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Russia elects first African: Jean Gregoire Sagbo from Benin

Russia elects first African: Jean Gregoire Sagbo from Benin

Jean Gregoire Sagbo is Russia’s newly elected Councilman of Novozavidovo, a rural community, about 65 miles North of Moscow. Residents in this seemingly sleepy town would stare at him because they had never seen a black man before. But presently, they have spotted in him a quality equally rare – an honest politician, who they think is from a remote continent, Africa. While most Russian politicians are deemed innately dishonest: Sagbo is the first black elected official, from the tiny West African nation of Benin, serving in this community, part of a vast country, Russia.  (Photo: Jean Gregoire Sagbo)

Russia is still entrenched in the enigma of racism, and plagued with systemic violence. Sagbo’s election is a milestone in the country’s history, emerging as one of the 10 elected Municipal Councilors. Among the 10,000 residents there, 48-year-old Sagbo though an immigrant from Benin, he’s perceived as a Russian, who cares about his adopted hometown. He has promised to jumpstart the impoverished garbage-littered town where he has lived for 21 years and raised a family. His long term vision includes addressing the malaise of drug addiction, cleaning up an eyesore-carved polluted lake and delivering heating service to deprived homes.

Sagbo sojourned from his Benin homeland to study economics in Moscow, then Soviet Union, in 1982, probably seduced by the myth of communist ideology. He met his wife there, who is a Novozavidovo native. He would later move to this town of about 65 miles North of Moscow in 1989, to be near his in-laws. He’s the father of 2 children, and works in real estate business for a Moscow based conglomerate. His council job does not pay salary. Therefore, he gives voluntary service. Initially, Sagbo and his wife never had the inclination to enter politics. They had perceived politics as dirty and dangerous business. But the community residents eventually persuaded Sagbo to get involved. Rationally, in their thinking he had the goods to make a difference. Eventually, they were proved right.

Visually, he had proved himself as a man of strong civic impulse who had cleaned the entrance to his apartment building, planted flowers, and spent his own money on street improvements. About ten years ago, he organized volunteers, and pioneered what would become an annual day of collecting garbage. He said he feels no racism in the town. “I am one of them. I am home here,” Sagbo said.

But he lamented that during his first year in the town, his 4-year-old son Maxim came home in sobbing tears, complaining bitterly how a teenage boy spat at him. Sagbo ran outside with profuse rage, and demanded that the youth must explain himself for his unsavory, if not hateful action. Women sitting very close to the scene also scolded the teenager. The whole street would later join in, speaking in one accord, condemning the inhumane action.

Russia’s black population hasn’t been officially enumerated. But studies estimate there are about 40,000 “Afro-Russians.” Many are attracted by universities that are less costly than in the West. Scores of them suffer racially motivated attacks every year — 49 in Moscow alone in 2009, according to the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy Task Force on Racial Violence and Harassment, an advocacy group.

“Novozavidovo is dying,” Sagbo said in an interview in the ramshackle Municipal Building. “This is my home, my town. We can’t live like this.”

“His skin is black but he is Russian inside,” said Vyacheslav Arakelov, the mayor. “The way he cares about this place, only a Russian can care.”

But Sagbo is not the first Black Russian politician. Another West African, Joaquin Crima of Guinea-Bissau, ran for head of a southern Russian district a year ago, but was heavily defeated. Crima was dubbed by the media “Russia’s Obama.” Now they’ve shifted the title to Sagbo, much to his annoyance.

“My name is not Obama. It’s sensationalism,” he said. “He is black and I am black, but it’s a totally different situation.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, this town’s industries were privatized, leaving the town in financial ruin. It suffered from massive unemployment, corruption, alcohol abuse and pollution. It was previously a prosperous place, not very far from the National Park, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev enjoy nature retreats.

Denis Voronin, a 33-year-old engineer, said Sagbo was the town’s first politician to get elected fairly, without resorting to buying votes.

“Previous politicians were all criminals,” he said.

Residents complain that they pay for heat and hot water, but because of ineffective management within the municipality, they don’t get much of either. The toilet in the municipal building is a room with a hole in the floor.

Councilman Sagbo is gaining some successes. He mobilized residents to raise money and turn dilapidated lots between buildings into colorful playgrounds with new swings and painted fences.

When he walks around his neighborhood, he’s greeted with handshakes and infectious smiles, and he responds in his fluent, French-African-twanged Russian. Boys waved to Sagbo, as if they’re reminding him he had promised them a soccer field. Enjoying the newly painted playground with her son, Irina said it was the only improvement she has seen during the five years she has lived here.

“We don’t care about his race,” said Danilenko. “We consider him one of us.”

People around the world are curiously asking: Is this really happening in Russia, once an incubator of racism, and still a tightly knit and secret society? But times are changing rapidly, and people around the world, whatever their ethnicity have similar basic needs and wants. The quest as innate dream for freedom, justice and equality is an eternal struggle for salvation that transcends geographic boundaries. But only time will referee the honesty and direction of Russia’s glaring milestone.

Roland Bankole Marke © 2010

Roland B. Marke is a well published author, poet, songwriter, and activist for the voiceless and underprivileged around the world, whose deep root is from Sierra Leone, West Africa. His short stories and poems have been anthologized. Visit his website: www.rolandmarke.com

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