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Senegal's big bronze statue: Monument to liberty or authoritarian rule?

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Marco Chown Oved

(Read caption) The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal, was meant represent the fresh start African countries made when they declared independence 50 years ago. But instead of evoking the Statue of Liberty, the bronze statue symbolizes President Abdoulaye Wade's authoritarian rule.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It’s been called Africa’s Statue of Liberty, but as the African Renaissance Monument was inaugurated in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, on April 3, many were saying that it better represented many of Africa’s modern woes: megalomania and authoritarian rule.

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President Abdoulaye Wade says the 170-foot-tall bronze statue of three figures is supposed to represent the fresh start African countries made when they declared independence 50 years ago. But the project has drawn criticism from nearly every sector of Senegalese society.

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“It’s ugly and expensive,” said Ousmane Sow, Senegal’s most recognized sculptor. “It looks like one of those little plastic figures they used to give out in cereal boxes.”

It’s true that the design doesn’t exactly evoke traditional African themes. It looks more like the statue of Kim Il Sung in downtown Pyongyang. Indeed, it was built by a North Korean construction firm, which received the bulk of the $20 million earmarked for the project after President Wade personally intervened on their behalf.

Contracting the lucrative project out to foreigners caused outrage in Senegal, where unemployment sits at just under 50 percent. Many in the business community pointed out that a monument commemorating Africa’s emergence from centuries of intolerance and racism should at least be built by Africans themselves.

The entire process was plagued by what local transparency activist Jacques Habib Sy called “a confusion between the president’s personal interests and those of the nation.”

Mr. Wade drew the initial sketches for the statue with his own hand, and he’s now claiming 35 percent of its intellectual property rights. He will collect his share of tourist revenues and says the money will be put in a charitable fund.

“People feel it is a misplaced investment,” Mr. Sy said. “This statue has a sad reputation of being one man’s fallacy.”