"We are very honored and truly happy," said Mohammad aly Ben Sallah, 25, a student studying in Dakar. "It's a big thing that the first American president who is African is coming to visit us here in Senegal … but we hope that it isn't just a visit of pleasure and that we will see something come out of this visit."
Many Africans regard Obama as one of their own because of his Kenyan ancestors, including his deceased father. On his first extended official visit to sub-Saharan Africa – he made a 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009 – Obama is on a week-long tour, including visits to South Africa and Tanzania, in a bid to strengthen business relations with the continent, while pushing investment.
Obama visits the West African nation a little more than a year after elections in which the incumbent Abdoulaye Wade was defeated by Macky Sall. Violence broke out before the election over Wade's decision to run again in apparent violation of Senegal's constitution.
The United States and French-speaking Senegal have generally enjoyed a good relationship. Senegal has helped out with international peacekeeping operations and cooperated with the United States on counterterrorism and drug interdiction.
The election crisis strained the partnership between the two countries. Wade's son Karim was handed multiple ministerial positions during his father's 12 years in office and has since been charged with embezzling $1.4 billion. He awaits trial on corruption charges.
"That really complicated things for the Obama administration because, based on the previous good record of Senegal, the country had been given a Millennium Challenge contract for $590 million," said Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington. "Then in the face of it, Wade made his son the minister of earth and sky, so that didn't go down well with Congress."
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, started the Millennium Challenge aid agency in which U.S. funds go to African nations that demonstrate good government practices.
After the election of Sall in April and the peaceful transition of presidential power, the relationship between the United States and Senegal was put back on its more "solid, traditional footing," Pham said.
"We see Africa as one of the most important emerging regions in the world and a place for the U.S. to significantly increase our engagement in the years to come," said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication. "There are other countries getting in the game. If the United States is not leading in Africa, we're going to fall behind in a very important region in the world."
Among those other countries is China. China's trade with Africa has increased twentyfold to $200 billion, double the continent's trade volume with the United States, over the past decade.
In March, Obama welcomed President Sall to the White House, along with the presidents of Cape Verde, Malawi and Sierra Leone, to discuss ways to strengthen the relationship between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa and to promote economic opportunities for Africans.
The Senegalese are waiting to see what will come of Obama's visit to their country.
"I'll admit, I am so proud that Obama has chosen Senegal for his visit," said Mohammed Ndiaye, 37, a shoemaker in Dakar. "But what will his visit bring to us? Obama will come here, and then he will return home, and we will still be here, the same as before."
Ben Sallah said American investment could help ease the high rate of unemployment – about 15% for youth – and good relations might make it easier for Senegalese students to study in the USA.
Senegal, which gained its independence from France in 1960, is one of the most developed countries in the region, and it has remained generally stable even as many of its neighbors, such as Mali, Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea, have long been plagued by military coups, political violence and, more recently, terrorism.
Still, analysts question Obama's intentions in coming to the West African state.
"Senegal is a good partner to the U.S., and it's an emerging economy but it's just not a strategic partner at the level of other strategic partners, like South Africa," Pham said.
Residents said the reason for Obama's visit is less important than the fact that he is coming at all.
"Who can say why he chose Senegal?" said Ibrahima Badji, a small-business owner in Dakar. "But as a Senegalese, I think his visit will be a very good thing for democracy in Senegal, and it will be good for our peace. The United States is a country like no other, and I hope the friendship between our two countries can continue."