Ministry spokesman Claude Kamanga Mutond said.
But a few voices of dissent have cropped up across Africa.
"The violence that preceded the election was so intense that the results did not reflect the wishes of the people of Zimbabwe," Sierra Leone's Foreign Minister Zainab Bangura told the AP.
Rwanda also condemned the election, as did Senegal.
While some presidents were reported to have had harsh private words for Mugabe, the vast majority chose the traditional path of not putting public pressure on a fellow leader, ignoring U.N. and Western calls for tough action.
Many feared being seen as doing the bidding of the West. And Mugabe, despite his destruction of his country, still is seen by many Africans as a hero who defeated the White-minority rulers of then-Rhodesia and then drove Whites off land considered stolen from Blacks. Mugabe's seizure of commercial White-owned farms broke the backbone of the country's economy.
The African leaders also retained South African President Thabo Mbeki as mediator for Zimbabwe, ignoring the Zimbabwe opposition's rejection of him and widespread condemnation that his 8-year-long "softly, softly" approach to Mugabe has hastened Zimbabwe's collapse.
Liberia's Sirleaf said the African Union could only maintain its credibility if it pronounced the June 27 runoff unacceptable.
The prevailing African silence over Mugabe marks a landmark failure for the union, set up in 2002 to replace the discredited Organization of African Unity, which had become little more than a dictators' club. The new union was to be the flagship for an African renaissance based on democracy and Africans solving African problems.
At its inaugural summit in 2002, leaders committed themselves to holding fair elections at regular intervals, to allow opposition parties to campaign freely and to set up independent electoral commissions to monitor polls.
Mugabe failed on every point.
While the old organization pledged noninterference in member states, the new union includes a Peace and Security Council, structured on the U.N. Security Council, that has the right to intervene when human rights are grossly violated or crimes against humanity perpetrated.
The only African intervention has been to send troops to back Comoros government soldiers in ousting a coup leader from the remote Indian Ocean island of Anjouan in March - an easy target.