Senegalese President Macky Sall presented Canada's prime minister with ceremonial honours today at the conclusion of his official visit to the promising West African democracy.

The green sash and medal of Senegal's Grande Croix de l'Ordre National du Lion du Senegal (Great Cross of the National Order of the Lion) was a symbolic thank you at the end of a two-day official visit celebrating hopeful signs of development that Canada wants to reward.

Following signing cermonies for an intended foreign investment deal, as well as air transport expansion and geomatics funding agreements, Harper embraced the recently elected Sall on Friday and said he was delighted to be in Dakar, speaking warmly of the potential of his hosts.

"Historically our relationship with Senegal has been a relationship based on development assistance and humanitarian assistance, but I'm pleased to see that in recent years this has become increasingly a commercial relationship," Harper said at the two leaders' joint news conference.

"I'm also optimistic that it won't just be [an increase in] trade and investment with this country but in fact with this region," Harper said. "Given Senegal's strong record of good governance, transparency, democracy, human rights, this country has the opportunity to become the hub for Canadian investment in this entire region of Africa," Harper said.

The Harper government focuses its development assistance on a short list of countries that correspond with its values and priorities. In Senegal, credible elections combined with a burgeoning mining sector in particular have caught Canada's eye as the kind of African nation it wants to do business with and help.

The air transport agreement signed Friday provides for code sharing, which allows airlines to offer services using the flights of other airlines. As the trade relationship potentially deepens between Canada and Senegal, both governments want  shippers and travellers to have more flight options and new routes to Senegal.

Senegal becomes the latest in a line of 60 countries to have negotiated new or expanded air transport agreements with Canada under the Blue Sky Policy introduced in 2006.

Hope for foreign investment deal

Senegal also becomes the latest to conclude negotiations towards a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement (FIPA) with Canada. Since the Harper government took office, similar agreements have been reached with 14 other countries and active negotiations are underway with 12 others.

Two-way foreign investment deals facilitate trade by helping foreign investors feel more confident that established rules will be enforced in both countries. In theory, such agreements protect against discriminatory and arbitrary business practices and allow businesses to make plans based on stable and fair government policies.

Canada's FIPA with Senegal includes language on corporate social responsibility, a theme Harper touched on when speaking to Canadian business leaders in Dakar on Thursday.

In its news release, the Harper government said it aims to negotiate such an article in all its two-way FIPA deals, to emphasize adherence to "internationally recognized standards and best practices on issues such as labour, the environment, human rights, community relations, transparency and anti-corruption."

Canada's mission in Senegal will now host a regional corporate social responsibility network for West Africa, linking existing Canadian-sponsored networks in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea.

As part of this effort, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum has opened its first African branch office in Dakar, hosting a symposium next month and working with partners to create a West African mining industry association to increase technical and professional training, support local supply chains and promote established best practices.

The release says there is "important" potential for increased Canadian investment in Senegal, particularly in the mining, oil and gas, energy, infrastructure, agriculture and transport sectors.

Sall has worked as a geologist in Alberta. The two leaders spoke about sharing Canada's energy expertise as well as its energy supplies with Senegal.

Similar deal with China

Canada recently tabled the text of its FIPA with China in the House of Commons. The new investment deal with Senegal will undergo first a legal review and then similar tabling for 21 sitting days in the Commons before the treaty comes into force (assuming it's also ratified from the Senegalese side.)

Harper was asked about Canada's growing relationship with China at his news conference with the Senegalese president, particularly in light of recent security concerns with China's high tech sector and word Thursday that the Harper government will extend its time period for reviewing a potential Chinese takeover of Calgary-based oil producer Nexen Inc.

"It's complex because the Chinese obviously have very different systems that we do – economic and political systems – and that's why obviously some of these particular transactions raise concerns," Harper told the Canadian reporters travelling with him.

"We will ensure as a government that we have not only a growing relationship with China, but a relationship with China that is in Canada's best interest, that always serves the broader interests of the Canadian economy."

"Of course, as you know, there's a national security dimension to this ... relationship – in fact, to all of our activities – that we will take very seriously," Harper added. 

Human rights concerns in Congo

On the heels of emphasizing Senegal's strengthening democracy, a reporter pressed Harper for comment on the dismal human rights protections and overall poor track record for governance in Congo, which will host the Summit of La Francophonie nations this weekend.

While Harper has threatened to skip the upcoming Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka unless that country makes progress on human rights, there's no indication it considered skipping the Francophonie's Central African event.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is already in Kinshasa and is refusing to meet directly with Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, the CBC's Terry Milewski reports.

Milewski said the Francophonie this year will be a "delicate diplomatic dance" in such an "odd location" for a summit normally focused on the promotion of French-language culture and the shared democratic ideals of French-speaking states.

Harper said Minister Bernard Valcourt's preparatory visit to the country had expressed "Canada's grave concerns on human rights violations in that country and other problems with democracy and governance" on Kabila's watch. The myriad violations documented in Congo include the use of rape as a weapon of war.

"We will be expressing those concerns very clearly when we are in the Democratic Republic of Congo," Harper said.

Harper's tour left for Kinshasa late Friday in preparation for these meetings.