DAKAR (Reuters) - Soaring above the Dakar skyline, the nearly finished monument to the African Renaissance in Senegal’s capital is billed as a symbol of Africa’s rise from “centuries of ignorance, intolerance and racism”.
But critics of the bronze family of man, woman and infant -- at 50 metres tall just higher than New York’s Statue of Liberty -- say it only goes to show that even one of the continent’s strongest democracies must put up with the whims of its rulers.
President Abdoulaye Wade, who has long styled himself a champion of the poor on the world stage, sparked the furore by declaring himself the “intellectual owner” of the monument and so entitled to a 35 percent cut from future tourist revenues.
“The Senegalese would be just as proud (of the project) as the Greeks of Athens were when Pericles built the Acropolis,” said Oumar Sarr, spokesman for the liberal Rewmi party formed by former Wade ally Idrissa Seck.
“But Pericles didn’t take 35 percent.”
Local media, some of which already chide Wade for autocratic tendencies since starting his second and final term in office last year, have had a field day. The topic has become a mainstay of political chat in the capital.
“I have never seen a president being in a business deal with the same state of which he is the highest representative,” said Ousmane Sow, a high school teacher in the capital.
“There is something immoral there.”
Wade supporters disagree, arguing that he had already drawn sketches for the monument in a book, “A Destiny For Africa”, which he wrote in his early political career.
“It’s completely normal that he should hold the copyright on the monument,” argued Aliou Ndiaye, a 37-year-old businessman.
Wade vigorously denies any suggestion of self-enrichment, pointing out that his cut will go to private charities financing creches for poor children in Senegal and across Africa.
Leaders such as Wade, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki have used the term “African Renaissance” to encapsulate the belief that Africa is escaping from a vicious circle of poverty, conflict and disease.
But the controversy refuses to die down.
Supporters insist Africa should have a monument to match the Statue of Liberty or Paris’s Eiffel Tower.
Others complain it is the latest in a line of glamour projects -- including plans for West Africa’s biggest theatre or a four-lane corniche serving Dakar’s wealthy suburbs -- that Wade has favoured over urgently needed basic infrastructure.
Questions also persist about the terms agreed with North Korea, whose workers are building the statue. No figures on the estimated cost of the project have been released.
To the dismay of the president’s office, local blogs have lapped up a photo caricature of the statue in which the man’s head is replaced by that of the Senegalese leader.
In the same caricature, the infant takes on the face of Wade’s son Karim, whose appointment in May to lead a powerful new “super ministry” raised eyebrows because of his relative lack of experience in politics.
The Communications Ministry immediately called on media not to reprint the caricature, to protests from a Senegalese press sensitive to any hint of a clamp-down on their freedoms.
Wade is pressing ahead with the monument to get it finished on time by December. Undaunted by the controversy, he has also suggested that replicas of the statue would be offered to other African nations or interested cities across the world.