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Beware bards bidding to take charge of court

Posted by Business in Ghana on January 7, 2012

 By Christopher Caldwell, New York Times

When Youssou N’Dour announced this week that he would run in Senegal’s presidential elections next month, the singer probably surprised his neighbours more than his western fans. Mr N’Dour is Senegal’s most famous citizen. He has performed with Peter Gabriel and Sting. He cuts a more imposing figure on the world stage than Abdoulaye Wade, who at 85 is running for a third term as president. In poor countries, singers have often been tribunes of the people. They find themselves drawn into politics. Two singers ran (or tried to) in Haiti’s last election. The polygamist composer Fela Kuti thought he would make a good president in Nigeria three decades ago and so did the salsa musician Rubén Blades in Panama in the 1990s. Mr N’Dour comes from a family of west African griots, or praise-singers. Why shouldn’t he run?

These candidacies make less sense the closer one gets to them. As culture gets more globalised and capitalistic, this old idea of bards standing apart from the power structure becomes dubious. Mr N’Dour is not, say, what the Chilean balladeer Victor Jara was until he was executed in 1973: a peasant eloquent enough to challenge the rich. However humble his beginnings, Mr N’Dour is the rich – reportedly the richest man in Senegal. He owns a newspaper, a radio station and a recording studio. What is more, although we tend to romanticise griots as bards, it would be just as accurate to describe them as court flatterers. Mr N’Dour is the inheritor of this west African tradition, too. He has been an intimate of the incumbent. He supported Mr Wade’s candidacy in 2000.

Mr Wade does not fit the caricature of a west African dictator. He holds degrees in economics and law and has taught law in France. Senegal has never had a coup d’état but a rotten economy, with unemployment close to 50 per cent, sparked protests last summer. Mr Wade has drifted away from the reform platform he was elected on a decade ago. He keeps mucking about with the constitution and has found a legal loophole in the twoterm limit it imposes on presidents. He tried to make his son Karim vice-president. He has blown money on follies, such as a colossal Soviet-style monument to the “African Renaissance”.

Mr N’Dour drifted into opposition. When flooding and blackouts inconvenienced the public he released a song (sung in Wolof to the tune of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) complaining about them. His newspaper published allegations that the government had bribed bankers and beaten journalists. Shrewdly, Mr Wade has chosen to contrast himself not with Mr N’Dour the singer or politician, but with Mr N’Dour the businessman. He was slow to license Mr N’Dour’s television station before 2010, claiming fear of “foreign” influence.

Even if there have been no credible reports of anyone buying Mr N’Dour’s favour Mr Wade’s fear of foreign influence is natural. Former colonies suffer “blowback” as surely as former colonisers do. In spreading Senegal’s culture to the world, Mr N’Dour brings the world’s culture back to Senegal. Mr N’Dour’s political experience all follows the philanthropic model of western “activism”. He has been the celebrity face of UN programmes against malaria and Aids. He launched an initiative, Project Joko, to give Africans more access to internet cafés. The claim of any celebrity activist to influence policy comes through the marketplace – through capitalism rather than democracy. That is no sin, but it may be a vulnerability.

Not all the traits that make a successful entertainer can be transferred to politics but a good number can.

When Bono and Angelina Jolie importune the world about African hunger, the world indulges them because it has already vetted them. A public that has “voted” for an artist’s hard work, quality craftsmanship and integrity can be mobilised to a non-artistic purpose. In poorer parts of the world, the public also “owes” the artist for putting the country on the map. That poses a potential conflict. Mr N’Dour owes his allegiance to the1/7/12 Beware bards bidding to take charge of court – FT.com voters of Senegal, but he owes his fame and thus his political viability to foreign consumers.

World opinion is playing a bigger role in western countries, too. In 2008, Barack Obama presented himself not just as the candidate America wanted for itself but also as the candidate that the world wanted for America. Last autumn, Mario Monti was appointed a senator in order that he might replace Silvio Berlusconi, whose haphazard conduct as prime minister, it was believed, was prejudicing influential foreigners against Italian debt. It was not considered advisable to allow Italians to vote on the matter. To that extent, Mr Wade is right to worry. The “world” that seeks to fix Africa through feel good concerts and non-governmental organisations is setting a less and less democratic example.

 The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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One Response to “Beware bards bidding to take charge of court”

  1. A prime example of a piece bearing no resemblance to the headline!! The author’s main reasdon against the singer’s aspirations is his money! Perhaps that may also be the main reason he succeeds as President!!!!

    N’Dour for President!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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