US President Barack Obama has begun a three-nation trip to Africa, starting in Senegal. He will also visit Tanzania and South Africa, which is focused on the worsening health of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended a meager formal agenda for the US President's three-nation trip to Africa that began in Senegal on Wednesday. Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha flew into Senegal's capital Dakar.
"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," White House 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."
Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the president's planned encounters with young people, including a town hall meeting in Soweto later in the week, was a signal of US "commitment to investing in the future of African youth."
Large trade delegation
Travelling with Obama were top White House economic advisers and US business leaders, underscoring growing American interest in trade with Africa, which in 2011 reached 72 billion euros ($95 billion).
Africa had six of the world's 10 fastest-growing national economies last year, according to the World Bank.
China, India and Brazil have built up trade with Africa over recent years, with Beijing saying its transactions totaled 153 billion euros ($200 billion) last year.
Obama's father was born in Kenya, but during his first four years in office, Obama spent only one day in Africa - visiting Ghana in 2009 - and focused instead on strengthening US ties with Asia and Latin America.
An Africa analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Mwangi Kimenyi, said Africans had become "gradually disappointed," especially in comparison to the economic development and HIV/AIDS programs promoted by previous US presidents, first Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush.
On Thursday, Obama was scheduled to met Senegalese President Macky Sall and then civil society leaders at Goree Island, which was once the center of the Atlantic slave trade.
Obama is due to travel on to South Africa on Friday for a weekend of talks and events, including a visit to Robben Island, the former apartheid-era prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in confinement.
Monitoring Mandela's health
The White House said it was closely monitoring Mandela's health, adding that it would defer to Mandela's family on whether Obama would visit his political hero. Mandela has been hospitalized in Pretoria for three weeks with a lung infection.
The men met in 2005, when the former South African president visited Washington. At the time, Obama was a newly-elected senator.
Mandela's relatives said late on Wednesday that the 94-year-old was on life support to assist his breathing.
South African President Jacob Zuma cancelled a trip to Mozambique, which he had been due to make on Thursday to attend a regional summit, due to Mandela's ailing health.
ipj/slk (AFP, AP)