DAKAR, Senegal — The hopeful story President Barack Obama wants to tell about Africa is represented in the first stop of his weeklong trip to re-engage the continent, in a country where democracy recently overcame an impending electoral crisis.
During his visit to Senegal on Thursday, Obama also will reflect on the ties many African-Americans share with the continent as he takes a tour of Goree Island, Africa’s westernmost point. By some accounts, millions of Africans were shipped off into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean through the island’s “Door of No Return.”
It’s the first of two island visits Obama planned to highlight racial atrocities of the past. The second was scheduled for Sunday at South Africa’s Robben Island, where anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.
But Mandela’s condition could affect Obama’s plans. The former South African president is gravely ill, and Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes said it would be left to the Mandela family to decide whether he is up for a visit from Obama this weekend.
Mandela’s legacy hangs over the entire trip, with Senegal among many African countries that have benefited from his example of a peaceful transition to power. “So much of the democratic progress that we see across the continent I think can be tied in some way to the inspiration that Nelson Mandela set,” Rhodes said.
Obama’s focus in Senegal will be on the modern-day achievements of the former French colony after half a century of independence. He planned to meet with Senegalese President Macky Sall, who ousted an incumbent president who attempted to change the constitution to make it easier for him to be re-elected and pave the way for his son to succeed him. The power grab sparked protests, fueled by hip-hop music and social media, that led to Sall’s election.
But such people-powered democratic transitions are not always the story of the African experience. Fighting and human rights abuses limited Obama’s options for stops in his first major tour of sub-Saharan Africa since he took office more than four years ago. Obama is avoiding his father’s homeland, Kenya, whose president has been charged with war crimes, and Nigeria, the country with the continent’s most dominant economy. Nigeria is enveloped in an Islamist insurgency and military crackdown.
Obama’s itinerary in Senegal was designed to send a message, purposefully delivered in a French-speaking, Muslim-majority nation, to other Africans in countries that have not made the strides toward democracy that Senegal has. Obama plans to meet with civil society leaders at the Goree Institute and visit the Supreme Court to speak about the importance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law in Africa’s development.
“It’s not enough to have elections, it’s not enough to have democratically elected leaders,” Rhodes said. “You need to have independent judiciaries. You need to have confidence in the rule of law. You need to have efforts to combat corruption. Because, frankly, not only is that good for democracy and respect for human rights, but it’s critical to Africa’s economic growth, because where you have clear rules of the road and efforts to combat corruption, businesses will invest, and jobs will be created and growth will take off. And that’s what we want to see.”