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Africa's moment?

Opinion: Hints of light in a not-so-dark continent

Crowds cheer outside the sixth annual Nelson Mandela lecture in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, July 12, 2008. The lecture, addressed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, formed part of celebrations marking Mandela's 90th birthday. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

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.