Using a visit to a slavery museum and reminiscences about Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid to punctuate his point, President Barack Obama said African nations have made significant gains that should be recognized as the continent seeks more investment and trade.
“I see this as a moment of great progress and great promise for the continent,” Obama said in a news conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall in Dakar. It was his first stop on a three-country trip that is also scheduled to include South Africa and Tanzania.
“All too often, the world overlooks the amazing progress that Africa is making, including progress in strengthening democracy,” Obama said. “Many African nations have made tremendous strides in improving democratic governance and empowering citizens.”
Obama traveled by ferry to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where he toured the Slave House before a meeting with civil society advocates.
With cramped rooms labeled as prison cells and a Door of No Return overlooking the water, described as an embarkation point for slave ships, the museum draws thousands of tourists each year to learn about the Atlantic slave trade.
“For an African-American and African-American president to be able to visit this site, I think, gives me even greater motivation in terms of the defense of human rights around the world,” Obama said.
Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and family members looked out the portal where thousands of slaves got their last glimpse of Africa. Obama said it was a “very powerful moment.”
Even as historians have disputed the details of the island’s history and role in slavery, the location has drawn civil rights leaders, celebrities and past U.S. presidents including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Eloi Coly, curator of the museum, in an interview the day before Obama arrived, said visits by U.S. presidents help draw attention to the history of slavery, while Obama’s is especially poignant because he is the first U.S. president of African descent and his success is part of the narrative.
The timing of Obama’s visit coincided with Mandela’s hospitalization. “It’s very emotional,” Coly said. “President Mandela is a black African. He lived the same story. It’s a continuation of history.”
Obama’s Africa trip is being overshadowed the watch on Mandela. The 94-year-old former South African president and anti-apartheid icon lies in critical condition after weeks of treatment for a lung infection.
Obama described Mandela as a “personal hero” who inspired his own political activism in college and after.
“To see Nelson Mandela step forward after 27 years of captivity and not only help usher in democracy and majority rule,” Obama said, “but as importantly, for him to say, I embrace my former captors and my former oppressors, and believe in one nation and believe in judging people on the basis of their character and not their color -- it gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people, when people of goodwill work together on behalf of a larger cause.”
Obama highlighted government and judicial reforms in Senegal, a West African democracy that is an example of stability in the Sahel in the face of unrest in neighboring Mali.
Thousands of people lined the streets of Dakar, playing music, carrying welcome signs and wearing T-shirts picturing Obama and Sall. “We are deeply touched,” Obama said, speaking also for his wife and two daughters, who are accompanying him. “We are so grateful for your teranga -- your hospitality.”
Sall welcomed Obama for meetings at the presidential palace in Dakar. While their news conference was dominated by questions about Edward Snowden, the former contractor who leaked national security secrets, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings yesterday on gay rights and minority voting rights protections, Obama sought to raise the profile of his visit.
Sall, 51, a former prime minister and National Assembly president, was elected as president of Senegal last year after defeating the two-term incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade. Wade faced allegations of corruption and nepotism, and criticisms for postponing elections and limiting civil liberties.
Sall took office promising to institute democratic reforms including a reduction in the length of presidential terms to five years from seven.