On the first leg of his eight day visit to Africa, US president Obama has taken his family to visit the point in Senegal where Africans were shipped as slaves to North America.
The House of Slaves fort on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, was built in the late 18th century. For Obama, it was a moving moment.
He told local people who had come to see him that: “It’s always powerful for me to visit countries outside of the United States generally, but obviously for an African-American, and an African-American president to be able to visit this site I think gives me even greater motivation in terms of the defence of human rights around the world.”
Looking to Mandela’s lessons
Obama’s next stop was South Africa. The White House has said it is up to Nelson Mandela’s family whether Obama pays Mandela a visit.
“I don’t need a photo op,” Obama told reporters aboard his official plane, Air Force One, after leaving Senegal. “The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned with Nelson Mandela’s condition.”
Mandela is described as in a ‘serious but stable’ condition. The US president has previously described the former South African president as a ‘hero’.
Obama was scheduled to visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent years in prison under South Africa’s former white minority regime.
He told reporters travelling with him that his message in South Africa would draw from the lessons of Mandela’s life.
“If we focus on what Africa as a continent can do together and what these countries can do when they’re unified, as opposed to when they’re divided by tribe or race or religion, then Africa’s rise will continue,” Obama said.
Compensating for neglect
White House officials hope Obama’s three-nation tour of Africa – his first substantial visit to the continent since taking office in 2009 – will compensate for what some view as years of neglect by America’s first black president.
Obama’s only previous visit to the African continent was a one-day stopover in Ghana at the beginning of his first term.
While acknowledging that Obama has not spent as much time in Africa as people hoped, the White House is eager to highlight what it has done, in part to end unflattering comparisons to accomplishments of predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“Given the budget constraints, for us to try to get the kind of money that President Bush was able to get out of the
Republican House for massively scaled new foreign aid programmes is very difficult,” Obama said.