President Clinton is on a six-nation Africa tour, the first American chief executive to visit more than one country on the continent since Jimmy Carter went to Liberia and Nigeria 20 years ago.

His stops in Botswana, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda represent the most ambitious African itinerary ever undertaken by a sitting president, retracing the footsteps of Hillary Rodham Clinton a year ago and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in December.Clinton is accompanied by business leaders and members of Congress. Their purpose, Albright says, is to forge "a new partnership with Africa, one that will establish lifelines of commerce and investment to reduce poverty, raise living standards and equip Africans with 21st century skills."

Those are noble goals, certainly better than funneling aid to a continent that has squandered $300 billion in foreign aid since the 1960s.

While private investment in developing nations has soared to a record $170 billion a year - more than compensating for the drop in foreign aid by once-generous donor governments - very little of it goes to Africa. And it is not likely to as long as Africa remains bedeviled by some 20 wars, tribalism, political instability, high crime rates and corrupt governments.

Africa is a continent of contradictions. It inspires the giddiest optimism or the gloomiest pessimism. And it can confound the best of in-ten-tions.

Take hunger. Africa has some of the richest soil in the world but its people are starving. Only two countries, South Africa and Zimbabwe, are self-sufficient in food, and Zimbabwe won't be for long if President Robert Mugabe goes ahead with a plan to seize large commercial farms and break them up into small plots for landless peasants.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization lists 20 sub-Saharan nations as being in need of food aid. Foreign investment and trade will not alleviate that need.

Africa is a treasure trove of gold, diamonds and strategic minerals. But 22 of the 25 countries with the lowest levels of economic and social development, as measured by the United Nations, are in Africa. More than half the continent's population, 54 percent, lives below the absolute poverty line. And Africa is the only part of the world where the number of poor is increasing.

Africa's first post-colonial leaders were almost all dictators. To stay in power they en-gaged in what students of African history call "crony capitalism," creating corrupt elites that stole from the state rather than develop it.

The "wind of democracy" that blew over Africa in the last decade brought some improvement, but it is also illusory. While half of Africa's 54 countries have some form of electoral process, many are "facade democracies" run by wily autocrats with democratic vocabularies but the same old circle of corrupt cronies.

They have created what a French Foreign Ministry report calls the "criminalization of sub-Saharan Africa." One U N. agency estimates the amount of money they steal at $200 billion, or 90 percent of the sub-Saharan nations' gross domestic product.

Ironically, this almost equals their combined debt, which has reached $235 billion. It exceeds their combined exports by 234 percent and costs them $14 billion a year in interest, double the amount spent on health care and education.

Pope John Paul II has appealed to international lenders to "take the chains off Africa" by canceling this debt. But it is hard to imagine the World Bank doing so, just as it is hard to imagine American businessmen investing in Africa without a guarantee that the U.S. government will cover their losses.

That means the American taxpayer will pay if Clinton's partnership with Africa goes bad.