Statues and spectacle: Senegal’s petit-dictator is the West’s man

Events in the country reflect a global detachment of neoliberal economic policy from liberal democracy.

Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade spurred protests upon announcing his plans to run for a third term [AFP]

Kingston, Canada – While governments in Western nations are beginning to disassociate from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the unacknowledged fact is that he has served them dutifully. Wade certainly knows this, which is why he feels capable of playing his hand so confidently in his determination to stay in power and suppress opposition, which left six dead in the first week of recent demonstrations.

The changes Wade has made to the constitution, enabling his personalisation of the state, were ushered in alongside a number of other changes that served to further open the country to foreign investment. The fact that this is not discussed by opposition members leading demonstrations under the banner of the “M23 movement” is an indication of the limits of its ability to remove him from power – or to offer the kinds of changes desired by the population.

 Protests spark violence in Senegal

Media reports on growing opposition to Wade often mention the scandal that arose from the president’s commissioning of a 49m (160ft) statue outside Dakar, Senegal’s capital, costing $27m. Not only has the statue been considered offensive to Muslim values, but Wade takes 35 per cent of fees paid by tourists to see the statue, all merchandising profits and copyright, justified on the basis of it being his “intellectual property”. As Wade is so closely attached to the project, a closer examination of it helps one understand something about the nature of the man, whose increasingly dictatorial behaviour the world must now contend with. Its construction also provides insights into the political economy of Wade’s rule, which is deeply inserted into the multi-polar global economy. These connections have fuelled the rise of an internal business class working in tandem with politicians widely criticised for corruption and theft of government finances.

While Wade’s ego certainly competes with those of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak, the political strength of opposition movements in Senegal is much weaker by comparison. Senegal’s “M23” and Y’en a Marre [“Had enough”] movements suffer from weak analysis, weak – perhaps even non-existent – ideological positions, and shallow connections with narrow segments of society. Y’en a Marre members are fortunately starting to express some dissatisfaction with the culture of the M23, which is dominated by figureheads, whose politics closely resemble those of President Wade. However, it remains to be seen whether they will generate a more powerful analysis and grassroots political practice.

The statue and Senegal’s FDI ‘renaissance’

Wade’s scandalous statue is called “The African Renaissance”, formed in ideological association with former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s campaign. Launched in 1997, the campaign aimed for Africa to undergo a renaissance that, according to Mbeki, would include increasing social cohesion, democracy, economic growth and the establishment of Africa as a significant player in world affairs.

Mbeki, along with Muammar Gaddafi, then spearheaded a transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), folding it into the African Union (AU). Many have suggested that this process resulted in the abandonment of many pan-Africanist goals of social justice. The most obvious example of this has been the AU’s adoption of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a vehicle to expand the reach of neoliberal free-market economic policy throughout the continent. In short, NEPAD further opened the continent to foreign investment – enshrining property rights, treating foreign firms on par with indigenous firms, cutting taxes, enabling the expropriation of profits, creating tax-free zones, and limiting the rights of workers.

According to Senegal Interior Minister Maitre Ousmane Ngom in 2009: “On the one hand, these reforms aim at improving the business environment, and on the other hand modernising the legal framework and the geological infrastructures to attract and develop foreign direct investments.” Not surprisingly, international business interests have offered significant praise for Wade’s government over the years. Ousmane boasted that the World Bank’s latest “Doing Business” report ranked Senegal as the top reforming country in Africa, and the fifth in the world.

The statue Wade commissioned cost $27m
[Aude Jimenez/Al Jazeera]

It is fitting, then, that Wade’s “African Renaissance” statue was built by a North Korean firm, rather than by the Senegalese. Larger than the Statue of Liberty, it depicts a bare-chested, herculean man facing Mecca with a child on his left shoulder, pointing – presumably into the future (which, oddly enough, is in the direction of Europe). On his right he holds a scantily clad woman literally falling off her feet in his grip, giving the scene a sense of forward motion – led by the strength of the African man.

The ideological lie here is that for at least 40 years, research has shown that women are responsible for the vast majority of labour performed on the continent. If the statue were to depict something closer to reality, it might show a woman with a child on her back, firewood on her head and food in her hands, while a man maybe sits in the background waiting for a meal. This is not to suggest Senegalese men are not hustling for cash in a whole number of ways. Rather, unemployment rates of around 48 per cent mean they do so in a highly competitive and degrading fashion for wages whose purchasing power constantly diminishes. Understandably, many feel a deep sense of despair and humiliation on a daily basis.

In examining the self-proclaimed achievements of Wade’s government, it is difficult to figure out where he derives this muscular image of the African man venturing forth into the terrains of science, technology and the arts – surely essential to any “renaissance”. Wade’s primary skill seems to have been signing cheques to foreign companies. By far the most significant achievement for Wade has been opening up mineral exploitation in the country’s Toumbacounda region, facilitated by a $527m project to build the largest port in West Africa.

The port is being built in a public-private initiative with DP World – an affiliate of the Dubai World Group, a company that also took on an $800m deal to build and run a special economic zone, based upon the Jebel Ali free-trade zone in Dubai. The port facilitates the extraction of gold by a Canadian and Saudi company, Oromin Venture Group, and two other Canadian companies; Sabodala Mining and Lamgold Group. They are joined by Jersey-based Randgold, and the multi-national Arcelor Mittal. Numerous other valuable metals are found in the area, such as copper, chromium, lithium and uranium. The quantities seem to be less significant than the rare properties they offer for blending in new metal composites.

These minerals will make their way to port via massive road rehabilitation and construction projects, which have been doled out to companies such as Swiss-based SGS Industrial, and China’s Henan Industrial Cooperation Group and APIX, the government investment agency. Many Senegalese find it painfully insulting that, after 50 years of independence, they still cannot even build their own roads.

Under pressure from the World Bank, Senegal has also been involved in the protracted process of privatising its water services, with an early electricity privatisation that initially involved Hydro-Quebec and later Vivendi, among others. Vivendi is the company so loathed in South Africa for its pre-paid meter system. These privatisation processes lead to rising household bills for working people whose wages have been stagnant.

Thus Senegal has seen a growing division of society between those who can afford pay-per-use services, and those who cannot. Toll roads and new first-class trains sweep the wealthy out to the suburbs, while the rest make their way home in apartheid-style hardship.

Wade regularly presents himself in propaganda as akin to figures such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, as if he shares their commitments to social justice. Yet instead of addressing the growing homeless population who live amid crumbling streets and the stench of open sewers, he puts energy into projects of prestige, which at best only benefit the rich.

Even then, these projects are built in cheap replica, much like the fake Gucci watches sold on every street corner. The Grand National Theatre, recently built by a Chinese company, is a perfect example. Inside it is actually a beautiful building, though one wonders where Senegal is going to find enough people who can pay for tickets to fill it. But a visit to the washroom reveals shoddy plumbing with junky fittings that do not align. No doubt this kind of work will result in multiple leaks throughout the building within a few years – as one finds in so many of the luxury apartment buildings being rapidly thrown up in the downtown core. In two decades the theatre will likely join ranks with the buildings that sit as empty relics surrounding Independence Square. Built in the enthusiasm of the early post-independence period, they now sit as evidence of dreams that failed to materialise.

Declining terms of trade

Although the global scramble for Senegalese wealth is helping to enrich foreign business and a small local comprador class, the rest of the economy has been suffering. Agriculture still provides the main source of economic activity for 77 per cent of the labour force, but it remains highly dependent on increasingly unreliable weather patterns. Local peanut production – the most significant agricultural export – has declined, in part due to the privatisation of Sonacos, the state marketing and processing company, but also as a result of changes in climate and soil health. The fishing industry faces declining stocks as foreign trawlers poach along the West African coast with impunity. Poor employment prospects for youth have fuelled a stream of illegal migration to Europe among people longing for a better world – even though on arrival they risk death at the hands of racist gunmen, among the other forms of daily indignities.

The latest World Bank data shows the current account balance of Senegal at -$1.029bn. The country exports $3.236bn (2009) and imports $5.919bn. (This inclues foreign aid and remittances.) The exports are of course much larger in actual volume, leading to more shipments leaving the country, but those exports are primary commodities. The value of goods coming in is therefore much greater and is usually manufactured, such as mobile phones, clothing and electronics. This is precisely what nationalist thinkers such as Amilcar Cabral warned would be the fate of neocolonialism.

Land deals and the statue

In spite of the declining economy, Wade’s political allies have been able to profit heavily from a combination of outsourced government contracts and land speculation. Land deals have underlined the statue construction, which overlooks the northern portion of the peninsula of Dakar. The statue sits alongside a newly built road that connects the downtown core with a growing luxurious district known as the Almadie. The Almadie has had a massive facelift, while the road has been turned into a boulevard reminiscent of Malibu or Miami.

With the construction of the new port, south of Rufisque, the city is undergoing a significant geographic shift that is creating new areas of land speculation. Journalist Abdoulatif Coulibaly has described the ways Wade’s family and friends cashed in on a construction boom heavily subsidised by the government to build four- and five-star hotels in preparation for an international Islamic conference in 2004. The hotels sit alongside the same road that stretches to the Almadie and the famous statue.

The land under the statue was also the source of much controversy – some the subject of diplomatic cables – because it was state-owned land essentially given over to a friend of Wade’s: Mbackou Faye, who then sold a portion of it back to the government at enormous cost. According to the cables, with the remaining land, Faye was believed to be planning to build “270 luxurious residences, each of which will cost USD $300,000”. A drive around the area shows Faye’s project is only the tip of the iceberg.

The strengths and limits of opposition

On a global level, neoliberal economic policy is detaching itself from its brief, dishonest association with liberal democracy.”

In some respects, the current state of opposition may be more powerful than Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Philips noted some days ago. While Philips’ impressions were derived from Dakar, it has actually been surprising that demonstrations have managed to gain significant support in smaller towns throughout the country, from which Wade has tended to draw his base support.

At the same time, the opposition is nevertheless rather disconnected from the everyday struggles of working people. Over the past year there have been a number of labour disputes, vaguely reported in the media, though often quite powerful in impact. It is often very difficult to establish to what degree these are labour or capital strikes. For example, most recently, taxi and transport workers managed to stop service for a three-day period with a near-100 per cent participation rate as they protested both the rise in fuel prices and police harassment and bribery.

Before that, the union at the national broadcasting corporation participated in a protest and brief labour disruption over claims that the company was being used for Wade’s propaganda purposes rather than upholding standards of journalism. For the past three months, there has been a nationally coordinated strike of college and university professors who face ever-growing class sizes but cannot afford basic housing. These are significant social grievances, yet demonstrations reveal no practical links with the unions leading these struggles.

In this context, the opposition fails to provide analysis that helps people to understand the functions of the economy and provide alternatives. People on the street can only claim that “Wade is too old”, and the other leaders simply boast of their credentials for office. For most of them these are credentials they actually gained in Wade’s party, the PDS. They prove themselves to be rather opportunistic and self-interested, coming and going from the PDS based on Wade’s offers of the day, rather than any political principles. Void of platform, their rhetoric is limited to childish character debasement by people who simply want to occupy his throne.

Y’en a Marre members reveal a greater interest in popular education and grassroots action, but are highly marginal in society and as a result face heavy police repression. They draw inspiration from a long history of non-violent anti-colonial resistance – especially as it existed among the Mauride Brotherhood – but they haven’t been able to extend it beyond symbolic gestures into actions that actually obstruct the economy or galvanise large crowds prepared for police violence. The one time an M23 demonstration of a few hundred managed to get to Independence Square, they scattered from one blast of a US-made Long Range Acoustic Device and a couple of teargas canisters. That is a far cry from what it took to secure Tahrir Square. The brave young men of Y’en a Marre are not only marginalised by the formal economy, but have a hard time gaining support from women and older generations. This is a highly polarised society, with highly polarised political attitudes. The fractures do not occur neatly.

The deeper reality is that on a global level, neoliberal economic policy is detaching itself from its brief, dishonest association with liberal democracy. In the pages of the Financial Times, Wade himself chastised the West and boasted of his ability to work with the Chinese – within the logic of free-market capitalism pushed on Senegal by Europe and North America. He followed their dictates, which ultimately undermine their control over him – and he now has a whole number of trading partners that really have little concern about ceremonial facades of democracy. He is the new breed of comprador in a multi-polar capitalist order.

For their own part, Senegalese people need to stop looking for heroic figures, and should instead re-consider the ideas that lay behind the independence struggle. Leaders bound to a failed ideology that prevents them from making change will only ever be able to placate citizens with statues and spectacle.

Toby Leon Moorsom teaches at Queen’s University in Canada and is an editor of Nokoko Journal of African Studies.

Follow Toby on Twitter: @tobymoorsom