Former Beninese first lady Rosine Vieyra Soglo dies at 87

The late Rosine Vieyra-Soglo, former first lady of Benin

BY MODUPE ABIOLA

Rosine Vieyra Soglo, the former first lady of Benin (1991 to 1996), passed away on July 25 at the age of 87. The oldest member of the Beninese parliament affectionately called Mama by most Beninese, was a key player in the Beninese parliament for the past three decades, and an advocate for Beninese women she uplifted through her foundation, Vidolé.

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 foundation called Vidolé (a child is wealth), but she went far beyond that by playing a central role during her husband’s term from 1991 to 1996. It was no secret that then-President Soglo, who was said to listen intensely to the first lady—a lawyer by training nicknamed iron lady—rarely made any important decisions without consulting his spouse.

Rosine Soglo went on, after her husband’s single term, to become one of the building blocks of the legislature of the small French-speaking nation which was hailed, up to 2016, as a beacon of democracy in Africa. She earned respect and admiration even from her political adversaries, thanks to her sharp mind, her unbreakable courage and her straight talk.

In 1995, the last year of her husband’s first term, Rosine Soglo decided to run for parliament under the banner of her husband’s political party, the Renaissance du Bénin (Benin’s Rebirth), 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 won, to no one’s surprise.

From that date onward, she proved a fearful watchdog of Benin’s democracy, never scared of speaking her mind, often in undiplomatic terms. Despite her failing health for most of the past decade, she proved resilient, and only retired two years ago.

Patrice Talon, the current president of Benin—a businessman who was literally made in the 1990s by Rosine Soglo and her husband to become reportedly the wealthiest man today in Benin, was no exception.

During a 2017 plenary session about an attempt by the administration of President Talon, just in its second year, to amend the constitution, Rosine Soglo did not mince her words in rejecting the proposal: “This project appears to be a liberty-killer, personalized, tailor-made, and therefore risky. Additionally, it lacks modesty and pretends to heal a country that is not sick from its constitution, rather a model envied for its stability, change of governments, its people’s maturity and the vitality of its institutions despite a few dysfunctions.” She then 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.

It was no different during the two terms of Talon’s predecessor, Yayi Boni, who served as an advisor to one of President Soglos’s advisors in the early 1990s before the president appointed him chairman of the West African Development Bank, a position that eventually helped Yayi’s run for president in 2006.

In 2006, at the start of President Yayi Boni’s first term, Rosine Soglo’s party, Renaissance du Benin, was a die-hard 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 in Benin a “radical opponent” to the Yayi’s administration, on the ground that “it has disappointed the people by not producing any result.”

Fasting forward, months before the March 2011 presidential election, when it was no secret that Yayi would run for a second term, the former first lady made an explosive statement on the parliament floor that deeply troubled Yayi who, by then, had become unprecedently unpopular: “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.”

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 termed “K.O.” Rosine 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.

She later led a march to the Constitutional Court a month to the election. “These people are the assassins of democracy,” she stated during the march.

The late former first lady was viewed as too abrasive, even among some of her political friends, such as the spokesperson for the Democrats party who praised her upon hearing news of her demise, but added that they did not agree with her inflammatory style.

In July 2018, when her oldest son Lehady Soglo, then mayor of Cotonou, was abruptly and wrongfully suspended and his residence was searched without warrant—the son had allegedly run to hide in his parents’ house—an outraged Rosine Soglo said that the suspension was a punishment for her voting against President Talon’s failed attempt to amend the constitution. She also remarked that Talon has two children, and stated publicly and loudly that she would hurt his children if he hurts her child. “If he [Talon] doesn’t kill me, I will kill him.”

The late former first lady, whom a local newspaper has nicknamed the Mother Theresa of Benin, is mourned by thousands of mothers and their children that she supported generously with cash, foods, clothing and other life’s necessities through her foundation, Vidolé. That is not to mention farming tools and other means she gave men across the country.

Rosine Soglo, the first African woman to give a new, more impactful meaning to being a first lady, will certainly be remembered for being combative in politics, but she also had a less-known soft side.

In a moving post on her Facebook page in December 2018—a sort of letter to the population that she referred to as “My children,” —she thanked them for liking her previous post by the thousands, then added these remarks that moved the nation to tears and was relayed massively in the local media. “How, finally, do I express my affection and tenderness to you, my children? I must confess that I am increasingly tired. Each day, the night falls a little more for me. I am at the dusk of my passionate life, and it’s the normal process of things.” She goes on to write that she has no regrets for embracing politics to support her husband’s ambition to help his country, knowing that “it would be for people like you, ‘the voiceless,’ ‘the toothless,’ brave and dignified men and women with value, people for whom no sacrifices would have been too large.” Then she writes: I must admit, my children, my very dear children, that I am hurt by the situation in our country. I am hurt by what is becoming of my country. Yes, I am also hurt by my oldest son not being around during my last moments on earth.” Ending on a positive note, she writes: “However, as I enjoy moments of great communication bordering on extreme joy (more than 1,000 likes, hundreds of shares, and comments for my beloved husband), I hold a glimpse of hope for you, for our country.”

Mama is gone, leaving her children crying.