Obama stepped off Air Force One into the African night late Wednesday in Dakar to launch a three-nation trip designed to fulfil neglected expectations for his presidency on a continent where he has deep ancestral roots.
But his itinerary, which also takes in South Africa and Tanzania, threatens to be disrupted as life apparently ebbs from Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who is gravely ill in a Pretoria hospital.
Should Mandela die before Obama lands in South Africa on Friday, aides may be forced to tear up plans to visit Johannesburg and Cape Town. As it stands, the ex-South African president’s plight is already overshadowing Obama’s trip.
On Thursday, Obama will begin his day with talks and a press conference with Senegal President Macky Sall. Then he will discuss the importance of the rule of law at Senegal’s Supreme Court.
A ‘full circle’ moment then beckons as Obama, the son of a Kenyan, and his wife Michelle, the descendent of slaves, will pay a visit to Goree Island, a memorial to Africans swept up in the Atlantic slave trade.
Obama will journey by ferry to the island’s Slave House museum, off the Senegal coast, which epitomises a dark period of American and African history resonating on both sides of the Atlantic to this day.
“There’s this link between Obama, an American originating from Africa through his father, and his wife, an African-American originating from Africa through her ancestors,” said House of Slaves curator Eloi Coly.
“I think with all these ingredients gathered together, this visit by the Obamas should be very special.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the visit would be an important moment for Obama.
“A visit like this by an American President, any American President, is powerful,” he told reporters.
“I think that will be the case when President Obama visits and I’m sure particularly so, given that he is African American.”
US officials are keen to highlight democracy, in Muslim majority Senegal, on the first leg of a visit focusing on francophone west Africa, the tip of the continent in South Africa, and the democratic west in Tanzania.
Obama will also likely bring up the situation in neighbouring Mali, before a UN peacekeeping force starts operations in a country where Islamists and radicals have exploited a power vacuum.
The US president’s arrival in Africa came at a delicate time as the world prepared to say a farewell to Mandela.
Napilisi Mandela, an elder in Mandela’s clan, told AFP that the former South African president was on life support, and South African President Jacob Zuma called off a scheduled trip to Mozambique.
Obama and Mandela met in 2005, when the former South African president was in Washington, and Obama was a newly elected senator, and the two have spoken several times since by telephone.
But the long awaited prospect of a public appearance between the first black presidents of South Africa and the United States is now impossible.
Obama claims a spiritual connection to Africa, but a crush of international crises in his first term thwarted his hopes to travel extensively in the continent. He did manage a short trip to Ghana in 2009.
His tour is designed to highlight Africa’s emerging economic potential and growing middle class, as well as youth and health programs, and to emphasise US engagement in a region benefiting from a wave of Chinese investment.
“We are not too late,” said Carney, pointing out that although Obama had been kept away, Vice President Joe Biden visited Africa in the first term, and there were also wide ranging diplomatic efforts by the administration on the continent.
But there has been disappointment in Africa, after Obama’s 2008 election caused euphoria and an expectation that he would put Africa policy at the top of his agenda.
There is one glaring missing stop on Obama’s itinerary: Kenya.
Officials said that the indictment of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, over previous election violence, made it politically impossible for Obama to stop by on this tour. – AFP