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If you wonder what the American media and most people in the U.S. think of sub-Saharan Africa, just look at the main focus of coverage of President Clinton's trip there. It's being portrayed mostly as an escape from the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones scandals and his troubles with special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

But the truth is that this trip could begin a new, mutually rewarding era in relations between the U.S. and Africa.

It surely cannot be detrimental for the United States to have a more respectful relationship with the 600 million people of this vast continent of such rich and diverse resources. And it could be of monumental importance to Africans to have the United States become serious about fair trade policies that will lift the level of life for the Africans who contribute so much to the good life in America.

I don't think many Americans listened, and even fewer took President Clinton seriously, when he said: "This journey will be my opportunity and yours to help introduce the people of the United States to a new Africa . . . an Africa whose political and economic accomplishments grow more impressive each month."

That is important for Americans who have come to think of Africa as mostly a land of murderous warring tribes and brutal dictators who lord it over people who beg for handouts from the rest of the world. And it is important for Africans who think of Americans as the new great exploiters and pillagers who benefit from a lingering economic colonialism.

It is true that while we Americans may know that we profit on petroleum from Nigeria and diamonds from South Africa, we are not aware of how much we need cobalt from Congo, cocoa from Ghana, and uranium, manganese and many other minerals and crops from all of Africa.

Africans have suffered because for a millennium the rich nations have not paid a fair price for their materials and resources, and because even as recently as the Cold War they have been little more than pawns of the great powers.

President Clinton is probably promising more of a "new day" than his administration can ever deliver. Our Republican-led Congress will not spend much to raise either literacy or dreams in the "Dark Continent." And even a great communicator like Clinton will not convince most Americans that the darkness is a creation of their own ignorance about Africa.

It is almost impossible to form a genuine partnership between the United States and countries whose leaders are brutal dictators who trample every yearning for democracy and free speech and free spirit. It should be noted that Mr. Clinton's possible achievements on this trip are starkly limited by the fact that the three most populous countries in sub-Saharan Africa -- Congo, Nigeria and Sudan -- are notorious violators of basic human rights. It is also laudable that the president is pointedly refusing to visit those three countries.

But Uganda is not about Idi Amin anymore. There are genuine stirrings of democracy and breakthroughs of economic prosperity in the six nations he is visiting, as in much of Africa. This journey by the president, with his 800-person entourage, could speed the development of many advancements.

So I welcome this "safari," and will not begrudge Mr. Clinton a little respite from the sexual and political madness that now dominates almost every discourse in the United States.

North America Syndicate

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