On a discussion programme on television a few nights ago, an African ambassador based in London spoke about an obligation she believed the West had to Africa, whose parlous state Tony Blair movingly described as a scar on the conscience of the world.
She adduced two reasons for the West's obligations to Africa: colonialism – had seen rich, Western countries systematically plundering the resources of countries they had no right to be in; and human decency, which obliged better-off countries in the international community to lend a hand in Africa's development.
Predictably, others on the programme differed quite sharply with her on the first point. The West, they said, had no obligation to Africa as a consequence of colonialism. Much time had passed since the era when African countries were colonised, and now most of them had been ruined by their own corrupt, undemocratic leaders.
Of course, both parties were right. The West, which is often quick to deny any responsibility for the sorry state of much of Africa, would rather we all suffered from amnesia or had very short memories. There's a general reluctance to accept responsibility for the West's systematic rape of African resources over the years. This arrogance was on display during the racism conference held in Durban, South Africa, last September when Western countries tried first to get the issue of reparations for slavery and colonialism off the agenda, and then to blackmail the conference by threatening to walk out if a resolution with which they disagreed were adopted.
Such arrogance has again been on display with regards to the prickly issue of land reform in Zimbabwe, which, admittedly, has been handled very badly by the Mugabe government and abused for party-political reasons. By taking so long to make good on its obligations to finance much-needed land reform in its former colony, Britain has handed President Mugabe a potent weapon with which to beat it.
However, the men participating in that TV debate with the ambassador also had a point. Numerous African leaders, such as Mr Mugabe, have been responsible for the state in which their countries find themselves today. Not only have many experimented with socialism, but some have also hoarded enormous wealth while their citizens have become poorer than when colonialism ended. Such leaders bear as much responsibility as those colonialists who presided over the systematic rape of resources – both human and natural – over the years.
When Mr Blair spoke so movingly about the state of my continent, he gave hope to millions of people across Africa that finally the West was ready to do more than merely dole out aid to countries that agreed to advance Western agendas. There was hope that Mr Blair might be able to persuade his fellow leaders in the European Union and the Group of Eight super-rich nations, especially the US, to engage more meaningfully with the new generation of African leaders who are working to improve the state of the continent so that it should no longer be "a scar on the conscience of the world".
After all, some of these countries had long professed to be keen to help Africa, while simultaneously ensuring that the international trading policies that put poor countries at a disadvantage continue and while ensuring through bodies such as the European Union that products from African countries are not able to compete freely in the West.
Since then, however, it has become clear that the US administration under President George Bush is unlikely to take any lasting interest in Africa. Therefore Mr Blair becomes an even more important player in the efforts to work with the new generation of African leaders to improve the continent.
And so the continent takes comfort from Mr Blair's commitment to be a partner in the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) programme, and hopes that he will be able to persuade a significant number of his fellow Western leaders to do the same.
The Prime Minister's state visit to three – and possibly four – African states over the next five days will be seen by many as a clear demonstration of that commitment to working with leaders such as South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade, all of them committed democrats, to make Nepad a success.
While there won't be many with unrealistic expectations of the Prime Minister's trip, there are likely to be many others who will hope that it signals in a more concrete manner Mr Blair's commendable undertaking last year to do his best to assist the continent.
Just how long he will be able to stay true to that cause remains to be seen, especially as the number of those calling on him to prioritise public services back home grows by the day.
The writer was editor of the 'Daily News' in Durban, South AfricaReuse content