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Prime Minister Stephen Harper gestures for President Jakaya Kikwete of the United Republic of Tanzania as they make their way to a joint news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Oct. 4, 2012.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

After years of apparent neglect, the Harper government has discovered Africa's potential. High-level visits to three key African countries this week are kickstarting a new emphasis on Africa as a fast-growing trade partner, not merely an impoverished aid recipient.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in the West African nation of Senegal Wednesday, and will travel onward to the war-torn but mineral-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo Friday. It's only his second visit to sub– Saharan Africa as Prime Minister and his first in five years.

Most of the media spotlight will be on Mr. Harper's meeting with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois at the Francophonie Summit in Congo – their first face-to-face meeting since her election victory. But the Prime Minister's four-day Africa tour is also a signal of a new belief in the continent's economic rise.

Foreign Minister John Baird was in Nigeria Monday for his own visit to a crucial African power. He met Canadian and Nigerian businesses, signed a foreign investment accord and launched a new Canada-Nigeria commission.

Canada's exports to Nigeria have soared by more than 300 per cent since 2003 (although the total is still a relatively small $227-million) and two-way trade climbed to $2.7-billion last year.

Mr. Harper will follow the tradition of visiting Canadian aid projects in Senegal, and he'll also meet opposition leaders and civil society activists in Congo.

It's significant that he will carve out time to meet Canadian business executives in both Senegal and Congo.

"The government is intensely interested in deepening economic ties with Africa," said Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for Mr. Harper's office, in an interview on Monday.

"People in Canada are used to hearing of Africa strictly in aid terms, but it's turning into more of an economic story. … It's a region that's growing. Countries are starting to orient themselves outward to exports and growth."

Until recently, Mr. Harper seemed to give short shrift to Africa. He slashed the number of African countries chosen as the focus of Canada's foreign aid budget, and shifted much of the aid priority to Latin America. After a visit to a Commonwealth summit in Uganda in 2007, he did not set foot in Africa again. Critics said he perceived Africa as a pet project of the previous Liberal government.

But these days Africa has a new image. It has emerged as the region with the world's second-highest growth rate, and it's rapidly catching up to Asia in the growth numbers. Wars and coups are declining, foreign investment is soaring, and democracy is expanding. And the success stories have encouraged the Harper government to pay more attention to the region, said Mr. MacDougall .

Senegal is a key model for the new African democracies. Its long-ruling president, Abdoulaye Wade, was defeated by challenger Macky Sall in an election this year – and Mr. Wade immediately stepped down, accepting defeat in a way that many African leaders have traditionally resisted. That peaceful and democratic transition is a major reason for Mr. Harper's visit to Dakar this week.

"It's an example of a country that's taken steps towards stable governance and economic progress," Mr. MacDougall said.

Another democratic African leader, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, was given the red-carpet treatment in Ottawa last week. He was the first sub-Saharan African president to get a full state welcome in Ottawa since 2005, analysts said.

"There's a realization that something is happening in Africa," said Lucien Bradet, president of the Canadian Council on Africa, a group of business leaders and others with interests in the continent.

"I think we're entering a new period. People are seeing that Africa is moving faster than other continents, governance is better, and the conflicts are fewer. For the past few months, we've had more ministerial involvement on Africa than we've had for several years."

Yet despite the government's growing appreciation for Africa's progress, Congo remains a difficult case for Mr. Harper. He will struggle to walk the line between praise and criticism for its government, which claimed a controversial election victory last year after a campaign marred by violence and human rights abuses.

Mr. Harper's visit to Congo's capital, Kinshasa, is not intended as a signal that the election was legitimate, Mr. MacDougall said. "We're very concerned about the situation there. This should not be seen as an endorsement of the DRC government."

One long-time Africa analyst, Ian Smillie, noted that Mr. Harper has threatened to boycott the Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka next year because of human rights issues in Sri Lanka, yet he is willing to participate in the Francophonie Summit in a country with its own poor record on human rights.

Mr. MacDougall defended the decision. It's difficult to compare the human rights records of Sri Lanka and Congo, he said, noting that the federal government is closely watching the Sri Lanka situation and could still attend the Commonwealth summit if there are improvements.