Senegal’s Goree Island, former slave port, awaits Obama visit with trepidation

Afua Hirsch   Tuesday 25 June 2013 01.00 EDT


This tiny island off Senegal once used as a slave transit point has hosted Clinton, George W Bush and now Obama



Residents on Goree Island, a tiny, rocky island loaded with colonial charm and – some believe, the tragic ghosts of African slaves once held captive there – are used to visits from world leaders. When Obama arrives on the island on Wednesday, he will be the third US president to have visited after Clinton and George W Bush before him.

People in Goree and the rest of the Senegalese capital Dakar, just 3km away on the mainland, still talk about the time Bush visited the island, a World Heritage Site with its historic “Maison des Esclaves” and symbolic importance in the history of transatlantic slavery.

The former president surprised many with an introspective speech about the horrors that black African slaves endured on the 1km-long island, before being loaded in chains onto ships that would cross the deadly Middle Passage to the Americas.

“For 250 years the captives endured an assault on their culture and their dignity,” Bush said, calling the transatlantic slave trade “one of the biggest crimes in history.” But it is not only Bush’s speech – made during a visit that lasted only 20 minutes – that local people remember.

US PRESIDENT CLINTON on goree island

Bill Clinton during a visit to the Slave House on Goree Island in 2003. Presidenty Obama is due to visit this weekend. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters



“The residents on Goree still talk about Bush’s visit, and they are still angry about it,” said Sophie Ly Sow, a resident in Dakar. “They were confined to their homes, forbidden from even standing on their balconies to watch.”

“They suffered all of the disruption but gained none of the benefit.”

On mainland Dakar, the entire capital city was on lockdown for several days before Bush’s visit, with secret service agents springing up in restaurants and nightclubs, and a virtual telecoms blackout.

Many say Obama’s visit is history repeating itself.

“The same thing is going to happen again – it is already happening,” said Amadou Diop, whose office is located near the US embassy in Dakar. “The CIA and FBI are crawling all over the city. They have started encrypting telecommunications around the US embassy – we cannot get online and it’s impossible for us to work.

“Obama is very popular here, but the way his security apparatus are handling the visit is alienating local people.”

Criticism of the disruption caused ahead of the visit has been widely aired in the Senegalese press, with reports of the rescheduling of primary school exams for 30,000 children, a lockdown on parking, and the forced relocation of street vendors in the centre of Dakar.

Last week there were reports of riots on Goree, as young people clashed with police over a ban on football matches until after Obama’s visit, part of a joint police and gendarmerie operation that locals are calling “Karaanguee” meaning “clean sweep”.

Discontent at the disruption has now prompted the US ambassador to Senegalto release a statement appealing for patience, stating that “security measures have to be put in place for the protection of the American president, just as they would for any other visit anywhere else in the world.”

But Senegalese people say they still feel goodwill towards the American president, who many Africans regard with pride as one of their own due to his Kenyan ancestry.

“This is the first black US president, and God knows when there will be another one – for us it is a special situation,” said Ly Sow. “This is an African at the head of the free world.

“Mixed in with all the frustration, there is all this pride, as well as hope that as well as making speeches about freedom and democracy, something concrete will come out of this visit for the people of Senegal.”

Senegal is becoming an increasingly important partner for the US, and is now enjoying a resurgence after relations soured towards the end of previous president Abdoulaye Wade’s tenure in office. The West African nation is seen as a relatively stable partner in the troubled Sahel region, with al-Qaida linked jihadists active in neighbouring Mali and Mauritania to the north, and corruption and a burgeoning drugs trade threatening security in Gambia and Guinea Bissau to the south.

While there Obama will hold bilateral talks with president Macky Sall, and meet with regional judicial leaders from the West African region, to discuss the importance of the rule of law. He will also attend events on food security, strengthening the agricultural sector and enhancing the private sector.

“Senegal… is a strong democratic partner of the United States,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor. “We are heartened by the peaceful transitions of power that we’ve seen in countries like Senegal… and so much of the democratic progress that we see across the continent.”

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