African Leaders and The Quest for a Lasting Legacy

by Oumar Ba, Graduate student at Ohio University

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 . 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.

Oumar Ba

Oumar Ba is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Florida, USA.

3 Responses to African Leaders and The Quest for a Lasting Legacy

  1. Interesting article! I enjoyed it! Very short and brief! Did not know about this (the monument, the costs, healthcare in Senegal).

    I do agree that whilst there is nothing wrong in African leaders trying to leave a legacy, I think if as you contend leaders are building expensive monuments at times when that money could be better utilised to improve to socio-economic conditions of their communities – then that really defeats the very purpose they are aiming at.It might have made sense if the country was going to make the money back from the tourism revenue, but I am further disturbed that this is not so.

    It would have been nice though to include some recommendations/solutions as to how this issue can be resolved, how the people in Senegal can claim back what is theirs – their right to adequate healthcare and tourism revenue? What do you think is needed? Why do you think African leaders like Wade do not see value in creating a legacy through their substantive actions? (Like building hospitals, new schools, etc?)What has been the response from Senegal civil society to this?

  2. Thank you, Mr. Qambela for your comment. The Senegalese civil society did in fact express its disapproval. At the very moment where Wade was hosting 30 Heads of States for the inauguration of the monument, thousands of people were marching in the streets of Dakar in protests. However, the reaction of the civil society came a little bit too late, at a moment where so much money was already spent on the monument that it would be wasteful to stop its construction. Moreover, the debate was focused too much about if and how this monument was compatible with Islamic beliefs and wether it represents an African family. I would have prefered that the debate be about the waste of so much money while there are other priorities.
    Now, what do we do? I think that the population must fight to get back all the proceeds that the monument could generate and invest that money in education, healthcare, and job opportunities.

  3. really insightful article Oumar! As you say all leaders wish that their legacy is long lasting and this is not only Africa leaders, its leaders everywhere. That is not necessarily a bad thing because if your leadership is not felt generations after you are gone perhaps its not worth the stress! However as you and Gcobani state there are different ways one can leave a lasting legacy. Clearly the French with their hospitals knew a thing or two about this because their impact legacy continues to touch the lives of many Senegalese long after the 'master' is gone. Statues are nice lets be honest, I look at Mandela's statue in Sandton, South Africa, I marvel at it every time. But that statue does not touch my life as the township I live in named after Thabo Mbeki. Every-time I write a letter home I sign the man's name, every time I tell someone where I live I am reminded of his legacy. And most importantly to my family is that we have a house to live in, the feeling is the same for our neighbors. My point here is that the problem is not about leaders leaving a legacy but rather what kind of legacy they leave behind. Sure when I come to Dakar I will also want to see this statue, and surely all the European and American tourists will want a picture of this statue for memory, but how far does that go? Who should remember the leader anyways the local people or outsiders? Wouldn't be nice if every young girl and boy could say they went to Wade Primary School, Wade High School and Wade University? or they are now healthy because they went to Wade Hospital.

    Another problem I have with the construction of a statue under the banner of African Renaissance is that it says to people that African Renaissance is just a mystical idea, not a reality. It is the 'stuff' of statues instead of the rebirth being the ability for African people to say we have control over our destiny, our leaders are working with us to make our lives better. Instead of the only reminder of Africa's revival being put to some abstract statue!

Leave a reply