US president Barack Obama arrived in Senegal's
capital Dakar Wednesday evening, on the first stop of a three-country
tour that threatens to be overshadowed by the failing health of
Nelson Mandela, who is critically ill in a South African hospital.
As Air Force One touched down at Dakar's international airport, many Senegalese watched live television broadcasts of the first black US president's arrival, or stood outside in the streets, tipping their heads back to catch a glimpse of the jet as it flew low over the warm seaside capital.
The US president descended from the aircraft at 8:30 pm, dressed in a dark suit and blue tie. He walked arm-in-arm with his elder daughter Malia, 12, who is accompanying him on the tour - which will also take in South Africa and Tanzania - along with first lady Michelle and younger daughter Sasha, 12.
"It's a mark of pride for us to receive Obama on his first stop of the tour," said Fadigue Mbaye, a civil engineer who lives in Dakar. "He didn't choose Senegal for nothing. He isn't coming here just for the president, but for all the people. I'm thrilled he's coming."
In Senegal, Obama is expected to forge closer ties with 51-year-old president Macky Sall and emphasise the country's reputation as a beacon of democracy.
The predominately Muslim nation of 13 million is the only West African country never to have experienced a coup d'etat. Security and extremism concerns in the Sahel region are likely to be on the US president's agenda, as well as trade links with Senegal.
After a glittering arrival ceremony Thursday morning at the presidential palace, Obama is scheduled to attend a session at Senegal's supreme court, along with key politicians from several West African countries.
Accompanied by the first lady, he will visit Goree Island, a former slave-trading post that lies three kilometres off the coast of Dakar.
Michelle Obama is also expected to visit an all-girls school in the capital and have tea with Senegal's first lady Mareme Faye Sall. They share the distinction of being their country's first ever black first ladies. Her two predecessors were white women from Lebanon and France.
Newspaper headlines on Wednesday championed the US president's visit.
"Senegal and the United States: a shared democracy," said daily Le Soleil, which featured an editorial by Senegal's foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye.
"The choice to make Senegal the first stop of the African tour of the African-American president of big America is surely a mark of high esteem for our country," Ndiaye wrote.
Meanwhile, the newspaper L'As reported that "Dakar is rolling out the red carpet for Obama."
Security was severely heightened in Dakar on Wednesday evening, with the closure of key roads and the presence of snipers on rooftops around the airport. Obama is reportedly travelling with a convoy of 70 vehicles, as well as hundreds of secret service officials.
Senegal is only the second African country that the US president of Kenyan ancestry has so far visited during his time in the White House. Ghana was the sole focus of his first visit to Africa in 2009.
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