“I’m making this visit to Africa because I see this as a moment of great progress and great promise for the continent,” he said, after meeting Senegal’s President Macky Sall in the capital, Dakar.
Obama said Senegal is one of the most stable democracies in Africa.
The U.S. President was welcome by crowds dressed in white who lined the streets waving posters and banners.
Obama’s trip – his second to Africa during his time as president – is being overshadowed by the failing health of South African legend Nelson Mandela, who is clinging to life in a Pretoria hospital.
“Mandela is a personal hero and a hero for the world,” Obama said from Dakar’s presidential palace. “If and when he passes away, his legacy will linger on through the ages.”
The tour, which also includes, South Africa and Tanzania, is expected to focus on promoting good governance and forging stronger economic links. Obama and Sall discussed economic ties and bilateral relations.
“Africa is a continent that’s going somewhere with a strong workforce…we want to offer greater opportunities to our young people and grow in prosperity and industry,” said 51-year-old Sall.
Obama visited Senegal’s Supreme Court, where he met with judges from several West African countries.
“I believe that the rule of law is a foundation for governance and also a foundation for human rights and economic growth,” he said.
“Rule of law is what upholds universal human rights. Sometimes, when no one else will, a judge can stand up on behalf of someone.”
Although Senegal has made great strides in the realm of justice in recent months, laying the groundwork for an international court and jailing the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade for fraud, Obama said it still faces “great challenges.”
Obama earlier praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage as “a victory” for human rights. But gay relationships remain against the law in Senegal.
Sall said he was not ready to make homosexuality legal in Senegal, “although we do respect the rights of the individual.
“Each country has different cultures, different traditions. Just like with the death penalty, we must respect each others’ stance,” Sall added.
Obama is accompanied by first lady Michelle and his daughters Malia and Sasha on the Africa tour.
Michelle and her Senegalese counterpart Mareme, visited Martin Luther King school in Dakar where they met students.
The first lady honoured Mandela in a speech at the school.
“If President Mandela could endure being confined to a tiny cell, being forced to perform back-breaking labor…then you can honour his legacy by leaving a proud legacy of your own,” she told students.
Senegal political analyst Aly Ndiaye said the choice of school was symbolic.
“There is solidarity between the Obama family and the Senegalese people,” he said.
“Martin Luther King walked so that Obama could run, so that black children in Africa and the U.S. will be able to fly.”
The Obamas are expected to visit former slave-trading post Goree Island on Thursday, a one-time launching point for West African slaves sent to the U.S.