Friday, June 4, 2010

African Leaders and The Quest for a Lasting Legacy

*Note: I wrote this article for the Bokamoso Leadership Forum on April 14, 2010

It is quite normal for any leader to try to leave behind a legacy in the history books and collective memory of the people. On the African continent, some leaders’ names are forever associated with movements, ideas, events, buildings, and revolutions. Whenever we come across the name of Kwame Nkrumah, we cannot help but think of Pan-africanism, Steven Biko is the prince of Black Consciousness, Mandela is the father of the Rainbow Nation, Nasser is the towering figure of Arab nationalism and so on. It happens that the hero becomes a tyrant, as did Sekou Toure, the man who said “No” to the General De Gaulle on September 28, 1958 and later became famous for the death camps of Conakry. Houphouet Boigny led a peaceful multi-ethnic nation that crumbled after him, and left behind the controversial Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in his hometown of Yamoussoukro, the biggest one in the world (bigger that the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome), which cost over 300 million dollars.

The theme of African Renaissance is omnipresent in the discourse of the contemporary African leadership. It is associated with the names of Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Abdoulaye Wade, although Cheikh Anta Diop theorized it as early as 1948(1).
Of course, Africa needs ambitious leaders and we must dare to dream big. However, when the quest for a lasting legacy leads to tragic choices that ignore the basic needs of the people, it becomes problematic. The construction of the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar and its inauguration on April 3rd 2010 during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence is one of the instances of our leaders turning their back on the peoples’ basic needs in the sole purpose of serving their ego.

The monument is a 164-foot tall bronze statue (higher than the Statue of Liberty) erected on the mountaintop of Dakar’s suburbs and it depicts a man, his wife and baby “rising from the ashes of darkness and reaching out to the world”, according to its creator President Abdoulaye Wade. Its official cost is $27 Million, but many believe the real cost is much higher. A North Korean firm built it over a period of four years.

Besides the Stalinist character of this monument that reminds us of the demised repressive regimes of the Soviet era, one is led to question if it is wise to spend so much money on a statue to promote African Renaissance. Wouldn’t Africa be better served if these vast amounts of money were invested in the education of its youth who are crossing the Sahara desert by foot, hoping to find better opportunities in Europe? How about creating job opportunities for the thousands of teenagers (male and female) that leave the Western African coast by night aboard tiny fishing “boats” heading for Spain?

Amidst all the controversies that surrounded the construction of this statue (and the limits imposed on the length of this piece prevent us from discussing them), the one regarding its ownership is the most outrageous one. When a Senegalese newspaper revealed that the monument was registered at the African Intellectual Property Organization under the name of President Wade instead of being a property of the Republic of Senegal, Wade later said that he is the intellectual author of the monument. And as such, he owns 35% of all the revenues that would derive from the operation of the monument as a touristic destination. I think this qualifies as a definition of a daylight robbery.

The tragic irony of this story is that the office building of the Hospital Le Dantec of Dakar burned down two days after the inauguration of the monument due to the decay of its electrical wiring. Le Dantec was built by the French colonizers in 1913 to serve the indigenous populations and reserve the Hospital Principal of Dakar that was built in 1886 for the French expatriates that were living in Senegal at the time. These are still the only two fully functioning hospitals in Senegal. Fifty years after the independence, Senegal has yet to build a single fully functioning hospital.

1 - Cheikh Anta Diop, “Quand pourra-t-on parler de renaissance africaine?” Le Musee Vivant, Sepcial Issue, Vol 36-37, November, 1948.

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