IT IS either a glorious tribute to the African Renaissance, as the government proclaims, or an overblown monument to the outrageous vanity of President Abdoulaye Wade, as many Senegalese believe. Either way, at least the vast statue that now dominates the skyline of the Senegalese capital of Dakar leaves no one indifferent. At 50 metres tall, a shade more than New York’s Statue of Liberty, it is designed to provoke.
To Mr Wade and his supporters the statue’s bronze rendering of a nuclear family represents Africa rising from centuries of “ignorance, intolerance and racism”. Senegal’s selflessness in giving physical expression to this grand theme is meant to reflect the country’s exalted standing on the continent. After all, it is the leader of Francophone Africa—at least since Côte d’Ivoire imploded—and is Africa’s only successful and stable Muslim democracy. The backers of the statue, which is to open officially in April, say it will become one of the continent’s top tourist sites.
But critics say the “Monument of the African Renaissance”, as the behemoth is called, sums up all that has gone wrong with Mr Wade, once a popular leader who ended decades of socialist rule by winning the general election of 2000. A particular butt of criticism is the statue’s cost, said to be about $27m, in a country where millions live in poverty and thousands are still homeless as a result of last year’s floods. In many Senegalese eyes, the statue shows how Mr Wade has forgotten the priorities of ordinary Senegalese.
And then there is the sex. The skimpy bits of cloth on the statue’s man, woman and child leave little to the imagination. Ms Renaissance, in particular, pouts and thrusts as if she were posing for the cover of Playboy magazine. In a majority-Muslim country that is deeply pious, though not at all fundamentalist, the figures’ sensuousness has offended many. Some imams call the statue “idolatrous” and “unIslamic”. Mr Wade attempted to fend off this gibe by comparing it to images of Jesus in churches. But that merely offended the country’s small but important Catholic minority. Once again, say his critics, the 83-year-old Mr Wade showed he had lost his touch.
But the president has probably been damaged most of all by his demand that 35% of the proceeds from visitors viewing the statue should go in perpetuity to his own foundation, to be run by his daughter. Mr Wade argues that this is a fair reward for the extraordinary creative energy he has expended on the project (which was designed by North Koreans), though it has been financed from public funds. An impression that the president is exploiting the statue for family gain comes on top of a long-running controversy over his 41-year-old son, Karim. He has been appointed the most powerful minister in the government, despite his lack of ministerial experience and his heavy defeat at the polls when he ran for mayor of Dakar a year ago.
Opposition politicians such as Abdoulaye Bathily, leader of the Democratic League party, allege that these are worrying signs that Senegal is turning into a “family-run patrimonial state”. Concern is growing, at home and among Senegal’s Western allies, that Mr Wade has become increasingly autocratic. Corruption has risen. The government has become increasingly intolerant of opposition.
With a thumping majority in the national assembly, partly because opposition parties boycotted the last election, Mr Wade has been able to do almost as he fancies; MPs, says Mr Bathily have “become stooges for his personal ambitions”. Mr Wade says that he wants to run for president again in 2012, when he will be 86. Some question whether the constitution allows him to seek a third term but it has been changed so often by his tame legislators that he probably can and will do so.
That would further entrench the Wade family. And that, says the opposition, would threaten Senegal’s political and economic stability. Much depends on whether the fractious opposition can unite
to defeat Mr Wade at the polls. He has been proficient at slicing and dicing them; Senegal, with a population of around 13m, has over 150 parties. A coalition of seven main opposition groups is
close to agreeing on a common platform, including a pledge to trim presidential powers. But to beat Mr Wade they will have to choose a single candidate, a task that may be beyond them.