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Obama hails 'moment of great promise' for Africa

Trade also on the agenda as US president begins his first extended presidential visit to the African continent.

US President Barack Obama (second right) and first lady Michelle Obama (left) are greeted by Senegal President Macky Sall (second left) and his wife Mariame at the presidential palace in Dakar.
US President Barack Obama (second right) and first lady Michelle Obama (left) are greeted by Senegal President Macky Sall (second left) and his wife Mariame at the presidential palace in Dakar.

DAKAR // Barack Obama, kicking off a long-awaited African tour, hailed the advance of democracy on the continent and sought ways to advance trade.

In only his second visit to Africa since taking office, the US president said he wanted to look at ways to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) free-trade agreement, which is due to expire in 2015, to create more jobs on the world's poorest continent.

"I see this as a moment of great promise for the continent," he said in Senegal's capital Dakar. "All too often the world overlooks the amazing progress that Africa is making, including progress in strengthening democracy."

Mr Obama was feted by flag-waving crowds on Dakar's streets. During his first term, his only African trip was a one-day stopover in Ghana and many Africans have been impatient for him to make an extended tour of the continent.

Visiting Senegal's supreme court, he praised the independence of the former French colony's judiciary.

Senegal is pursuing a high-level corruption case against Karim Wade, the son of the former president, Abdoulaye Wade, on charges of embezzling up to US$1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn) during his father's 12-year presidency.

It is also conducting a trial of Chad's former dictator, Hissene Habre, on charges of crimes against humanity - the first time a former leader of one African state has been tried by another.

"Trade and investment around the world increasingly flow to places where there are rules, and courts play an important role in that," Mr Obama said, praising Senegal's institutions.

He said he had instructed US officials to finalise a new trade and investment pact with the Economic Community Of West African States, which includes economic heavyweight Nigeria.

Washington is also looking to extend AGOA when it expires in 2015. The deal, signed into law in 2000 by the former US president, Bill Clinton, slashes customs duties for African countries building free markets.

"I am looking for ways to renew it but also improve it so it can generate more jobs," Mr Obama said.

Flanked by Senegal's president, Macky Sall, he said the treatment of lesbians and gays in Africa remained "controversial". Homosexuality is illegal in Senegal.

A US supreme-court ruling on Wednesday, announced as Obama flew to Senegal, made married gay men and women eligible for federal benefits.

"It was a victory for American democracy," Mr Obama said.

Amnesty International, the human rights group, had urged Mr Obama to use his African trip to speak out against threats to gays and lesbians on the continent, which it said were reaching dangerous levels.

While voicing respect for the diversity of cultures and religions in Africa, Mr Obama - the first African-American US president - called for steps to make homosexuals equal before the law. He compared gay rights in Africa to racial struggles in the US.

"When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally," Mr Obama said, though he added that he had not specifically discussed this with Mr Sall.

Ahead of his planned visit to South Africa this weekend, Mr Obama also offered prayers for the country's former president, Nelson Mandela, who is gravely ill.

He said he was inspired to become politically active by Mr Mandela's example, set during South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle, of being willing to sacrifice his life for a belief in equality.

"I think he's a hero for the world," Mr Obama said. "And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we'll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages."

Mr Obama also reflected on the ties many African-Americans share with the continent as he took a tour of Goree Island, Africa's westernmost point.

Africans reportedly were shipped off into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean through the island's "Door of No Return".

* With additional reporting by Associated Press