DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Midway through a three-country trip to Africa and shortly after an emotional tour of his hero Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell, Barack Obama was greeted by another revered African leader, Desmond Tutu, with the words: “Welcome home.”
America’s first black president - ‘the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas’, as Obama describes himself - had returned to Africa for his first extended trip as the world’s most powerful leader.
Despite disappointment that it took him so long, the continent, for the most part, claimed him as its own. People lined the streets in Dar es Salaam as Obama began and ended his visit to Tanzania, and young audiences in South Africa sprang to their feet to applaud his words.
“Your success is our success. Your failure, whether you like it or not, is our failure,” the anti-apartheid hero Tutu, Cape Town’s former Anglican archbishop, told Obama when they met at a youth center run by Tutu’s HIV Foundation.
“We are bound to you. You belong to us. And your victory is our victory.”
The moment was a reminder of the hopes that Obama’s election in 2008 brought to Africa, which foresaw a future of stronger ties with the United States.
Though Obama dashed those hopes in his first term by largely skirting the continent except for a brief visit to Ghana, he has sought to make up for lost time on this trip with a new push for more trade and a promise to provide electricity to millions.
Alongside the promises of business development on a continent where self-determination struggles have mostly given way to growing ambitions of higher living standards, his personal connection with Africa seemed to resonate.
During his signature speech in Cape Town, Obama mentioned his African father, something he rarely does, and made a connection between his own start in political activism and the anti-apartheid movement led by the now ailing Mandela.
At a former slave house on Goree Island in Senegal, Obama, who only rarely refers to his own race, said being an African American increased his motivation to fight for human rights around the world.
“He appears to have understood that people in Africa connect with his personal story and has felt freer to tell it on African soil than back home,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
During the tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, the welcome was not quite as warm as it was in Ghana in 2009, when huge crowds turned out to see the newly-elected leader.
He faced some hostile protests in South Africa against U.S. foreign policy, and even Tutu mentioned a prominent failure of Obama’s four-and-a-half year tenure: his inability to close the controversial U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“The euphoria that engulfed this continent when President Obama was elected is fading,” said Nkepile Mabuse, the moderator of a town-hall style meeting with young leaders at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus.
Yet Valerie Jarrett, a friend and senior White House adviser, said the more pragmatic, sober welcome was perhaps felt more keenly.
“The fact that his father abandoned him but his continent did not, and all these years later to be welcomed as both the president of the United States and the favorite son - it just doesn’t get much better,” she said.
Obama’s father, now dead, left his mother when the president was a young boy. Obama’s grandmother still lives in Kenya, but he did not make a stop there, saying the timing was “not optimal” while the new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is facing charges at the International Criminal Court.
But Obama said Kenya was close to his heart and renewed a promise to return there while in office.
In the meantime, the continent will be watching to see how he follows up on the pledges made during this visit.
If Mandela dies, Obama will almost certainly return for the funeral. A picture of the two men together hangs in the family’s residence at the White House, next to a photograph of Mandela with first lady Michelle Obama and the two Obama daughters, taken when they went to South Africa two years ago.
Obama has already invited African leaders for a summit next year in Washington and promised to send high-level cabinet secretaries on trips to the continent.
“Only time will tell whether this trip signifies the start of a more active chapter in U.S.-Africa relations,” said Downie of CSIS. “It’s easy enough to make nice speeches, but it’s the day-to-day policy substance that matters.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kevin Liffey