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Senegal in Search of the 21st Century

A Senegalese Follower of American Politics

A Senegalese Follower of American Politics

President Obama’s poll ratings may be suffering in the United States, but he remains wildly popular in Africa. The porter who showed me to my room in the Lagon 2 Hotel in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, on learning that I am American told me, “Monsieur Obama is not just the President of America, he is President of all the Africans.” At a meeting later in the week in the offices of a firm of engineering consultants, one staff member sported a baseball cap with “Barack Obama” in big letters. Taxi drivers all over town have a pine-tree-shaped stars and stripes air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror. Obama is much more popular than Senegal’s octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade, who comes in for daily, and increasingly vituperative, criticism in the country’ independent press.

I was last in Dakar in June. At the time, a huge bronze statue was going up at a site along the coastal road between downtown and the airport.  At 50 meters – higher than the Statue of Liberty and nearly 150 meters overall if you count the small, extinct volcano that serves as its base – the statue built by a North Korean firm whose other main projects are the new Presidential Palace and statue of the Unknown Soldier in Namibia and the Dr. Agostinho Neto Cultural Center in downtown Luanda, Angloa.  Stalinist social-realist kitsch has tremendous purchase in Africa, and who better to build the monument than the North Koreans, undisputed champions of the style.

Last June the statue was only half-completed, showing the intertwined torso and legs of a man and a woman – the subject of salacious speculations – but with the heads still missing it was not easy to discern the artist’s complete vision. Now, with the relevant parts installed, it is clear. The woman, draped in a toga that leaves one breast exposed, stands behind the man while he, bursting pectorals and all, stands proudly erect, holding a small child on his outstretched arm.  In the words of President Wade, the statue represents “Africa emerging from the bowels of the Earth, leaving

Renaissance Monument, Dakar

Renaissance Monument, Dakar

obscurantism behind to travel towards the light. The woman, the man, and their child face the sun, symbolizing the continent’s opening to the rest of the world. It is a force of movement and attraction in the grandeur, stability, and durability of Africa.”  The monument bears a strong resemblance to the 25-meter stainless steel statue of “The Worker and the Collective Farmer” – described by The Great Soviet Encyclopedia as “the standard of Soviet socialist realism” – which sat atop the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair before being moved to its current place on a 10-meter pedestal in front of the All-Russian Exhibition Center in Moscow. Construction of the Renaissance Monument has cost a reported 21.3 million Euros, or about $30 million.

In spite of its altered skyline, Dakar is one of my favorite cities in Africa. It sits on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic to form the westernmost point of mainland Africa, and the city stretches out along the coast, no place too far from the sea. The weather right now is perfect: Sunny ever day, temperatures rising into the mid- to upper-seventies during the day and falling into the upper-sixties at night. Most of the houses and buildings are white or pastel-colored, and apart from the central business and commercial area downtown, with its skyscrapers and traffic, the rest of the city is low-rise and pretty tranquil. Nightlife bustles, and as befits a former French colony the cuisine is excellent. The people, most of them Wolof-speaking, are attractive – mainly dark-skinned, elegant, and slender. Senegal is largely Muslim, but not in an in-your-face fashion. There is a long history of syncretism with traditional beliefs and practices. Alongside the imams there are marabouts, traditional spiritualist healers also schooled in Islam, many of whom attract large numbers of followers and enjoy an importance in religious and social life that equals, if it does not surpass, that of the imams.  The mystical sufi tradition – in many ways a polar opposite of Taliban-style belief and practice – is strong, and most Senegalese adhere to one of the major sufi sects. Fundamentalism may be growing, but does not seem to have made huge inroads yet. in a week I have seen only two women wearing Arab-style hijab head coverings, and one was an Arab. Many women dress modestly but in bright African cotton prints, turning the city into a riot of colors.  Men in government and business wear well-cut European suits, though on Friday many swap their Armani for traditional African robes, more comfortable in the summer heat and more appropriate for prayers at the mosque.

Dakar Viewed from Goree Island

Dakar Viewed from Goree Island

Dakar was once the administrative capital of French West Africa, a region that today comprises seven countries with around 70 million inhabitants, stretching from Senegal in the west to Niger in the east.  Like many former French colonies, Senegal inherited a system of government in which the State (always capitalized) dominates most aspects of economic and social life and insists on its prerogatives. This is not automatically antithetical to democracy. France is a democracy, of course, though Louis XIV (“l’Etat, c’est Moi”), followed by the Revolution and then Napoleon, solidified and codified the principle that few, if any spheres of life remain outside the purview of the State. Senegal has had democracy since 2000, when the then-President Abdou Diouf, who had been in power for 20 years, conceded his electoral defeat to Mr. Wade, a long-time opposition leader, and peacefully transferred power to the new government.  But the Wade Administration, with its appetite for grandiose gestures and insistence on its own prerogatives, governs in the Napoleonic style.

This need not be a bad thing: it is hard to imagine the United States with its more fractious democracy building the Train à Grande Vitesse or converting more than 70% of its electricity generation to nuclear plants, though on the other hand it is hard to imagine the French creating Silicon Valley. And 21 million Euros is a lot of money to spend on a statue in a country with 40 percent unemployment in which 60 percent of the people live on less than two dollars a day. Twenty-one million Euros, of course, is a lot less than the $30 billion estimate of the cost of a new capital to be built in the President’s home village of Lompul, though that project has been put on standby since Dubai Limitless, the site’s designated developer, ran into financial trouble.

President Wade made a splash this week in Copenhagen, where he shared his vision of a 100,000 megawatt solar power project in the Sahara, which would supply free power to all of Africa and, in a matter of a decade or so, most of Europe as well. According to the President’s own estimates this project will cost $350 billion or so, though he did not specify whether that included transmission lines as well as the plant itself. He also did not mention how, if the project is going to give away power, it will manage to attract private capital. Then too, Napoleon did not concern himself with the petty details of how his army would survive a winter invasion of Russia.

Having won two elections it is not at all certain that Mr. Wade will run again in Presidential elections scheduled for 2012, and it seems unlikely that if democratic niceties are observed he would win a third mandate. There is a palpable feeling of fin de régime, and a sense that the country may be poised for better things. The country still ranks a pretty miserable 157th out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s 2010 annual Doing Business report, but that is better than most of its West African neighbors. Senegal does have potential as a regional hub, enjoying proximity and good air and sea transport links to Europe, the United States, Brazil, and South Africa.

The President’s dream of a West African Dubai is probably unrealistic, especially now that the flaws of the “Dubai model” have become apparent, but that’s not to say nothing can be accomplished. After the French colonies became independent in 1960 Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, became the commercial and industrial hum of the region, but since late 2002, when several years of political instability burst into civil war, most of the international companies – as well as the headquarters of the African Development Bank – decamped. Abidjan is no longer a war zone, but the political divisions remain largely unresolved and the country is unlikely to regain its former luster anytime soon. Think of Beirut.

So Dakar has at least a fighting chance to become a real regional business and commercial hub. As it happens, I am here to conduct a prefeasibility study for a new “Business City” on the site of the current airport, which is to be replaced in two years by a new airport under construction. Given traffic congestion and skyrocketing commercial and residential rents in Central Dakar, there seems to be sufficient demand to make the project viable. West African markets are hard to serve from Paris, New York, Tokyo, or even Johannesburg, so many companies need a base in the region as well as an efficient port.  Dakar, where Dubai Ports World (the one part of Dubai World that actually remains solvent) is investing a reported $150 million in a 25-year concession to expand and run the Dakar container port, seems an obvious choice.

As bad as Senegal’s business environment may be, it is based on the French system and French companies find it comfortable. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South African, other European, and even American companies seem to have adapted reasonably well. Senegal has become a leading call center location for the French-speaking world, where women named Fatima and Khadija, after a few weeks of training to remove the rough edges from their French accents, introduce themselves as Chantal and Marie-Françoise to customers of Air France, Banque Nationale de Paris, AXA, and Dell,   in France, Belgium, and Switzerland.

Much depends on the 2012 elections and whether President Wade steps down, as the Constitution requires him to do, and transfers power peacefully. He has already announced his intention to run again, and he is openly grooming his son, Karim, to succeed him. Senegal, however, is not Guinea or Gabon, and even as a relative newcomer to democracy, it still has no history of coups d’état or armed political conflict. Of course, if Barack Obama’s chances in the 2012 U.S. elections start looking dicey he might consider coming to Senegal, where they would grant him immediate citizenship and elect him President in a landslide. He should probably start French lessons now. If he has trouble with the language, Nigerians will go to the polls in 2011 and again in 2015.

Disclosure: none