Political legacies are an uncertain thing. Will Abdoulaye Wade be remembered as a democratic reformer committed to smashing the one-party state in Senegal? As a president who wasn’t able to address Senegal’s key challenges – unemployment, poor infrastructure, a relentless brain drain? An old man insistently clinging to power?
It’s not hard to understand why a president would want a monument. Whether or not your policies survive, they’ll still be talking about your architectural vision long after you’re in the ground.
The Basilica at Yamoussoukro
As Coté Ivoire president Félix Houphouét-Boigny contemplated his mortality, his course was clear. His birthplace, the dusty village of Yamoussoukro couldn’t just become capital of the country – it needed a monument to put it on the map. So Coté Ivoire spent $200 million building a near-replica of St. Peter’s Basilica, a structure slightly larger than the one in the Vatican City, lined with Italian marble and cooled with a powerful air conditioning system. The most striking feature of the building is a set of 36 stained glass windows, which depict a set of biblical scenes. The only black person represented in the windows? One of the three magi, who bears a striking resemblance to Houphouét-Boigny.
Wade’s recent project – the African Renaissance Monument – is almost modest in comparison. The 160-foot high copper statue looms over Dakar from a hillside. Designed to commemorate 50 years of Senegal’s independence from France, it features a man, woman and child emerging triumphantly from a volcano and rising into the future. And at a cost of only $25 million, it’s a veritable bargain.
And yet, there’s criticism.
The statue, under construction
Sure, there’s the predictable “Does a country with a per capita income of $1088 per person need a huge copper statue?” The monument has pissed off a surprisingly wide range of people. Some are upset that the woman in the statue appears to be subjugated and held back by the male figure. Others in the predominantly Muslim nation complain that the woman and man are both scantily clad… and are depictions of the human form, which is considered idolatry in some interpretations of Islam. (When Wade responded to this critique by arguing that Christians prayed to a “man called Jesus Christ”, he managed to piss off another constituency.) Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy used the formal unveiling of the statue this weekend as an excuse to offer a photo series titled “The World’s Ugliest Statues“.
What really seemed to get under the skin of the thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Dakar to demand Wade’s resignation over the statue is the fact that he President is personally claiming 35% of tourism revenues that come from visits to the statue, due to his hard work in conceptualizing the monument.
Where does one shop for a 160 foot-tall piece of socialist realism? North Korea, of course.
The Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies is evidently the go-to firm for leaders with monumental ambitions and tight budgetary constraints. Christina Passariello, writing in the Wall Street Journal, explains that monuments are “big, simple and cheap”, and that Mansudae has extensive experience building them in North Korea and across the African continent. The company brought 150 North Korean workers to Senegal – another controversy, as only 50 Senegalese were employed in the construction project – and ended up finishing the work by using lots of Krazy Glue. (I only wish I were making this up. That wonderful detail is from Passariello’s article.)
Wade explained that he turned to the North Koreans because he had no other way to fund the project. The firm was willing to accept a parcel of prime government-owned land – which they’ve already resold – as a form of payment. And as The Marmot’s Hole explains, North Korea is pretty desperate for exports these days, and is often willing to cut creative deals. It’s possible that Wade got a few cases of Pyongyang Soju in the deal. (What I haven’t been able to find – and i the reason I started looking into this story – is who ultimately ended up with the Senegalese state land traded to make this deal possible. Would love that detail if anyone has it…)
Will the statue prove Wade’s downfall? I doubt it. It’s a tangible reminder of the shortcomings of Wade’s presidency, the gap between his ambitions and ability to deliver, and I suspect it will be a rallying point for the opposition for some time to come. On the other hand, I can imagine it becoming a national symbol some years in the future. The vision – a strong, proud Africa rising – beats the crap out of a kneeling Houphouét-Boigny at the feet of a white Jesus, even if the execution has been unwise, insensitive and (in terms of trading government land for a monument) potentially criminal.
While I can’t imagine advising Wade’s government to build a statue to attract visitors to Dakar – the beaches, food, art, music and nightclubs are sufficient to make the city one of the world’s most vital and fascinating – I have sympathy in one small regard. It’s hard to transform a country – or even a city – all at once, and the process leads to weird juxtapositions. When I visit Accra these days, I’m struck by the disparities in wealth that allow shiny shopping malls and exclusive restaurants to occupy the same space as open sewers and rough shacks. As Ghana becomes a middle-income country, those gaps will probably grow wider before they narrow, and that juxtaposition is going to become more uncomfortable.
Senegal deserves monuments, and some day, a massive statue will look iconic, not out of place. In the interim, it’s not hard to understand how the African Renaissance Monument could make people angry, not proud.