DAKAR, Senegal — President Barack Obama lands in Senegal today on his first trip to a country many locals say is a beacon of democracy in the increasingly volatile Sahel region.
A Muslim majority country, Senegal is the only West African nation Obama is visiting on his three-country Africa tour, which also includes stops in South Africa and Tanzania in East Africa. He will be in Dakar from June 26 to 28.
The president, now in his second term, will likely emphasize Senegal’s reputation as a peaceful, democratic state in a region increasingly embroiled in battles with extremists, analysts here say. Security cooperation in the Sahel, where Al Qaeda has taken root, and talks to boost trade are expected to top the agenda.
“Obama’s visit to Senegal is not something tiny, and will have some effects,” said Alpha Waly Diallo, general manager for African Global Business Consulting in Dakar. “As an investor, I would be able to see that Senegal is safe to put my money in.”
The peaceful election of Senegalese President Sall on April 2012, and defeat of 12-year President Abdoulaye Wade, were hailed by many here as a victory for democracy. For Obama to highlight Senegal as a model democratic nation will be beneficial from a business and trade standpoint as well, Diallo says.
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The United States is Senegal’s No. 5 spot for exports, accounting for 4.8 percent of all exports, according to the US International Trade Commission, a federal agency.
The Obama administration is also currently exploring a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which would remove many trade barriers for American companies interested in doing business in Senegal.
“I advocate for the bilateral trade initiative for West Africa and ECOWAS,” said Ibrahima Sylla, a political science researcher at l'Université de l'Entreprise (Enterprise University) in Dakar. “What we need is help from the US in order to achieve that.”
Senegal has a slew of goods — like medicines from the roots of trees — that remain largely untapped by the US market, Sylla says.
With US help, “We can develop these sectors,” he said.
Still, “Senegal doesn’t produce petrol or any product that the US would want a large stake in,” said Abdou Loh, the owner of Premium Africa Consulting in Dakar.
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Obama’s early-term visit is primarily symbolic of his commitment to security in the region, he added.
Boosting trade goes hand-in-hand with regional security, according to Kathryn M. Werntz, the American producer of the documentary "The Sahel Calling Project," which showcases the voice of musicians to protect human rights in the Sahel, and 10-year resident of Dakar.
Senegal’s Sahel neighbors, including Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania, have all been rocked by attacks by transnational jihadist movements like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and their local proxies in recent years.
“The [Muslim] Brotherhood we have here in Senegal is more of a tolerant Islam,” said Senegalese journalist and Obama fan, Abdou Jan. “The threat might be here, but I don’t think it’s anything like Mali.”
While not participating directly in a French-led assault against Islamists in northern Mali, the US military has helped with logistics and intelligence-gathering operations.
US military instructors are also training African troops preparing to enter Mali as part of a thousands-strong UN peacekeeping force. US Marines are also training their Senegalese counterparts in light infantry and maritime security.
These exercises are part of a longtime US strategy to quell potential global security threats by readying local armies to fight regional conflicts.
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“Obama and the US can partner with Senegal in fighting terrorism in a region that is quite weak and quite unstable,” Diallo said. “It will help build bridges.”
Obama is generally well liked in Senegal, even though his popularity has waned since his first-term election in 2008, according to Cheikh Darou Seck, a French teacher in the central Sengalese city of Touba.
“Obama in Africa symbolizes hope and peaceful understanding,” Seck said, adding that he wants the US to join more actively the fight against terrorism in the region. “When Obama came, people were expecting that he would build a closer relationship between Africa and America.”
But Werntz says economic instability has the potential to make people more susceptible to adopt extremist views.
“It comes back to having enough to eat,” she said. “If the trade agreement affects that, it will affect security.”