Washington — When he deplanes tomorrow in Dakar, Senegal, George Shultz will become the first American secretary of state to set foot in sub-Saharan Africa in eight years, and only the fourth ever to visit a region now considered increasingly important to American economic and security interests. State Department officials say a whirlwind eight-day tour by Mr. Shultz to five West African nations, plus Kenya in East Africa, is designed to reinforce relations with countries already on friendly terms with the United States.
Some Reagan administration critics add that the visit may also serve to shore up an Africa policy left in disarray after Congress, overriding a presidential veto last fall, imposed tough economic sanctions on South Africa.
``Basically it's a touchy-feely trip,'' says one Washington-based expert on Africa. He says the trip is intended to give a ``pat on the back'' to countries striving to make politically risky free-market economic reforms. Reagan officials have been urging leaders of economically troubled African nations to unleash market forces as a means of achieving economic self-sufficiency.
In meetings with African leaders Shultz will also discuss regional security concerns ignited by recent Libyan aggression in Chad and by the efforts of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to destabilize neighboring governments, including those in Niger, Senegal, and Nigeria.
The underlying theme of Shultz's journey will be the need to stem Soviet influence in Africa, considered the greatest threat to American interests on the continent.
Shultz's itinerary will include these countries:
Senegal. State Department officials attribute to Senegal's President, Abdou Diouf, a leading role in encouraging African nations to abandon central economic planning in favor of free enterprise. President Diouf has made major economic reforms, part of the reason for $47 million in US food and economic aid to Senegal last year.
Senegal also received $3 million in US military aid, in part for serving as a backup landing site for the US space shuttle and as site of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration tracking station.
Cameroon. Another leader among African nations in the transition toward free-market economics, Cameroon has attracted major amounts of US investment, in banking, offshore oil, and basic industries. ``The Cameroon economy works,'' a senior State Department official says approvingly.
Situated on the Atlantic coast, Cameroon also plays a key strategic role as a supply route to landlocked Chad, which is fighting to repel a Libyan invasion. In a meeting with President Paul Biya, Shultz will discuss the Libyan threat to the countries in the region.
Kenya. A country the size of France, with a population of 20 million, Kenya is described by US officials as a stable, pro-Western ally with a major Western business presence, including more than $300 million in US private investment.
But the country is also a hotbed of internal political dissent. In private discussions with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, the successor to the country's patriarch, Jomo Kenyatta, Shultz is expected to communicate US concern over the arrest of journalists and academics opposed to the one-party government. The two will also discuss Kenya's economic problems, fueled by one of the fastest population growth rates in the world.
Nigeria. The world's fourth-largest democracy and home to 1 of every 4 black Africans, Nigeria has more extensive economic ties with the US than any other African nation. With $3 billion, the country is the largest repository of US foreign investment in Africa and the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the US.
Shultz will convey US concern over Nigeria's recent decision to halt imports of American grain, adding to what a senior State Department official describes as a ``very bad balance of trade'' for the US between the two countries. Shultz will also discuss joint efforts to crack down on drug traffickers who use Nigeria as a way station for shipments to the US.
Ivory Coast. In Abidjan, the talk will be primarily of southern Africa, including South Africa. President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny, black Africa's ranking elder statesman, enjoys good relations with the ``front line'' states of southern Africa and is a leading proponent of dialogue between black African nations and Pretoria.
US officials credit President Houphou"et-Boigny's adherence to free-market principles with providing the Ivory Coast with the highest per capita income among black African states.
Liberia. Settled by freed American slaves before the Civil War and the only African country to avoid colonization during the 19th century, Liberia has had close political and cultural ties to the US for over a century. But relations have been strained since a coup brought Army Sgt. Samuel K. Doe to power six years ago.
Last year, the US withheld $10 million in economic aid to prod economic and human rights reforms in Liberia. In Monrovia, his final stopover, Shultz will take the unusual step of meeting informally with members of Liberia's opposition party.
The US has budgeted $147 million in economic aid for four of the countries on Shultz's itinerary. The other two countries, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, receive no US economic aid.
Shultz was originally scheduled to make a two-week visit to Africa, including southern Africa, last October. The visit was planned to sweeten President Reagan's veto of the South African sanctions bill.
But the trip was postponed because of the Reykjavik summit and because of concerns that, after the sanctions veto, Shultz might not be warmly received on the continent.
State Department officials say a Shultz visit to southern Africa is again under active consideration. Last month Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost visited southern African, where he became the highest-ranking US official to meet with representatives of the African National Congress.