Pope Francis in Africa. What both his and Obama’s visit reveal about how continent has changed or stayed the same

If Pope Francis had visited Cameroon on this trip, he would have met the same big man Pope John Paul found in office in 1995 - Paul Biya.

POPE Francis arrives in Kenya Wednesday evening on his first visit to Africa, that will include trips to Uganda on Nov. 27 and Central African Republic on Nov. 29.

The pope’s stop in Kenya, makes 2015 the year that the East African nation has seen its most high profile visits by global leaders in 20 years. In July Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit.

The last time a pope visited Kenya was in 1995 when Pope John Paul II travelled to the country on a 16,900-kilometre African tour that also took him to South Africa and Cameroon.

On that tour, the pope addressed a million people in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.

A different age
This is a different age, where terrorism has blighted life, and Pope Francis will hold mass in spaces that are easier to secure, in much the same way Obama did his meetings. However, indicating the difference in the two Africas the two pontiffs are visiting, Pope John Paul II had no such concerns. He dropped in three years before Nairobi’s first major terrorist attack on the US embassy in 1998.

So, like Obama, Pope Francis will speak at a university, and then Kasarani Stadium although he will pray at a church in a slum.

The Kenya government announced that it would deploy 10,000 personnel for the Pope’s security. For the Obama visit, Nairobi’s police commander Benson Kibue said that 10,000 officers—roughly one quarter of the entire national force—were deployed to the capital, which was mindful of attacks by Somalia’s Al-Shabaab group militants.

    President Obama and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta greet in Nairobi in July. (Photo/AFP).

Just over two years ago, the Islamist militants attacked an upmarket shopping mall in the city and killed at least 67 people. Attacks across the country since then have left about 500 people dead.

“We just hosted President Obama, who could probably be a bigger target,” police spokesman Charles Owino said. “Given our proximity to Somalia and the active al- Qaeda cell there, we cannot take anything for granted.”

Al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the Nairobi mall attack in 2013 and others including an assault on a university in northeastern Kenya seven months ago. At least 147 people, most of them Christian students, died in the raid. 

Adherents of the insurgent group have targeted Kenyan churches in grenade attacks and massacred more than two dozen Christian passengers traveling on a bus near the Somali border in November 2014.

Uganda, which like Kenya has also deployed peacekeeping troops in Somalia, has also been a target for Shabaab, which is also Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch.

However, Pope Francis will get two things Obama didn’t. First, an additional 10,000 civilian organisers and, second, a public holiday.

Partly because Obama arrived in Kenya on a Friday evening, and was in the country over a weekend, there was less need for a public holiday.

Still, unlike the US president’s visit when the government requested Kenyans to stay at home for security reasons, authorities this time asked people to flock into the city to cheer for the pontiff and celebrate mass with him. 

Beyond the immediate period, in 1995 John Paul visited South Africa in the glow of the end of the apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s ascension to power as the country’s first democratically elected leader.

Rwanda and South Africa 
But his on Rwanda couldn’t have been a greater constant.

Rwanda and the world were still only beginning to fathom the horror of the 1994 genocide in which one million people were slaughtered.

Twenty years can be a long time. Today South Africa and its democracy are in a midlife crisis, and the country a far cry from the hopes it held out in 1995. It is hobbled by what critics say is a corrupt and incompetent government, and has barely put behind it the  xenophobic attacks earlier in the year in which African immigrants in the country were killed and robbed.

Rwanda, on the hand, is a model of post-conflict recovery and, in East Africa, a star pupil when it comes to fighting corruption, although its houses of Parliament recently passed laws that have exempted its president Paul Kagame from term limit rules, and potentially enable him to be president for life.

Aids and condoms
In 1995, John Paul confronted other very different issues than those Francis will have to speak to.

Most of Africa was gripped by poverty, and HIV/Aids was the existential issue of the time. Some alarmist views had it that Africa – at least its people – would be wiped off the face of the Earth.

In conservative Catholic circles, the big issue then was whether to use condoms. But of the things Francis will not talk about, condoms is probably one of them.

In an age where you get them free in washrooms at work, and the ravages of HIV/Aids is a faded memory for most, it’s a rather passé issue.

And today Africa has seen nearly two decades of economic growth, and the big problem is inequality, not debt forgiveness or aid.

Some things don’t change
Some things – the wrong things – tend not to change in Africa, though. If Pope Francis had visited Cameroon on this trip, he would have met the same big man Pope John Paul found in office; Paul Biya who has been president for 33 years. 

When John Paul visited, Biya had already been in office for 13 years. He will probably outlast Pope Francis too in office.

In 1995 the tragedy was in Rwanda, this time round Pope Francis will arrive not far up the road from Rwanda in the Central African Republic, days after religious leaders called for a ceasefire in the war-torn nation.

The nation has been gripped by violence pitting Christians against Muslims since March 2013.

The pontiff is scheduled to meet government officials, hold a mass in the national stadium and visit a mosque in the city.

The conflict has forced about 400,000 people to flee their homes and another 460,000 to seek shelter in neighbouring countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

In Uganda, Francis will visit a shrine for 22 Catholic converts killed in the 1880s by order of Buganda King Mwanga II.

Just like the last minute road works in Kenya ahead of Obama’s July visit, in Kampala the streets and roads where Francis will pass were still being dug up and rehabilitated on the weekend. It will need a pontifical miracle for the works to be completed before Francis arrives.

If nothing else, it ensures that, like Obama, the pope will leave the countries he will visit with the same impression – that the continent is still very much a work in progress.

-Additional reporting by Bloomberg and AFP.

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