DAKAR, Senegal — President Barack Obama opened a weeklong trip to Africa on Wednesday, a three-country visit aimed at overcoming disappointment on the continent over the first black U.S. president’s lack of personal engagement during his first term.
However, the highly anticipated trip threatens to be overshadowed by the deteriorating health of beloved former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Air Force One touched down in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on Wednesday evening. The president, who is traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, is also scheduled to visit South Africa and Tanzania.
The president is expected to be greeted warmly during his trip, despite the underlying sense of disappointment. American flags dotted the roadways as Obama’s motorcade sped through this coastal city, and signs welcoming Obama and bearing his picture hung on homes and businesses.
Obama’s father was born in Kenya and several of his relatives still live there. But despite his family ties to the continent, Obama spent just one day in Africa during his first four years in office and has focused instead on strengthening U.S. ties with Asia and Latin America.
“Africans were very excited when President Obama was elected and they expected deeper engagement than in the past, both in regard to policy and also in terms of actual visits to the continent, given the president’s African heritage,” said Mwangi Kimenyi, an Africa analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Africans have been gradually disappointed, especially when they look at the focus on Africa by previous presidents, in particular President Clinton and President George W. Bush, who did quite a bit there.”
Few major policy announcements are expected during Obama’s trip. Instead, the president will focus on promoting democratic institutions, boosting opportunities for Africa’s vast youth population and promoting the continent as a growing market for U.S. businesses.
The White House defended the purpose of the trip despite its low policy expectations.
“Presidential trips to regions of the world like Africa bring enormous benefits in terms of our relationship with the countries visited and the countries in the region,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One. “The trip itself will not be the end point of our engagement, but will enhance it, deepen it and further it.”
The president will make two stops at sights that highlight the continent’s harsh racial history: Senegal’s Goree Island, which was the center of Atlantic slave trade, and Robben Island, the apartheid-era prison in South Africa where Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years in prison.
The White House is closely monitoring Mandela’s health, which has added a degree of uncertainty to Obama’s travel itinerary. The 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader has been hospitalized for about three weeks with a recurring lung infection and South African officials have now deemed his condition critical.
Obama advisers have been reluctant to publicly discuss what impact his condition might have on Obama’s trip. There had been no formal plans for the two men to meet, though Obama aides did leave open the possibility of the U.S. president meeting with Mandela’s family.
“Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interest of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The president had no public events planned Wednesday after his arrival. He was scheduled to spend Thursday meeting with Senagalese President Macky Sall, then meet with civil society leaders at Goree Island.
Top White House economic advisers and U.S. business leaders were traveling with Obama, underscoring the trip’s focus on boosting American economic ties with Africa. Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies last year were in Africa, according to the World Bank.
While the U.S. has been slow to ramp up its trade with Africa, China, along with India, Malaysia and Brazil, have been building robust economic relationships on the continent. Chinese officials say Beijing’s trade with Africa totaled $200 billion last year. The U.S. Trade Representative said American trade with Africa reached $95 billion in 2011.