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Obama Kicks Off Presidential Trip to Africa With Visit to Senegal

June 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Next to Africa, where President Obama’s multination tour comes as the world watches the day-to-day health of former South African leader Nelson Mandela.

President Obama today gazed out the Door of No Return on Senegal’s Goree Island, a memorial to the multitude of Africans said to have walked through it bound for slavery in the new world. He described the experience, part of the first family’s first full day in Africa, as a very powerful moment.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a testament to when we’re not vigilant in defense of what’s right what can happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Earlier, Senegalese President Macky Sall welcomed his American counterpart to the capital city, Dakar.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It is wonderful to be here in Senegal.

MARGARET WARNER: Both leaders embraced the importance of transparent government, economic development and food security efforts in the country. But they parted ways over gay rights. Homosexuality is a crime in most African nations, including Senegal.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions. But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.

PRESIDENT MACKY SALL, Senegal: Senegal, as far as it is concerned, is a very tolerant country which doesn’t discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being.

But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality. We have respect for the rights of homosexuals, but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law. But, of course, this doesn’t mean we are all homophobic.

MARGARET WARNER: The president also spoke warmly of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who remains in critical condition in a Johannesburg hospital.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think he’s a hero for the world. And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we will all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages.

MARGARET WARNER: The Obamas will fly to South Africa Saturday for a visit long in the making. Whether he will see the ailing leader remains uncertain. From there, the president will wrap up his weeklong trip with a stop in Tanzania.

Noticeably not on the president’s itinerary, Kenya, his father’s birthplace. Mr. Obama visited as a senator, but his administration is now keeping its distance from the country’s newly elected president, Uhuru Kenyatta. He is under indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges he bankrolled post-election ethnic killings in 2007.

This is only Mr. Obama’s second presidential trip to sub-Saharan Africa. The other was a 22-hour stopover and speech in Ghana in 2009. His predecessor, George W. Bush, made multiple trips to Africa, pushing his multibillion-dollar AIDS funding program, PEPFAR, and a major debt relief plan.

And President Bill Clinton was widely praised for the economic development spurred by his African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA. So far, there are no big-ticket items on President Obama’s agenda this trip. But he did today pledge to extend the AGOA, which expires in two years.