Getting inside the mind of an emerging African dictator is as simple as taking an elevator. Dispatch from Daniel Howden in Dakar.
Getting inside the mind of an emerging African dictator is as simple as taking an elevator. Beyond a studded leather door there’s a lift takes you into the hollow head of a bronze colossus towering over the seafront of Dakar. Through the window panes that decorate the statue’s West African ‘kufi’ cap, Senegal’s capital looks as it might to a supreme leader: The people are all but invisible and the city’s low-rise past is interrupted by concrete signs of progress from tarred highways to new apartment blocks. And, most importantly, you are above all of it.
This dictator-view is available to anyone who can afford the $7 it costs to ride the elevator at the base of the African Renaissance Monument. That sum, unfortunately, rules out most Dakarois. Yet a dedication next to the lift’s door tells the youth of Africa that the North Korean-built titan, featuring a man and woman rising towards the future carrying their baby aloft, is dedicated to them. It inveighs against those who might forget the “sacrifices made for their liberation”.
Few of the young people who come to the terrace to picnic and enjoy the views without paying dues bother to stop and read it.
A few feet away a rough cut of marble in the shape of the continent gives a roll call of African leaders who got to ride the Renaissance for free when it was inaugurated late in 2010. Predictably, it’s a gallery of the continent’s dictatorial dinosaurs from Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema to Angola’s oil-powered Jose Dos Santos and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Inside the monumental head you can almost hear the echo of their speeches still cast in the language of liberation, decades after the dream of real freedom was squandered or stymied by men who came to think of themselves as indivisible from their states.
Senegal was supposed to have been something brighter: it had a reputation for stable democracy, and its president Abdoulaye Wade was elected in 2000 with massive popular support. But now Wade has forgotten his own constitutional promise to leave power after two terms, dismissing the commitment with the words: “I said it and now I have unsaid it”. The statue was built with $27m of public money, but the president has claimed intellectual property rights for himself (because it was his idea) and pockets one third of the revenue it attracts through a private foundation. The titan with wife and child is actually a copy a Soviet statue with a little customisation above the shoulders carried out by the same North Koreans who built Mr. Mugabe’s Heroes Acre cemetery in Harare.
You wonder what the manager at the Statue of Liberty souvenir shop thought when they were telephoned by Mr. Wade—on three occasions—who wanted to know how you make money out of statues. The New Yorker apparently told the African president that the first thing you needed was a monument that was already over 100 years old.
Youssou N’Dour, the musician whom most people outside the country identify with Senegal, says the monument is a “scar on the face of my city” and “an insult to the African Renaissance”. The singer was barred from running against Mr. Wade in a February election. But the 85-year-old’s eccentric and autocratic tendencies, as well as his loose handling of state funds, had turned opinion against him still. Young people rioted in the streets yelling, “go home, old man”, and enough voters turned against him that Mr. Wade now faces a run-off against another opposition leader in mid-March.
The day after the election, passage into the dictator’s mind was no longer possible. The leather door was locked and an unsmiling elevator operator said it had been closed due to the political “tension”.
[Photo credit: Daniel Howden]
Daniel Howden covers Africa and some other places for The Independent (UK). Follow him at @howden_africa