Blood of innocents on his hands

Pope John Paul II helped keep the continent of Africa disease-ridden, famished and disastrously unde

As Pope John Paul II breathed his last, Catholics in Africa were praying for a last-minute miracle. He had been "Africa's pope", worshippers gratefully recalled, putting the continent on the map with his pop-star-style tours, scattering sainthoods and beatifications like confetti, giving ordinary Africans their own role models to emulate.

He was the first pontiff to stage an African synod, remembered worshippers at Nairobi's Holy Family Basilica. In the unlikely event that an African cardinal becomes the first black pontiff, as many here hope, it will be thanks to Pope John Paul's drive to raise the profile of African clergy within the Church hierarchy. Africa, the consensus runs, owes a lot to his papacy.

Up to a point, Lord Copper, up to a point. While Pope John Paul will certainly go down in history as the pontiff who recognised the importance of the Church's third world constituency, his papacy also deserves to be remembered as one that helped keep Africa disease-ridden, famished and disastrously underdeveloped.

No one who travels around Africa could help being impressed by the role that Catholic leaders have played in reining in dictators, challenging corruption and pushing for democratic reform. In countries whose political classes never disappoint in their ability to disappoint, Catholic leaders are often the only men of stature to champion ordinary folk.

And that is not all. As the state has withered and retreated across the continent, churches have expanded to fill the void. Were it not for the Catholic and Protestant churches, many African societies would be in meltdown, unable to provide their ballooning populations with basic healthcare, primary and secondary education; their farmers with technical advice; their voters with a grasp of civic rights. The most dynamic men I've met in Africa's rural areas have been men of the cloth. Yet often these have been local heroes, interpreting edicts from Rome with deliberate flexibility. For example, in rural areas of Africa, most Catholic worshippers regard themselves as being married and ready to have children long before they officially plight their troth in church. Priests will turn a blind eye to this, and will also pretend not to notice that their followers - including, in Kenya's case, President Mwai Kibaki, a devout practising Catholic - are in polygamous unions. They know that, if they push too hard, they risk losing supporters to the born-again and wacky fringe churches that are mushrooming in every African state. With their speaking in tongues, charismatic preachers and mass healings, these churches - many of which are exports from America's far-right Bible Belt - usually offer better entertainment than stuffy Catholic rituals. But it is for his top-down messages that the Pope must be judged, not the pragmatic uses to which his words have been put by men who knew his rigid absolutism would not wash with an African audience.

When I think of the Vatican's record in Africa, I think of its failure to acknowledge what happened in Rwanda, where priests and nuns not only led the death squads to Tutsi refugees cowering in their churches, but provided the petrol to burn them alive, took part in the shootings and raped survivors. Rwanda was Africa's most devout Catholic nation, and the role the Church played in condoning and fostering the Hutu extremism that climaxed in genocide is as shameful as its collaboration with the Nazis.

I think of the stories African newspapers regularly publish about newborn babies being dumped in latrines, of embryos from back-street abortions floating down slum sewers. On a continent where the concept of consensual sex still has some way to go, the Vatican's no-abortion, no-contraception line has been brutal for African women. If the Pope has been eulogised across much of Africa during the past week, it is because the continent is still overwhelmingly patriarchal. Politicians are overwhelmingly male; newspaper editors are male; leader writers and news editors are male; and most of the "I met the great man" pieces are by male writers.

I also think of the sheer irresponsibility of rejecting population control, on a continent stalked by famine and stunted by malnutrition, where each year brings another ten million mouths to feed. The population of Kenya, now 32 million, doubled during John Paul II's pontificate. Though the average number of children in a family has fallen from seven to four, that is no thanks to John Paul. As one Kenyan paper reported after his death, a couple who enjoyed a private mass in the Vatican on their jubilee wedding anniversary were asked if they had children. Eleven, they said. The Pope, they reported, "was pleased and blessed us". Yet Kenya today is unable to feed itself. President Kibaki was forced last year to declare a state of famine.

Yet all this pales into insignificance when set against the one area in which the Pope could really have transformed Africans' lives. When it comes to "Ay-Eye-Dee-Ess", as he clumsily pronounced the unfamiliar acronym at a Nairobi conference, the Pope probably contributed more to the continental spread of the disease than the trucking industry and prostitution combined.

Back in the early 1990s there was a moment when, had African leaderships started talking openly about condoms, safe sex and monogamy, they could have weathered the coming Aids storm. Instead - with the exception of Uganda - they opted for silence and denial, not only doing almost nothing to educate the public but actively opposing efforts to prevent HIV infection. In this, they were egged on by the Vatican.

In Kenya, worshippers wondering what to do could take their lead from Cardinal Maurice Otunga, who staged public condom-burning ceremonies. Or they might look to the Archbishop of Nairobi, Raphael Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki, who even warned that condoms could give them Aids. Any doubt whether the papacy supported such views was quashed when the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family announced that the HIV virus could pass through tiny holes in condoms. The World Health Organisation contradicted him, but that didn't stop his deceitful message being relayed to worshippers across Africa.

The establishment's attitudes are now changing. But it is too late; the damage has been done. In deserted African villages, millions of Aids orphans are already being brought up by overwhelmed grandparents as the educated middle class - once the continent's greatest asset - is ravaged by disease. The newspaper obituary pages are crammed with the smooth, hopeful faces of Africans who never reached old age. And the worst, accord- ing to the latest UN report, is yet to come. It estimates that up to 83 million Africans will die of Aids by 2025.

Africa's pope? Only to the extent that, like so many of the continent's leaders who are adulated for the power they hold, rather than what they do with it, John Paul II has the blood of innocents on his hands.

Michela Wrong is a New Statesman columnist and the author of I Didn't Do It for You published in January by Fourth Estate