Africa's moment?

PARIS — If the gods aren’t entirely crazy, in 2010 — after 50 years of post-colonial woe — Africans can show us a vibrant, hopeful continent that is light as well as dark.

The question is whether France, China, and the United States can stop enabling so many self-installed despots who stand in the way.

First, the caveats:

“Africa” below the Sahara is 48 states, some so pathetically failed that even their separate fragments defy hope. In places, psychopaths in epaulettes murder en masse.

Sudan alone is beyond generality, at war across two broad regions yet world-class fancy where the oil and money are. The Congo’s immeasurable wealth is endemically looted.

Zimbabwe farmland could feed most of Africa if an aged, paranoid president let it. South Africa is a solar system away from Mauritania. Forget about Guinea-Bissau.

Those former showcases, Britain’s Kenya and France’s Ivory Coast, are no longer anything to boast about.

Still, there is so much else. And even in the worst places, women keep families going beyond all odds. Kids smile easily and labor hard. Men do miracles with nothing.

Finally, half a century after France followed Britain to free its colonies, the “winds of change” that Charles de Gaulle sniffed but stifled back then are blowing again.

By the time I moved to the Congo in 1967, an African pattern was clear. Anyone in power could plunder with impunity if he kept things stable for foreign enterprise.

African leaders pocketed aid from all sources. Those under France’s wing simply visited the Elysees Palace for a check, bought another Riviera estate, and flew home.

But a telling drama just played out in Gabon, a slice of coast and forest in the West African armpit where Albert Schweitzer ran his legendary hospital.

In 1966, France picked an ex-postal clerk named Albert Bongo to be “elected” president. Albert became Omar in 1973 when he needed Muammar Khadafy’s help to explore for oil.

He was president for 42 years, a mean little man who amassed billions no one can find to count and built an $800 million palace, perhaps the showiest in Africa.

Bongo owned 45 properties, more or less, in France. His toys included a $1.5 million Bugatti, although beyond the capital’s freeways the country has few paved roads.

Many of Gabon’s 1.5 million are no better off than in Schweitzer’s time. Three-fourths fall below the poverty line. Some survive by picking through the garbage of 12,000 French expatriates.

Not long ago in Libreville, I snapped a picture of Bongo’s palace. Soldiers rushed out and hauled me in through an unmarked back door.

Just inside, I found a Frenchman in a white kepi, an officer in the Foreign Legion, which runs what counts in Gabon. His amused shrug was clear: You’re on your own, pal.

They let me go a few hours later, and no one beat me. Bongo liked to be known as benevolent.

Bongo had a genius for working the French power structure: a mix of sucking up, leveraging connections, and giving key Frenchmen a generous taste of Gabon’s resources.

Elf, later acquired by Total, dominated oil production despite continuing scandal. French companies extracted uranium and timber from rich hardwood forests.

Earlier on, Bongo spotted Nicolas Sarkozy as an up and comer, and then widened his network when his cultivated friend got to be president.

Recently, Transparency International started court action to investigate Bongo along with the dictators of Congo-Brazzaville and Equatorial Guinea.

French officials tried to stonewall, but TI kept pushing. Bongo was furious. Terminally ill, he went to Barcelona, not Paris, voicing bitter recrimination at how his beloved adopted fatherland stabbed him in the back.

Many of Bongo’s French connections went to his funeral, but the crocodile tears were not too convincing.

Gabon is just an example of changing times.

A new generation of Africans argues what has been clear for decades: Money alone is no answer. Badly conceived aid, like bribery, stanches initiative and feeds kleptocracy.

During his reign, Mobutu Sese Seko looted at least $7 billion in the Congo — more than G8 nations gave all of Africa in the last four years. And look at the place.

But Africa today has more democracies than ever, with growing respect for human rights. The internet and mobile phones link dissidents and allow entrepreneurs to thrive.

President Barack Obama, expected to visit Africa soon, will likely demand more power to the people. The old guard can hardly dismiss him as racist or ignorant of reality.

Keith Richburg of the Washington Post, whose book, “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa,” showed how human potential is thwarted from the top, sees new hope.

A new edition soon to appear, 10 years later, amounts to a handbook on how outsiders can help Africans without badly targeted aid and insulting paternalism.

“It may not happen in a straight line, with setbacks here and there, but it is happening,” he told me. Charles Taylor of Liberia, for instance, is a case in point.

“Taylor was hauled into international court, and the big men saw that they can no longer get away with terrorizing their people,” he said.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected in 2006, quickly brought Liberia back from 14 years of atrocious serial civil war.

With next year’s multiple 50-year independence celebrations, and World Cup soccer in South Africa, a lot of people will come take a good look for themselves.

Americans once knew Botswana as the place where, in a popular movie, Bushmen worshipped a coke bottle dropped from a plane. They thought it came from loony deities.

Now, thanks to a sympathetic Scottish author and his lady detective, many more see the deep currents of humanity and tradition that make the not-so-dark continent rich.

This may, finally, be Africa’s moment. Then again, the gods might still be crazy.

Mort Rosenblum, editor of the quarterly dispatches, was senior foreign correspondent for the Associated Press from 1981 to 2004. He is a former editor of the International Herald Tribune. His 13 books include "Escaping Plato's Cave" and "Who Stole the News?" He lives in France.

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