Future or fantasy? Senegal questions ‘Akon City’

PUBLISHED: Mon, 14 Dec 2020 06:08:23 GMT
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By Nellie Peyton

DAKAR, Dec 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Herds of cows
meander across the one-lane highway that leads down Senegal’s
coast to Mbodiene, a farming village surrounded by scrubland
where singer Akon plans to build a futuristic city.

The designs, which show shiny, pinkish buildings that bend
and curve like waves, would look at home in any sci-fi movie.

In the master plan, architect Hussein Bakri has carved out
space for a parking lot – for flying cars.

Akon, the Senegalese-American singer of 2006 hit “Smack
That”, has said the city will attract tourists and create
thousands of jobs. U.S.-based firm KE International said it
plans to start construction on the $6 billion project next year.

But in Senegal, a West African country where villagers drive
horse carts on unpaved roads, the proposal has met with
suspicion and bemusement.

Questions about land rights, financing and feasibility
remain unanswered, and locals are wondering whether the promised
benefits will ever come.

“Akon came to meet us. He said he’ll do this. It could be
real or not real – but I think it’s real,” said Magueye Ndao,
mayor of Ngueniene, the municipality containing Mbodiene and
other villages where Akon City will be built.

The list of promises is long, said Ndao and other local
leaders. Chief among them is a training centre and jobs for
youth, as well as improved schools and health services and
extension of the water, sanitation and electricity networks.

“We welcome this project with open arms and pray that
everything Akon told us will be realised,” said Ndao.
If history is any guide, they will most likely be let down,
said Xavier Ricou, an architect and former director at APIX,
Senegal’s agency for promoting investment and major projects.

“During the 15 years or so that I worked at APIX, I saw
proposals from people who wanted to make cities all over,” said
Ricou, revealing how millions of dollars were spent on advanced
plans for cities that were then never built.

They were mostly abandoned, he said, due to inadequate
funding, a change of government or some other, unknown reason.

As for Akon City: “I think nothing will happen.”

Akon, whose full name is Aliaune Damala Badara Akon Thiam,
spent part of his childhood in Senegal before moving to the
United States. His first big philanthropic initiative was Akon
Lighting Africa, a solar power project launched in 2014.

The 47-year-old is also behind Akoin, a crypto-currency that
he says will power Akon City.

In November, work began on a youth centre in Mbodiene – not
as part of Akon City, but one that locals said Akon is behind.

At the project site, a single stone sits on a pedestal in an
empty field, untouched since Akon and the tourism minister held
a stone-laying ceremony to kick off the project in August.

Of the $6-billion-dollar budget, $4 billion has been secured
from investors, including Kenyan businessman Julius Mwale, said
Paul Martin, director of the project at KE International, an
engineering and infrastructure consulting firm.

Martin said he could not provide more details or name other
investors due to confidentiality.

Reached by email, Mwale’s office declined to answer
questions for this story.

Akon’s team did not respond to multiple interview requests.

‘FOR THE PEOPLE’

Akon City was designed “for the people”, said Dubai-based
architect Bakri, who began visiting Senegal several years ago
and said he was inspired by what he saw.

“We tried to give the people the feeling of Africa,” said
Bakri, who is Lebanese. A promotional video shows buildings that
are loosely shaped like trees, gazelles and butterflies.

With two resorts, four or five hotels, a hospital and a tech
park, Akon City will be a destination for both locals and the
global elite, said Bakri. Akon has also said that he hopes it
will be a “home back home” for African Americans.

Residents of nearby villages are excited, if concerned.

“The studies that were done were not in collaboration with
the commune of Ngueniene,” said Pape Massamba Thiaw, a municipal
councillor and president of the youth commission for Ngueniene.

He is worried about the disconnect between Western and
Senegalese culture, the impact on the environment, and the
possibility that smaller hotels nearby will fold, he said.

He also wants to make sure that young Senegalese get to work
in offices, not just doing construction or collecting trash.

“I don’t want us to be just day labourers. We have to be
among the managers,” he said.

Martin said KE International will ensure contractors
allocate 90% of jobs to locals and will build colleges to train
locals in new skills.

Although Martin said environmental and social impact studies
had been done, Thiaw said that no study had engaged the
community or been shared with local leaders.

The head of the Senegalese Coastal and Tourist Zones
Development and Promotion Company (SAPCO), the state agency
leading the project, said studies were still underway.

“Since the project is not 100% led by the commune of
Ngueniene, there are bound to be fears and worries about it,”
Thiaw told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Up until now there have been no problems. The problems will
arise the moment his promises are not kept.”

LAND RIGHTS

The land earmarked for Akon City, an expanse between the
highway and the ocean, can no longer be farmed as it is heavy
with clay and saltwater, said Mayor Ndao.

In 2009 it was ceded to the state, for future tourism
development by SAPCO. But many of the villagers who were owed
compensation were never paid, said government sources.

According to documents seen by the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the government declared in 2014 that 1.8 billion CFA
Francs ($3.35 million) was owed to 385 people for a total of 504
hectares in Mbodiene and 110 hectares in nearby Pointe Sarene.

A local government employee, not authorised to speak on the
topic, said a little less than half the money has been paid.

“We have paid one part around Pointe Sarene. We have tried
to prioritise so that the Mbodiene villagers are paid,” said
Aliou Sow, Director-General of SAPCO, adding that the payments
are “in the process of regularisation”.

The first phase of Akon City will be built on 55 hectares,
said Bakri, but the long-term plan is to use all 504 hectares in
Mbodiene. So far a deal with SAPCO has only been finalised for
the 55 hectares, he said.

KE International, whose website says the city will be
located on 2,000 acres (800 hectares), declined to comment on
the question of compensation to former landowners.

Concerned about the project, the Senegalese chapter of
Transparency International wrote to the tourism minister in
September requesting clarity on the shareholding arrangement,
the property rights, the impact studies and more.

In a written response shared by the civil society group,
minister Alioune Sarr did not provide details but said the
project “will obey Senegal’s laws and regulations”.

As for whether the plans are realistic, architect Bakri said
he designs in anticipation of new technology and inventions that
he believes will land in 25 years – including flying cars.

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“If that was happening in Dubai you would say, okay well
that’s a new phase of architecture,” he said.

“Why not in Africa?”
($1 = 538.0300 CFA francs)
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.
Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm
of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the
world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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