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The old man, the behemoth and the impossible legacy

As the Senegalese president’s ‘Monument of the African Renaissance’ nears completion, the 164-foot statue in Dakar demonstrates Abdoulaye Wade’s need ‘to imprint his legacy on a continent that hasn’t fully captured the extent of his genius’, writes Amy Niang. The monument ‘sparked debate in Senegal and internationally, not least because of the colossal financial, political and aesthetic scandal it has proved to be,’ says Niang. But its construction also symbolises the failure of opposition, civil society and other social forces to champion the needs of Senegalese people who would have preferred to ‘see their health, education and basic living problems addressed’.

Senegal’s Mr Wade claims to be the African president awarded the most academic degrees. The well-rounded professor’s favourite sport is, unsurprisingly, the production of bright project ideas. President Wade has the knack for grandiose and extravagant ideas, from high-speed underground trains that serve the congested suburbs of Dakar to motorways that connect African cities from Dakar to Addis, to name a few. However this time, he has decided to give full sway to his fertile imagination and give concrete shape to it.

The Monument of the African Renaissance is a 164-foot giant that juts out above one of the 328-foot tall twin hills of the capital (Les Mamelles). It defies New York’s Statue of Liberty (151 feet) and Christ the Redeemer (328 feet) in Rio de Janeiro. A strong and muscular African man has his arms wrapped around a woman aloft and holding a child resolutely pointing towards the future. For Mr Wade, the monument conveys a ‘message of dignity for Senegalese and Africans.’ President Wade sees himself as a moral guide, a messiah. So it’s perfectly natural and befitting his role as doyen of African leaders to dream for his people, to envision a prosperous future for the continent and carry his vision forward into posterity. For Wade, the monument is such an (another) Omega master plan. It must be difficult for the mind that fashions such a gigantic creation not to feel like a demiurge!

As the only one of the proponents of the African Renaissance movement still serving as president – former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki are the two others – Wade feels he needs to imprint his legacy on a continent that hasn’t fully captured the extent of his genius. Oblivious to the way the Senegalese feel about the faults that punctuate his ten-year administration, Wade is curiously apprehensive about his image internationally. He seems little concerned about the present, but is quite keen on leaving to posterity the cult of his greatness.

Since taking power, Wade has undertaken to mediate a number of conflicts and crises; the services of an African patriarch of his standing could reasonably be expected to help ease tensions. From Chad to Madagascar and the Middle East, Wade has made seminal rounds, offering to be the healing and mending voice of wisdom. But his meddling ways have become unwelcome in many circles, and Wade’s supportive attitude toward the decried regimes of Daddis Camara (Guinea), Faure E. Gnassingbé (Togo), etc, did little to help restore confidence in his sense of judgment. As if this hyperactivity knew no limit, President Wade embarked on organising The Fesman (3rd World Festival of Black Arts), scheduled for 2009 and postponed so many times that co-organisers in North and South America are losing hope of ever seeing it take place.

What is apparent to many is a relentless quest, for recognition and celebration, which in his view is perhaps to slow to materialise. If the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize has become a distant possibility, the hope of receiving it some day is meanwhile costing the Senegalese people dearly.

Wade’s statue therefore, some argue, is the illustration of a dangerous kind of madness that lays its petals, openly, one that risks running the country to bankruptcy. Wade is possessed with a particular kind of madness, for which senility is only moderately responsible. Wade has lost, a while ago, the authority of wisdom recognised to elders of African societies. He has also lost the authority of the democrat, the authority of competence recognised to leaders who know how to capitalise on meagre resources for the greater good of society. Somewhere along the way, he has become the vandal and the renegade of the African Renaissance he so expensively purports to promote.

Wade’s Monument of the African Renaissance has sparked much debate in Senegal and internationally, not least because of the colossal financial, political and aesthetic scandal it has proved to be. Wade’s project imposes on Senegalese people burdens to which they lay no claim. Moreover, President Wade is to receive 35 per cent of the proceeds of tourism expected to be generated by the project, on intellectual property rights. Following the opposition parties and civil society organisations, the intellectuals and religious leaders have also invited themselves to the debate. Imams’ contrasted perspectives derived from an interpretation of rules of Islam. Whilst a majority of them point to the un-Islamic character of the physical representation of the human form, some of them were invited to scour the holy texts in search of supporting arguments. Needless to say, the status has polarised and blighted the public debate, and again crystallised it in ‘pro’ and ‘against’ camps. For President Wade, anyone who speaks out against the sculpture must be against his rule; the members of the civil society that dare point to the uselessness of the whole project are told off. As President Wade sees it, ‘there is no civil society in Senegal, there are only politicians’.

A conclave of intellectuals, purportedly sponsored by the president’s camp, even suggested that the wispily dressed woman should in fact be naked. Surely, if this fearless family was emerging from a crater, they could not possibly worry about what clothes they had on; busy they were, running for their lives! It didn’t take long for people to accuse the ‘statue-ideologists’ of being a vile representation of woolly-minded idealists zealously allied to the cause of the president.

The nearly completed monument is also a glaring failure of the opposition, civil society and other social forces to adopt a strong stance in 2006 when the project was being initiated. Beyond the artistic value – dubious at best – and the given motives (Renaissance), it is the way it has been forced upon the lives of the Senegalese that is hard to process. But what seemed like a long inertia has converted into a mass momentum. For the ordinary Senegalese, Wade’s brainchild is a mocking affront to the daily reality of the great majority. At the heart of the debate is the question of the very opportunity of the monument: Awfully expensive, aesthetically unsightly, disparagingly indecent for some, and constructed on the basis of nebulous financial transactions by a North Korean firm. More importantly, the Senegalese people did not ask for its erection and would rather see their health, education and basic living problems addressed.

Senegal has a strong independent media, and a strong but uneven and disparate public opinion that is still struggling to occupy public space. President Wade is concerned about the possibilities of a resolute public opinion, although he remains, more than ever, assertively immune to calls for moderation. His presidential function has severally encroached on his paternal ambitions for a son, and little precaution is taken to separate the one from the other. The very principles of equity are abandoned in favour of a ‘monarchisation’ of power, manifest in the frequent tweaking of the constitution, the selling off of collective land, the embezzlement of public funds, the institution of a divide and rule policy between religious groups etc. In fact, Senegal has become a strange kind of republic, whereby rulers conceive little with a republican decency. The country has experienced false starts thrice (under Presidents Senghor, Diouf and now Wade), but could never really take off.

A friend tells me the daily awe the monument aroused in her, on her way from work. The monument exudes, she says, ‘at night, a silent and overwhelming presence that fills it with an obscure whiff of the pagan’. And so the dust of an uncertain mill rubs off on mesmerised passers-by, some of them inhabitants of the locality, social detritus produced by decades of inadequate policies both under the Socialist administration and the Wade regime.

The debate around the statue has naturally become the receptacle of social discontent and the resentment over the US$35 millions the statue is alleged to cost an overburdened Senegalese population. The Senegalese do not recognise Wade the democrat they proudly elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2007 in the current president, an 83-year-old autocrat profoundly disconnected from the concerns, the pains and dreams of his people. For Wade’s supporters, however, politicians and intellectuals, the monument should be embraced, for it symbolises Africa rising from six centuries of bondage and oppression; it symbolises Africa’s potential to start afresh and dream a brighter future.

At work is an ongoing movement of consolidation of citizenship and an ongoing interrogation of the place and contribution of the citizen in a still-to-be-nation, and in a context of a vexed relationship between citizenship and state discourse. It would be wrong to apprehend current opposition to the monument through a discourse of derision or fatalism. The discourse is one of opportunity that attempts – in the absence of an appropriate framework within which to consolidate public space in the public sphere – to take possession of the interstices between public and private space, and to exploit the ambivalences of political rule. Counter-currents run against state propaganda, in ways that make it difficult for the state to clamp down on alternative discourses.

The monument is scheduled for inauguration in April, to mark the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of independence. Interestingly, it purports to embody an African independence that is so ostensibly absent in the functioning of African national institutions. The Senegalese government in particular suffers from a glaring deficit of confidence and exemplarity. The monument, for one thing, epitomises a very African affliction: The pointless splurging drives that have plagued the purses of many national budgets. 50 years into independence, the debate is being rekindled, as to what it should mean for African states to be independent.

The Senegalese president is not the only one who has been stung by the bug of celebratory monuments. In Goho Square in Abomey (Benin), the sculpture of 19th century king Gbehanzin orders a firm ‘stop’ to French colonisers. In Kinshasa, the Monument to Laurent-Désiré Kabila has pride of place on a plinth in a central square. In Windhoek, Namibia, the Heroes’ Acre Monument features amongst other things an obelisk and an Unknown Soldier holding an AK-47. Whatever motivated the construction of these symbolic monuments, they have in common the use of the services of North Korean firm Mansudae Overseas Projects, hence the peculiar ‘Stalinist’ feel to them. Whilst African renaissance remains a burning issue, actual and endogenous, it is not clear that this form of tribute would do much to uplift its goals.

Perhaps in 20 years time, the symbolical force and the economic spin-offs of Wade’s bronze behemoth may make it possible for people to accept it as part of a Pan-African heritage, rather than decry and flay it. For now, it is a giant bitter pill that is proving rather difficult for people to swallow. It is also a thorny issue for the politically tormented president who is not apologetic about indulging his wildest whims.


* Amy Niang is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.