SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal — For over a century, the French general who formed the former capital of Senegal has been hailed as a hero and a father figure. His bronze statue stood triumphant in a square that bore his name.

Under his feet, carved into the stone of a solid pedestal, was a message: “For its governor Faidherbe, Senegal is grateful.”

But as more Senegalese become aware of Louis Faidherbe’s ambivalent legacy, many are no longer so grateful. A general and engineer, he was also a colonizer who led military expeditions in the 19th century that killed tens of thousands of people, set fire to villages and forced local leaders to surrender.

The statue of Faidherbe was removed from Saint-Louis, a coastal town in northern Senegal, officially a temporary move, in 2020 after it fell over and was sprayed with paint. While local officials doubt its fate, its whereabouts have remained a mystery and many want to keep it that way.

The uncertainty surrounding the statue of Faidherbe reflects the reckoning that has gripped Senegal, a West African nation of 17 million people that gained its independence from France in 1960. Many residents of Saint-Louis can no longer bear the sight of a colonizer’s statue, but what to do with the remnants of a troubled colonial past remains controversial.

In Senegal, streets and squares once dedicated to French figures have been renamed, and a nationwide project aimed at publishing a new general history of the country has mobilized hundreds of researchers.

As anti-French sentiments have sprung up here and in other parts of West Africa, the debate surrounding the Faidherbe statue has become heated.

Some want to throw it into the river, as protesters in Bristol, England, did with the statue of a slave trader. Others want it in a museum, or go back to France.

Similar events have occurred across Africa for years: in 2015, students at the University of Cape Town managed to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, while the same year a statue of Queen Victoria was torn down in Nairobi, Kenya. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo now stands a statue of Leopold II that was installed in 2005 and demolished a day later due to public outcry in a Kinshasa park with military guards.

In Saint-Louis, the statue of Faidherbe is only part of the General’s legacy. The main city bridge is named after him. Such was a prestigious high school, until recently. Residents still refer to the renamed square where the statue once stood as Place Faidherbe.

“There are so many Faidherbes in Saint-Louis, you’d think he’s a god,” said Abdoul Sow, a heritage professor at Gaston Berger University in the city.

But Thierno Dicko, a local activist who campaigned for the statue’s removal, said the sword and military cap Faidherbe is holding symbolize dominance that should not be displayed.

“How can I tell my son that Senegal is grateful to him for what he has done?” asked Mr. Dicko, 36, one recent evening, while his 6-year-old son sat nearby.

Born in the French city of Lille in 1818, Faidherbe led relentless military expeditions in what is now Senegal, subduing the local population and participating in France’s bloody expansion through West Africa in the mid-19th century.

Faidherbe also gave Saint-Louis its first secular schools for Muslim students, a Muslim court, its administrative organization and a comprehensive urbanization plan. It was the capital of French West Africa until 1902, and the Colonial Quarter on the Island in the historic center of the city, known for its pastel-colored houses and colonial architecture, built before Mr. Faidherbe’s governorship, has stood since 2000.

Historians say that Faidherbe got along well with the locals and spoke Wolof, one of the national languages ​​of Senegal. Senegal’s first president, Léopold Cédar Senghor, would later describe him as a friend of Senegal. But there is broad agreement that he served French interests and that the schools he built portrayed colonization in a positive light. Even his hometown, Lille, is debating the future of a Faidherbe statue in the main square.

Fatima Fall Niang, the director of the Saint-Louis Conservation Center, said she welcomed the new light on Senegal’s colonial history, but argued that Saint-Louis wouldn’t be what it is today without Faidherbe.

“If you delete the image, something is missing,” she said. “It’s about the history of the city.”

Growing up, she and her peers called the General Maam Faidherbe, Grandpa Faidherbe.

Louis Camara, a 72-year-old writer living on the island of Saint-Louis, said he viewed Faidherbe as a patron whose legacy shaped his childhood — he would play hide-and-seek around the statue — and that he had long known Faidherbe’s transgressions. downplayed.

“A lot of us have overlooked the dark side of the character,” he said. “But that is also part of history.”

But the statue that once towered over the residents has disappeared. The official version still has it that it fell in 2017 due to high winds and heavy rainfall. It was quickly repositioned but removed in early 2020, officially to renovate the square.

All over town, some students said they couldn’t even remember a statue ever standing in the square. Others argued that regardless of location, they had a more balanced view of colonization than their parents.

At the former Faidherbe high school, now named after Omar Foutiyou Tall, an 18th-century Muslim scholar and political leader, Coumba Gueye, a 16-year-old student, said he learned about both the crimes and changes that took place during colonization — or whatever. she mentioned getting “the full picture” – made her feel good. “Ignorance, somehow, is not leading us anywhere,” she said.

With or without Faidherbe, the last visible vestiges of the colonial presence in Saint-Louis fall into ruins. Many families cannot afford to renovate the colonial architecture for which the island is known, and the roof of Mr. Camara’s house collapsed years ago. “I sometimes cry when I walk these streets,” he said.

The rest of Saint-Louis continues. Most residents live on the east bank of the city, with its bustling markets and new neighborhoods. On the western shore, poorer families who depend on fishing are directly affected by coastal erosion, with their crumbling homes most affected by climate change as they are relocated to temporary settlements.

On the island, local officials have repeatedly delayed a decision on the statue’s fate.

Abdoulkarim Fa, a curator at the conservation center, said that in a survey he conducted in 2019, a majority of the Saint-Louis population was frustrated that officials still gave so much credit to colonial figures. Still, little has changed, he says.

“Senegal is not in a position to have this difficult conversation,” he said. “In the public psyche, some things need to be kept quiet forever.”

The statue’s fate remains unknown to most, but it turns out it’s not far off.

At the bottom of the conservation center’s stairs, it rests in a dark basement amid discarded furniture and other relics, covered with a dusty blanket. Faidherbe’s trench coat and boots have turned green and the scratches from the fall from years ago are still visible.

A Saint-Louis city official and a French official, both on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said the statue would not be relocated to the square.

Ms. Niang, chief of the conservation center but not responsible for the statue, said she hoped local officials would remove it soon. Her presence there, she said, could only cause her trouble.

The pedestal expressing Senegal’s gratitude to Faidherbe was nowhere to be seen in the basement.

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