NEW YORK – President Bush (search) wasted no time denouncing slavery at the beginning of his five-nation tour of Africa, calling it one of the "greatest crimes of the century."
The U.S. ambassador for the small west coast African nation Benin (search) has a similar message that hasn't received much attention from the global media. He is in the midst of a speaking tour across America apologizing for his own country's role in the slave trade.
Historians estimate that during the 17th century, as many as 3 million people were rounded up in Benin — actually kidnapped — by their own leaders and sold as slaves. The country was then called Dahomey, and was a significant supplier of slaves to white exporters shipping from what was then known as the Slave Coast.
Ambassador Cyrille Oguin (search) is now touring schools and churches throughout the United States offering a formal apology.
"In the name of the government and the people of Benin, on behalf of President Mattie Ke're'kou, I say to you all, we are sorry,” says Oguin. “We are deeply, deeply sorry."
Beyond the straightforward apology, a key part of the ambassador’s message addressed the issue of responsibility. Slave traders only share part of the blame for what happened centuries ago, he says.
"We believe it is easy to say that those other people did it, but we also believe that if we are not helping them, if we did not assist them, if we did not play a role in it, it would not have happened."
Benin's slave trade reconciliation movement has been under way since 1999, when the country's president sponsored a conference on the subject. In addition to healing old wounds, the ambassador says seeking forgiveness has offered new economic opportunities.
Reconciliation, he says, is the first step to healing old wounds and opening economic development.
"The president of Benin, the people of Benin have asked me to come here and apologize for the government, for the Benin people and for Africa for what we all know happened," Oguin says. "Where our parents were involved in this awful, this terrible, trade."
Benin President Mattieu Kerekou has made reconciliation a priority, Oguin says.
"He knows the damage on our side that came from slavery. He knows how this robbed our own society at home, how it turned us against each other."
In 1999, Kerekou called a conference to discuss reconciliation between nations involved in the slave trade and the descendants of slaves.
"During that conference, apologies were made and reconciliation was started," said Van Dora Williams, of the Reconciliation and Development Corp., which grew out of that conference and is temporarily based in Louisiana. "This was a move that people wanted but didn't know how to articulate."
Some people touched by the message are helping to build new roads, schools and even adopting an entire village — badly needed financial assistance for a country haunted by its past.