US President Barack Obama jumped into a week-long trip to Africa today as the White House limo tooled through the capital of Senegal past signs reading "Yes, we can!" and a fresh painting of Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Obama later visited the historic embarkation point of African slaves bound for the New World centuries ago.
The White House says the Africa visit is designed to promote trade and civil society. Mr. Obama today praised his host Senegal as a "great example" of the kind of strengthening democracy his visit aims to support, and the former University of Chicago law professor also visited the Supreme Court of Senegal.
Yet looming over the trip is the condition of one of Obama's heroes, Nelson Mandela, the first black and first democratically elected president of South Africa, who has been ailing in a Pretoria hospital – and who today is said to have rallied again, with his health stabilizing according to official accounts.
In the first public appearance of his trip, Obama told reporters that Mandela is a “hero for the world” whose “legacy will linger through the ages.”
Tomorrow, Obama visits South Africa but it is unclear how or whether the White House will actually engage with Mandela; the US leader is set to visit Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for more than two decades.
In the meantime, the White House entourage has an agenda to bring more trade and political influence to Africa than it did in its first four years in office.
That effort is starting in Senegal, whose recent elections were praised by the US government as a model. During the press conference with Senegalese president Macky Sall, Obama said the West African country is an example to others on the continent.
"Senegal is one of the most stable democracies in Africa and one of the strongest partners that we have in the region," Obama said at a media conference in Dakar, the capital.
"It is moving in the right direction, with reforms to deepen democratic institutions. I believe Senegal can be a great example.”
But the president and his advisers are well aware that the Obama administration is “behind the curve,” in the words of one analyst, and “playing catch-up” in Africa, according to another.
Ahead of the US president's visit, by three months, was China’s new premier, Xi Jinping, who toured the continent less than a fortnight after becoming president of Africa’s largest trading partner.
Beijing has inked deals on a raft of major infrastructure projects across Africa, the most recent being a $10 billion new port, railway, and economic zone agreed in May for Tanzania.
China’s business with the continent has mushroomed from less than $10 billion in 2000 to $200 billion last year.
“The US under Barack Obama seems only now to be waking up to what others are doing in Africa, and they are having to play catch-up,” says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.
“It’s clear that his trip is an attempt to engage with Africa in a very different way from his first term, but one wonders if he’s a bit late.”
White House officials admit that Obama’s first major visit to Africa has been too long coming.
“We have not traveled to Africa in the same way that we've traveled to other regions of the world,” Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor, said in a briefing about the visit.
“Frankly, we have heard a high demand signal from the US private sector for us to play an active role in deepening our trade and investment partnerships in Africa. What we hear from our businesses is that they want to get in the game in Africa.”
US trade with the African continent tripled between 2002 and 2012, to $100 billion a year. But that is still half of China’s trade.
Underscoring the central role economics has in the trip, it has been reported that 600 executives from US businesses are traveling with Obama, on the hunt for fresh investments.
The president will hold talks about easing cross-border trade within Africa, and strengthening contract law to boost businesses' confidence and counteracting fears of corruption.
Tackling that, too, is on the table.
Discussions over good governance and democracy could bring greater rifts between the US and African nations, since newer allies don't always hector African leaders, says Charles Dokubo of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.
“Africa’s leaders find it very tempting to do business with new partners like China, who do not impose conditions on their assistance, like the West does,” Mr. Dokubo said. “Obama should perhaps be very careful about how loudly he bangs the drum for good governance. It’s important, it needs to be said. But it’s not always music to the ears of our leaders.”
But Obama is perfectly placed to “leverage the lashings of soft power he has in Africa” to succeed in both of his trip’s main aims: opening up new trade and cautioning over corruption, says Aly-Khan Satchu, a Kenyan economic analyst.
“He’s arriving behind the curve, but now is the chance for him to inflect that curve for the next few years,” Mr. Satchu says. “Obama has so much soft power here that he has not yet used. Put that on the table, and you watch the dialogue change immediately about his supposed semi-detached engagement in Africa."