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A monumental folly in Senegal

As Senegal's people struggle, a statue costing millions has upset Muslims and Christians alike. Claire Soares reports

It was billed as Africa's Statue of Liberty, an artistic colossus to celebrate the continent's renaissance. To many in Senegal, it has become nothing but a monumental scandal.

You certainly can't miss it. Flying in to the capital Dakar on the Westernmost tip of Africa, almost the first thing you see is the bronze male figure triumphantly emerging from a volcano, bearing a child aloft in his left hand and scooping a woman along in his right. Including its natural hillside pedestal, the statue towers 150m over the city, putting Lady Liberty across the Atlantic (a mere 139m on her plinth) in the shade.

Far from being the artistic masterpiece, in whose reflected glory President Abdoulaye Wade could bask, the statue has managed to offend public sensibilities – artistic, national and religious. Rather than symbolising the new Africa, it increasingly seems to hark back to the old days of megalomania and bad governance.

The latest furore erupted this week, when the architect announced that the skimpily-dressed female figure might require a cover-up to stave off complaints about the thigh-length hemline of her tunic. Any last-minute remodelling ahead of April's planned inauguration would only add to the £19m price tag already sticking in the throats of many Senegalese.

Those living in the sculpture's giant shadow endure spiralling food prices and increasingly frequent power cuts, while those in the poorer neighbourhoods have their homes flooded like clockwork every rainy season – one cartoon recast the monument as a ragged, dripping family climbing onto a tin roof to avoid the deluge.

According to Le Quotidien newspaper, the cost of the sculpture is equivalent to the debts of the capital's public hospitals, which are having to turn people away because resources are so tight. "Perhaps in 10 years' time, we might appreciate the statue more, but at the moment people are angry," said its editor, Mamadou Biaye. "All the resentments, all the frustrations of the Senegalese have come to the surface, people feel this monument is simply mocking them."

Opposition leader Abdoulaye Bathily has sharp words for Mr Wade, who swept to power in 2000 promising change after four decades of Socialist rule. "He's gone senile," he said in a telephone interview. "Spending all this money when our education system is in crisis, when our infrastructure is crumbling, it's outrageous."

The octogenarian president's announcement that he would take 35 per cent of any tourist revenues generated by the monument did little to appease his critics. Mr Wade pegs his "intellectual property rights" to a passage in a book published 20 years ago when he mused: "If I were a sculptor, I would erect three personalities with their arms stretching out to embrace".

Ousseynou Nar Gueye, an intellectual property law expert, disputes the validity of the claim. "As a designer, he is entitled to have a payment, if ever he was the designer, but that would be a down-payment which is paid once," he said.

Presidential ego in Africa is nothing new. Cote d'Ivoire's first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny moved the capital upcountry and ordered the construction of a church that would dwarf St Peter's in Rome. But Senegal has always been held up as a beacon of West Africa, an antidote to Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Liberia. President Wade's critics charge that his increasingly autocratic rule is putting that reputation at risk. "Senegal has always been this shining example of democracy and social stability, but there are worrying trends developing," said Richard Moncrieff, head of the International Crisis Group in West Africa. "There's the increasing centralisation of power around the president, Wade's refusal to accept the legitimacy of opposing voices ... to the point that he's now basically surrounded by sycophants. And finally the determined promotion of his son, Karim."

Senegalese voters have already shown what they think of the dynastic succession plans. In last year's local elections, widely viewed as a referendum on the Wades, past and future, the ruling coalition lost control in the capital and other key cities.

While 94 per cent of its 14 million people are Muslim, Senegal does not subscribe to stringent religious dress codes, and Muslim and Christian neighbours often celebrate the main festivals of Tabaski and Christmas together. But this religious harmony has been tested by the statue.

Imams have been condemning the monument at Friday prayers, saying it contravenes Islamic teachings by presenting the human form as an object of worship. Trying to deflect that criticism, President Wade pointed out last week that Christians prayed to a "man called Jesus". That raised the hackles of the Christians, who staged a protest outside the cathedral in Dakar. Police moved in to break it up and Mr Wade was forced to apologise.

Any national or continental pride in the African Renaissance Monument has been undermined by the fact that it was built by North Koreans, producing a poor imitation of Soviet-era monoliths. Considering Senegal boasts world-renowned artists like Ousmane Sow, whose dramatic sculptures on the Pont des Arts attracted hordes to Paris, it is curious why Pyongyang should have been accorded the honour, especially when the sculpture was conceived to mark the end of outside interference.

"It's a wasted opportunity. It's an enormous canvas but there is no detail. What we have ended up with is aesthetically childish and banal in the extreme. It is anything but a symbol of African renaissance and it's nothing to do with art," Mr Sow said. "The president's motivation is totally personal, it's about leaving something behind. He's not been brilliant on the political playing field so instead he has opted for a concrete legacy – literally."

Artistic president? Abdoulaye Wade

*Age: 83

*Family: French wife Viviane; son Karim widely believed to be being groomed to take over; daughter Sindjely who has competed in several Paris-Dakar rallies.

*Rise to power: A lawyer by training he took office in March 2000, winning the presidential poll at the fifth attempt and ending 40 years of Socialist rule. He was re-elected in February 2007, with nearly 56 per cent of the vote.

*He says: "There is a Statue of Liberty in the United States, an Eiffel Tower in Paris. I wanted to give flesh to the African Renaissance so that people know that we came through nearly six centuries of darkness and we are going towards the light."