Black women of exception: Benin’s former first lady Rosine Vieyra Soglo
BY SUE B. SIMON
Rosine Vieyra Soglo, the former first lady of Benin (1991 to 1996), a high-power woman affectionately called Mama by most people, has been a key player in Benin parliament for the past two decades. She has earned respect and admiration, even from her political adversaries, thanks to her sharp mind, her unbreakable courage and her straight talk.
Presidential wives usually run social programs designed for children and women as a way to support their husbands’ social programs. Soglo did so through her organization called Vidolé (a child is wealth), but she went far beyond that by playing a central role during her husband’s term. It was no secret that the president, who was said to listen intensely to the first lady, rarely made any important decisions without consulting his spouse.
In 1995, Rosine Soglo decided to run for parliament under the banner of her husband’s political party, the Renaissance du Bénin, that she founded in 1992 and whose honorary chairmanship she transferred to the president in 1994, while remaining the party’s president and actual manager. Family members, close friends and presidential aides, fearing that the iron lady might “hit too hard” at the opposition and invite more opposition to her husband’s policies, were terrified by her plan. She ran anyway and obviously won.
Black History Month Quote
Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.
Soglo, a lawyer by training and now a 6th-term lawmaker, has remained an icon in the Benin parliament despite her failing health. During a 2017 plenary session about the revision of the Benin constitution initiated by President Talon’s administration—which she opposed, calling it “libertycide”—she dropped a bomb by revealing, live on the air for the whole world to hear, that the legislators had been bribed to vote for the plan. “I got my share,” said the fearless national Mama. She’s been the most vocal critic of President Talon who owes his business success, and, to a large degree, his election to her husband, former President Nicephore Soglo. “I am deeply hurt by the path my country is on,” she wrote on her Facebook page last November, adding that she is also hurt by the absence of her older son who has been pushed into exile for political reasons. Her remarks got a thousand likes and hundreds of shares.
In 2006, at the start of President Yayi’Boni’s first term, Rosine Soglo’s party was an unquestionable ally of the new president. She welcomed the president’s promise to fight corruption, favoritism and other evils inherited from the previous administration. But she eventually chose to become what’s called here a “radical opponent” to the Yayi’s administration, on the ground that “it has disappointed the people by not producing any result.”
Months before the March 2011presidential election, the former first lady made an explosive statement on the parliament floor that deeply troubled the president and his political apparatus: “The president said that he will turn the country into fire and blood if his opponents continue to challenge him,” she said, describing the exact circumstances of the hitherto undenied statement and naming witnesses. She kept up the fight all the way to the election, clobbering the administration for “leaving out more than a million voters on the list of voters in opposition areas.” She also led a march to the Constitutional Court in February, about a month to the election. “These people are the assassins of democracy,” she stated during the march. She was also in the forefront of the massive protests that followed the March 13 presidential election, even before the official announcement of the result.
The former first lady, other opposition leaders and their supporters were alarmed by persistent rumors that President Yayi would be declared the winner of the election at first round, a process his supporters have termed “K.O.” Soglo was in the crowd of voters that intercepted a truck carrying ballots from the Borgou/Alibori regions 48 hours after the election, a delay that violates the election laws. “The K.O. truck will run over my body. I am willing to die here,” Soglo shouted.