U.S. president begins tour of Africa with speech describing his personal memories of the ailing former leader of South Africa Nelson Mandela is “a hero for the world”, Barack Obama said on Thursday, adding that his thoughts are with the former South African president and his family as he remains in a critically ill condition.

“He is a personal hero, but I’m not unique in that regard,” the U.S. president said. “I think he’s a hero for the world and if/when he passes, we know his legacy will linger on throughout the ages.”

Speaking in Senegal, the first stop on a six—day tour of Africa — only his second trip to sub—Saharan Africa since being elected in 2008 — Mr. Obama recounted the impact Mr. Mandela had made during his early years in political life.

“When I was in law school in 1991, to see Nelson Mandela step forward after 27 years of captivity and not only help usher in democracy and majority rule — but as importantly for him to say, ‘I embrace my former captors and my former oppressors, I believe in one nation, and I believe in judging people on the basis of their character and not their colour’ — gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people .. work together on behalf of a larger cause,” he said.

Mr. Obama was speaking after an hour—long meeting with President Macky Sall of Senegal, in which they discussed trade and economic investments. The U.S. president also toured the country’s supreme court, and with first lady Michelle Obama visited the tiny Goree Island, 3km off the coast of the capital, Dakar, where a fort used to imprison slaves has been preserved.

The U.S. has said that the west African country is a “strong democratic partner” in the region.

Mr. Obama is due to leave Senegal and travel to South Africa on Friday with his family. He plans to hold talks with President Jacob Zuma and to visit Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned.

“[The first family] will visit Robben Island and have the opportunity to take in the remarkable history there and pay tribute to the extraordinary sacrifices made by Nelson Mandela in his pursuit of freedom for the people of South Africa,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told journalists ahead of the trip.

But there has been speculation that if Mr. Mandela dies, Mr. Obama will reschedule his visit to South Africa, a major partner for the U.S. on the continent, and return at a more appropriate time.

Mr. Obama’s present plan is to travel from South Africa to Tanzania, the final stop on his African journey.

The trip has caused controversy in the U.S. and Africa. Media outlets in the U.S. have repeatedly questioned the cost of the trip — estimated at up to $100m — while commentators in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and Kenya, from which part of Mr. Obama’s family hails, have said they felt snubbed by the president’s failure to visit.

© Guardian News & Media 2013

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