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New signs of confidence are emerging in Africa

Something big is astir in Africa. That Pope John Paul II and President Clinton, in their different ways the two most powerful men on earth, should be visiting there at the same time reminds us of how the world turns.

Africa has long been talked about as the most woebegone of continents -- the dark continent, we called it in our ignorance. Colonizers came from the four corners, less to help than to plunder. When they left, they left chaos behind. The “nations” the colonizers had fabricated had little to do with the regional rhythms or tribal patterns that had evolved for millennia. All Africa shuddered with the arrival of what was thought to be independence. There was immense bloodletting that continues to this day. The colonizers blamed the “natives” for not being -- well, like us. But the blood spilled was perhaps more for our sins than their own.

For those unsuspecting Africans it was a double whammy. Not only were their social, economic and political lives bent out of shape to fit the foreign mold, their spiritual lives were subjected to diverse foreign religions, not least Catholicism. This double colonization was no doubt well-intentioned, but one could scarcely blame the Africans for gazing in puzzlement at a blond Jesus who was not only unlike themselves but unlike the Galilean carpenter of the gospels the missionaries brought.

We shouldn’t be surprised that there is skepticism in Africa.

For every questionable benefit colonialism brought, it made up for that benefit in plunder. At one point the king of Belgium owned the Congo -- personally. It’s ironic that under the wretched regime of the late kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko -- propped up by the United States -- some commentators referred to the time of the Belgian regime as a golden age, never mind that 10 million Congolese paid for it in one way or another with their lives. And the busy king never did visit his property.

From South Africa’s apartheid to Idi Amin’s reign of terror in Uganda, there never was a more desolate continent. Not surprisingly the major powers stayed away, except when they needed to play various countries as pawns in the Cold War. It will take a long time for all the wounds to heal.

Yet there is something extraordinary happening. South Africa is a unique beacon, led by the charismatic and heroic Nelson Mandela. But up and down the continent there is a new attitude: intellectual and political leaders saying it’s futile to blame yesterday’s criminals for today’s woes. Their destiny rests with themselves, they are saying.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is preeminent among these. Time reported last year: “In the 11 years Museveni has run Uganda, he has brought a country savaged by dictators and murderous wars back from the dead.” Several other leaders are following suit. They talk about a United States of Africa down the road.

There are still huge problems but a new confidence is emerging.

Then along comes Bill Clinton. This is the attention for which Africa has yearned for decades. The lucky countries -- Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal in this instance -- were carefully chosen, countries veering in the right direction, politically and economically, countries, as the saying goes, that we can do business with.

No doubt Clinton and his retinue have plenty of good intentions. In a perfect world they would like to make all Africa happy and prosperous. But in this real world there might be something left for the United States as well, some opportunities for the big corporations, some new markets or other less tangible benefits. Poor though many of the countries still are, they represent great commercial promise for the future. Clinton’s talk was all about free markets and mutual interests.

How could anyone be skeptical about that? Easily.

And along comes the pope. Unlike Clinton, he didn’t opt for the easy countries, if any can be called easy. He went to Nigeria, a country of ethnic tensions governed by a military dictatorship renowned for its corruption in collusion with such Western “allies” as the multinational Shell Oil Co., and renowned too for its brutality, including the execution of poet and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa a couple of years ago despite a worldwide outcry.

As he has often done before, the pope challenged his hosts, fearlessly called on them to change their ways. His visit and words demonstrate the ongoing power of the church on the world’s stage. There is nobody else on earth whom leaders of nations big and small would invite to their shores, and feel privileged by the visit, and stand beside and hear and tolerate the personal and national criticism John Paul has dished out around the world.

As Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha stared ahead, the pope said: “Respect for every human person, for his dignity and rights, must ever be the inspiration behind your efforts to increase democracy and strengthen the social fabric of your country.”

This is moral authority to be proud of.

National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998