US President George W. Bush chose one of Africa's most stable democracies as his first stop yesterday on a five-nation tour of countries he hopes are leading the way toward a hopeful and democratic future for the troubled continent.
But looming large over his trip was Liberia, epitomizing Africa's chaotic and brutal conflicts.
Bush arrived yesterday morning after an overnight flight from Washington and headed straight into a meeting with Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, an ally in Bush's campaign against terrorism.
"I'm very appreciative of the fine hospitality of my friend, the president," Bush said as he, Wade and their wives headed into the Presidential Palace.
After that session, Bush and Wade met with the presidents of seven democratic West African governments: Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, John Kufuor of Ghana, Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali, Mamadou Tandja of Niger and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone.
Clusters of curious onlookers gathered on dirt roads to watch Bush's motorcade pass by, many standing with their arms folded across their chests. They numbered in the hundreds, with some clapping and waving as Bush sped from the airport to the palace.
It was a marked contrast to the reception given Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, on his first Africa trip, in March 1998.
The emotional highlight of Bush's daylong visit to Senegal was a boat ride to Goree Island, just off the western coast, where he spoke about race. Bush and his wife, Laura, made the trip in Wade's presidential yacht.
Standing on the shore from which Africans were once dis-patched to the Americas in chains, Bush branded slavery one of history's greatest crimes.
"At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold," Bush said at a former slave trading station on Goree Island, off Senegal's capital Dakar, where some 2 million en-slaved Africans had a last glimpse of their homeland.
"One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history," Bush said in a speech, adding that slavery had corrupted US society and left a legacy yet to be eradicated. An estimated 20 million Africans were enslaved.
Bush's speech at the start of a five-day African trip stopped short of an explicit apology for slavery that some Americans and others had hoped for, but he said it was no excuse to say values were different in the slavery era.
He said African slaves had helped awaken the American conscience through their struggle for freedom and that "the very people traded into slavery helped to set America free."
But he said the journey toward racial justice in the US was not over.
He said the struggle against slavery enriched a US devotion to liberty that the country was now trying to spread across Africa and elsewhere.
After leaving the island, Bush was to depart for South Africa.
Bush's five-day trip to Africa, his first to the continent as president, also takes him to Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria.
A likely constant will be a country not on his itinerary: Liberia. Bush is contemplating whether he will send US troops to help supervise an end to the carnage there.
Many African leaders see Bush's visit as a key part of a strategy to combat rising anti-American sentiment and the image of Washington as an international bully.
Also see story: