John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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President Obama in Africa: Senegal

by John Campbell
June 27, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Senegal President Macky Sall shake hands after their joint news conference at the Presidential Palace June 27, 2013. (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters)


Senegal has never had a military coup, and the opposition won last year’s presidential election. It is also a predominately Muslim nation. President Obama arrived in Senegal the evening of June 26. At a joint press conference with Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, President Obama praised the country’s democracy and the rule of law. The president also publicly affirmed his support for gay rights; Senegal’s president responded that his country is not yet ready to decriminalize homosexuality. Obama also highlighted food security at a meeting with private sector and regional agricultural leaders.

The two first ladies visited a middle school named for Martin Luther King. The Obama family made the mandatory visit to the “Door of No Return” on Goree Island, now a monument to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. Senegal has been a good start to the president’s Africa trip from the perspective of public messaging and engagement with African elites. The stop also had a useful Francophone regional focus when the president met with regional judicial leaders.

Dakar is essentially locked down for the presidential visit. Business has all but ceased. As is often the case with presidential visits abroad, there is public resentment at the seemingly overpowering U.S. security presence, including restrictions on movement around the city. Complaints have been publicized in Dakar’s free press. They are not much different from New Yorkers’ complaints about the disruption caused each year by the opening of the UN General Assembly. In Dakar, the grousing is most common among non-elites, who face the greatest disruption in their daily lives and have little or no access to the excitement of a presidential visit. Elites, on the other hand, are minimally inconvenienced, and a few of them are actual participants in the presidential visit.

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  • Posted by Chike

    Let me start by erasing some misconceptions – President Obama is not visiting “Africa”, he is visiting Senegal, South Africa & Tanzania.

    Whatever impact his visit has would be largely limited to those three nations. (The Nigerian business community for example, will not fly to Senegal to meet with Obama).

    Let me also address the issue of “symbolism” – the US State Department actually believes that this is still the Cold War and the “symbolic presence” of the US president will “motivate millions of Africans to undying zeal in identifying with the United States & its values” .

    Obama probably believes that (as he is a master in the art of delivering symbolic speeches) – but it is patent nonsense, we’ve moved on from there.

    The African continent does not need “lovers”, “friends” or “symbolic influencers” as much as it needs trading partners – and the Chinese play that game and play it well.

    China’s top leaders visit the African continent so often that they no longer visit “Africa”, they visit individual nations.

    US has a reputation for plenty of talk and little action, the Chinese are known for little talk but fast, decisive action.

    (Obama went to Ghana & gave an impressive speech – the Chinese have almost completed a 400MW hydro-electric dam at Bui).

    The refusal of the US president to visit either Kenya or Nigeria is besides the point – both nations are democratic to some degree, so their leaders have a degree of legitimacy. Most importantly, their teething problems like managing ethno/religious diversity will not automatically be tackled if the US president refuses to visit.

    Kenya and Nigeria are the most important economies in East & West Africa. If Obama wants to give the Chinese an upper hand in these economies, well and good.

    In summary, this trip is probably not that important.

    P.S: Most Africans who have access to cable television are either watching the African version of “Big Brother” or the “Confederations Cup” – I can assure you that few know & even fewer care about Obama’s visit to Africa.

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