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In Senegal, an African edifice on the precipice

Senegal's controversial $28-million "African Renaissance" statue, depicting a family rising triumphantly from a volcano, is unveiled during its inauguration ceremony in Dakar, April 3, 2010.

Eve Coulon/REUTERS

What do you do with a mammoth Stalinist-style monument, bigger than the Statue of Liberty and much less popular, after its North Korean builders have gone and the leader who designed it has been defeated?

That's the dilemma facing Senegal today as it ponders Africa's tallest statue: the $27-million African Renaissance Monument, a gigantic 52-metre-high bronze statue of a muscular African man and his family pointing proudly into the future.

The monument, completed by North Korean workers in 2010 on a hilltop near the Dakar airport, was widely criticized as a huge waste of money and a vanity project for then-president Abdoulaye Wade. Some rumours even suggest that its male face was crafted to resemble Mr. Wade. The monument continues to drain money from the national budget today, with only a handful of daily visitors.

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After Mr. Wade's defeat in an election last year, the new government was unwilling to tear it down. So its administrator is touting another idea: turn it into a commercial tourist attraction.

"It could be like Disneyland," says Abdel Kader Pierre Fall. "I'm convinced it can be profitable. There's huge potential."

It's difficult to see much potential these days. On a typical weekday, only a few tourists are visiting the monument, and the adjoining souvenir shop is empty. The new government has let the monument languish in limbo while it focuses on other priorities – including the prosecution of Mr. Wade's once-powerful son, Karim, who was arrested in April on corruption charges.

North Korea has made a specialty of building revolutionary-style monuments in Africa, usually in opaque financial deals with autocratic governments. North Korean construction workers have erected statues in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, honouring various heroes and martyrs. Senegal is a rare case where a democratic changeover has forced a government to scrutinize the North Korean legacy of its predecessors.

When the statue was built, Mr. Wade announced that he would collect 35 per cent of its daily revenue as a royalty for designing it, but that deal was cancelled after his defeat. The new president, Macky Sall, has ordered an investigation into how the monument was financed – a controversial arrangement in which a private developer paid for the construction in exchange for a lucrative parcel of government land near the airport.

Mr. Fall, a former business consultant and ambassador who was appointed by Mr. Wade to run the monument, says he could generate a wave of tourism revenue by allowing private investors to build a hotel and restaurant complex at the base of the statue, along with offering a laser show, a music festival and other features. He thinks the statue could become as iconic as the Eiffel Tower if the government plays its cards right.

With school tours, the monument can get up to 400 visitors a day, Mr. Fall says. But he acknowledges that the revenue can't keep pace with its operating costs. The losses are around $10,000 to $20,000 per month, he says.

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"We're missing opportunities to create revenue and bring people in," he says. "There hasn't been much progress. The current government is hesitating a bit, but I hope they get over it."

A tourist guide, Ousseynou Bissichi, takes a visitor on an elevator ride to the top of the monument. He walks through a small African art gallery and photo exhibition, rhyming off statistics, explaining its 1,200-year planned lifespan and the 218 steps that climb up to the statue's skull. He says the monument was deliberately positioned near the ocean so that it could face its U.S. rival, the Statue of Liberty, on the other side of the Atlantic.

"God willing, this will be the capital of Africa, the symbol of Africa," he says. "People talk about starvation and civil wars in Africa, but now people will say good things about Africa."

One of Senegal's most famous sculptors, Ousmane Sow, says the monument is too wasteful for a poor country. "It's expensive, it's ugly and it destroys the visual environment," he said in an interview.

"There's no charm in it. It's an imitation of a Soviet monument. As an artist, I think it's a shame."

Even worse, he says, the monument is excessively tall, poorly constructed and built on an unstable foundation. He warns of potential disaster. "I always avoid passing near it, because it could collapse."

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on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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