The so-called Dakar Rally got off to a “symbolic start” in Buenos Aires today and for the second year in a row the event has now switched to Argentina and Chile. Quite how symbolic that was, seems to have been lost on most western media. The official symbol of the rally remains a (faceless) person in North African dress but the challenges now for the riders is the Andes not the Sahara. Given the widespread interest and money generated from the South American venue and the continued security fears of the original route, it is unlikely the rally will ever return to Africa. This is a mixed blessing. The event was often seen as a triumph of colonialism that cared little for the impact on the lands it travelled through or the faceless people. But it also was a strong boost to the economies of the likes of Mauritania, Mali and Senegal bringing in badly needed foreign revenue. And no one involved with the race sees an issue with stealing an African name for a South American context.
The idea for a race from Europe to Africa began in 1977 when French rider Thierry Sabine got lost on his motorcycle in the Libyan desert during the Abidjan-Nice rally. After being rescued from the sands he came up with the idea for a rally to cross the Sahara. The first Paris-Dakar rally started on 26 December 1978 with 175 competitors travelling across the Mediterranean and down through Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and ending in Senegal’s capital Dakar. The danger and exotic nature of the route meant it captured the public imagination and quickly became a household name through most of Europe.
Over the years the route varied and the number of competitors doubled and then trebled. The race went through Gaddafy’s Libya in 1989. In 1992 it went all the way to Cape Town. But that year’s race route through wartorn Chad reminded organisers that politics was never far away. It returned to Dakar in 1993 but the race ended its association with Paris in 1995 when it started from Spain. In 2000 competitors started in Dakar and drove to Egypt but terrorist threats forced them to fly over Algeria. The 2006 death of two young spectators in Guinea and Senegal drew criticism across Africa for the lack of sensitivity shown by the organisers.
In 2007 two planned stages between Nema and Timbuktu were cancelled because Mali authorities could not guarantee the safety of competitors. However, the transformation of the Dakar rally from a destination to a brand began in earnest a year later when the entire event was cancelled a day before it was due to start. On Christmas Eve 2007, a French family of five were having a picnic by the side of a road in the Southern Mauretania town of Aleg when they were attacked by gunmen. After robbing the family, the gunmen opened fire killing four and wounding the other before fleeing into neighbouring Senegal. The attacks were a rare event in Mauritania and government blamed it on a terrorist sleeper cell from Algerian Al Qaeda.
When the organisers of the rally sent team to examine conditions on the ground in Mauritania, they found out that three soldiers had been killed in an ambush in the north of the country on the day they arrived. Nevertheless the French director of the rally Étienne Lavigne said the deaths would not affect the running of the race. Lavigne decided to scrap the two Mali legs again but both he and Mauritanian Interior Minister Yall Zakaria said all other necessary precautions had been taken and security was on track including a 3,000 man security force. But on 29 December Al Qaeda used a website to criticise Mauritania's government for "providing suitable environments to the infidels for the rally." While it did not directly call for attacks on the race or its participants, it was enough to spook Lavigne. He called off the race a day before it was due to start on 5 January 2008.
The Mauritanian president complained that the cancellation was an overreaction. But white western lives always take priority over black African ones and there was no real criticism of the cancellation in western media other than to over-dramatically refer to it as a “death sentence” for the event. But what the media were not taking into account was that the Dakar was now a lucrative brand that could easily be de-coupled from its African location. Other countries in Europe and South America queued up to offer their services to host the event and Argentina and Chile won the rights to host it in 2009. There was little doubt that they would win it again this year. Dominique Serieys, head of Mitsubishi Motorsport saw it purely in sporting terms. "It was necessary to take a break in Africa given the geopolitical context there,” he said. “The fact the resumption is on a new continent is good news."
Serieys is right from a motoring perspective and a race of cars, trucks, motorbikes and quads across the rugged terrain of the Andes will be enjoyable for fans. It may even be more difficult than the Sahara in parts. But this hardly makes it a “Dakar Rally”. The race was born of Sabine’s vision of a trek across the sands of the Sahara and while it did not always (or even often) have the interests of Africans in mind, at least it was a rare opportunity for Africa to star on the world stage. The ease of which the race left Africa and the theft of its name are a shameful reminder of the cravenness of western interests ahead of the Third World.