For decades, the United States treated Africa largely as a sideshow of East-West rivalry, lavishing aid and arms on despots who fought communism and fed America's hunger for raw materials as they despoiled their own treasuries.
But in what many experts are hailing as a change too long in coming, President Clinton departs Sunday on an 11-day African trip that marks a profound shift in US policy toward the continent of some 700 million people in 57 countries.
During the first such presidential tour in 20 years, Mr. Clinton will be promoting a vision of Africa as an untapped market in which new stirrings of democracy and economic reform may be heralding a watershed in its history of violence, authoritarianism and despair .
Instead of pledging new aid handouts on his stops in Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, and Senegal, Clinton will offer trade and investment programs to states that pursue political pluralism and step up attacks on poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy.
Much of Clinton's initiative is embodied in a bill passed March 11 by the House. In addition to offering greater US market access to sub-Saharan states, it would create funds for private infrastructure projects and US-Africa small business joint ventures.
Clinton's trip is also aimed at focusing more attention at home on Africa, especially among US firms and the 30 million African-Americans, in a bid to build a stronger constituency for closer relations.
"What we hope to portray is Africa really as an opportunity for the future as opposed to the way it is often perceived as a burden or as an area of hopelessness and despair," says a senior US official.
THE idea of helping poorer countries democratize and develop by substituting trade for aid is not new. It has seen major successes in Asia and Latin America. But some experts warn that Africa has its own unique problems. While praising Clinton's "new partnership" with the continent, they worry that it does not go far enough.
To make a major impact, say some experts, the US will have to do more to relieve African states of crushing foreign debts and to help them develop critical infrastructure and institutions.
They also say that while the Clinton administration has worked hard to promote human rights in Africa, it must step up pressure on African leaders to allow democratization, freedom of speech and judicial reform.
Indeed, even some of the "success stories" that Clinton's stops are to highlight raise questions about whether the US is being too optimistic in its assessment that Africa is making major strides toward political and economic liberalization.
The presidents of Ghana and Uganda - Jerry Rawlings and Yoweri Museveni - are among a host of current African leaders who seized power by the gun. While Mr. Rawlings has implemented extensive reforms, Mr. Museveni presides over a no-party democracy in which only his own party is legal.
Furthermore, Uganda and Senegal are racked by insurgencies in which their security forces have committed major abuses against civilians; Rwanda is still grappling with the aftermath of the 1994 genocide of about 800,000 Tutsis by Hutus, the majority ethnic group.
Unless the US boosts its efforts to promote human and political rights, some experts warn, Clinton's initiative could help consolidate in power a new generation of leaders who are as corrupt and resistant to change as some of their predecessors.
"Many of these leaders have one thing in common: They all have military backgrounds and they all shot their way to power," says George Ayittey, a professor at American University, in Washington and a native of Ghana. "On reforms, most African governments have been laggards. The commitment to reform has been weak and inconsistent," he says.
Clinton will have an opportunity to stress US concerns with human and political rights at a March 25 summit with 10 African leaders being hosted by Museveni in Entebbe, Uganda.
The leaders are to include Congo President Laurent Kabila, who ousted the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Since then, he has jailed opposition leaders, banned political activities and blocked a United Nations probe into the massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees.
In a poignant acknowledgment of America's own troubled history with Africans, Clinton is to visit Senegal's Goree Island fortress, from which, by some estimates, millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves. Last March, Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, viewed the fortress and its Door of No Return.
BUT Clinton's tour is to stress the positive. No stop will do that more than his visit to South Africa, where he will celebrate the end of apartheid in talks with President Nelson Mandela and a speech to Parliament.
US officials acknowledge that Africa remains beset by problems. But they contend that many states are making major progress. Where in 1989 there were only five democracies, they say, today there are 23 and 20 other states are pursuing reforms.
They also point out that US trade with Africa grew by 18 percent in 1996: American exports were valued at $6.1 billion, exceeding those to the entire former Soviet Union by 20 percent. The value of African exports to the US, most of them petroleum, rose to $15.2 billion.
Clinton's initiative, US officials say, acknowledges these advances as it strives to stimulate further improvements.
"The change that has swept the continent since the end of the cold war has fundamentally altered Africa's political and social landscape," Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice told a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
"We in the United States must adapt our approach to form a new engagement with Africa," she said.