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Senegal Prepares for Spotlight in Major Islamic Conference

  • Naomi Schwarz

Senegal has undertaken huge preparations for a major Islamic conference in an effort to transform the country into an international hub for business and diplomacy. But major roadway overhauls and hotel construction are not yet complete and have led to questions about the government's competence. Naomi Schwarz has more from Dakar.

Senegalese officials say they have staked their plans to become an international hub for conferences and business on the success of a major Islamic conference scheduled for next week.

The capital, Dakar, has spent years as a gridlocked construction zone while new roads, hotels and conference centers were built.

Commercials have been broadcast on Senegalese television for weeks, proclaiming Senegal's progress.

The announcer says Senegal will welcome the delegates in "its new clothes".

Karim Wade, Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade's son, is the head of the organizing committee.

"Dakar now has a lot of modern infrastructure," he said. "We have revamped more than 78 kilometers of road. We did substantial investment in the infrastructure. We upgrade(d) with new generation infrastructure, like bridges tunnels, and also on the hotel side, we have built a lot of hotels, we have a brand new convention center, which will host all the delegates for the OIC and which will turn Dakar into a major hub for business tourism."

The conference is a summit of leaders from the Organization of Islamic Conference, known as OIC. The organization brings together more than 50 majority Muslim countries. This is the second time Senegal has hosted the organization's summit.

The summit in Dakar in 1992 led to the construction of the city's most luxurious hotel, but plans were much more ambitious for this edition.

Senegal has received millions of dollars in investments for new infrastructure improvements from other member countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Wade says he hopes such assistance will continue after the summit. He talks about the umma, which means the Islamic community.

"I think that it will enhance the cooperation between Islamic umma members and especially between Africa and the non-African members of the Islamic umma," he said. "Today, many people in the Islamic umma consider that we need to enhance cooperation. We need to develop economic exchange, cultural exchange. And I think the summit in Dakar will be a major step."

The summit is also an opportunity for leaders from majority Islamic countries to present a united statement on issues relevant to the Islamic community, such as Palestinians' rights, and the representation of Islam in the media.

But uncompleted projects have led some critics to wonder whether Senegal is ready to host a conference of this magnitude.

Men with shovels work alongside bulldozers on one stretch of a new road from the airport.

Mamadou Gueye says he has been working long hours the past two weeks to try to finish. But he says the work will not be completed before the summit.

Nearby, a billboard marks the location of a brand new luxury hotel. But the lot is empty and construction has yet to begin.

Several large luxury boats, including one paid for by Morocco, are setting up anchor near the seaside capital to serve as extra lodgings. Private villas are also being used. Some will be rented for very high prices, while others have been offered for free, as the government scrambled to find enough rooms for an estimated 5,000 delegates arriving for the conference.

Wade admits that some of the funding has not yet been used. He says it is because there were some projects they knew they could not finish in time. He also said usually it takes five years to build a road in Senegal, and there are sometimes too many vacation days to make efficient progress.

Still he says he is not nervous for the conference.

"It is always harder than you expect, but so far we are very proud of what we have achieved," he said.

One major concern as diplomats, world leaders and foreign ministers arrive in Senegal, is security.

The government has announced several strict security measures to reduce the risk of any incidents. Delegates and journalists are being fingerprinted, and asked to submit what it called a declaration of moral standards. The government will also forbid the sale of gas and other flammable products during the conference.

And a large portion of the city around the conference center will be closed to all circulation, unless you have a special badge.

Mamadou Diop works in a cell phone shop in the area to be closed. He is sitting in an outdoor stall getting breakfast.

He says he went to the police station to get the badge to allow him to cross into the closed area to come to work.

But the other patrons of the breakfast stall say they have not heard of the badges and do not plan to get them.

Many residents of Dakar say they are not impressed by the summit preparations.

In one residential neighborhood, the sound of a garbage truck announcing its arrival with honking brings out many women with trash cans. Cleaning, painting sidewalks, and garbage collection in the summit area is taking place like never before.

Mounass Thiam, a maid in a nearby house, says you never know when the garbage truck will come and it does not come enough.

But the women say that for the last week, it has come every day.

Abdou Ndiaye, a resident of this neighborhood near the main road that links downtown Dakar to the airport says this is typical in Senegal before a major event.

He says, after the conference, the garbage pick-ups will stop again.

He says the government does the same thing for elections, to make the population happy for a few days. But he says Senegal needs something regular, not just now and then.

But the current government of President Wade says Senegal's clean-up is a long term project and that it will attract much needed outside investment.

Senegal has a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable and democratic countries, since it has never experienced a coup, but more than half the population still lives on less than $2 a day.