Jean Gregoire Sagbo has just made history as Russia’s first Black elected official. The 48-year-old “Afro-Russian” is proud of his victory but doesn’t like to be compared to Obama. Pop it to see why.
In a country infamous for racial tension, Jean Sagbo has managed to break barriers, becoming the first elected Black official of Novozavidovo, Russia. The small town has a quaint population of about 10,000 people of which only a handful are black. In an even bigger feat, residents report he is the first politician to get elected fairly, without buying votes. Politicians are reportedly corrupt and prone to assassination (A former administration head – the equivalent of mayor in rural Russia – was shot to death by unknown assailants two years ago.) but Sagbo hopes to save the small town.
He promises to revive the impoverished, garbage-strewn town where he has lived for 21 years and raised a family. His plans include reducing rampant drug addiction, cleaning up a polluted lake and delivering heating to homes.
Sagbo says neither he nor his wife wanted him to get into politics, viewing it as a dirty, dangerous business, but the town council and residents persuaded him to run for office.
He said he feels no racism in the town. “I am one of them. I am home here,” Sagbo said.
People already knew him as a man of strong civic impulse. He had cleaned the entrance to his apartment building, planted flowers and spent his own money on street improvements. Ten years ago he organized volunteers and started what became an annual day of collecting garbage.
“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.”
Sagbo isn’t the first black in Russian politics. 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.”
As a councilor, Sagbo has already scored some successes. He mobilized residents to collect money and turn dilapidated lots between buildings into colorful playgrounds with new swings and painted fences.
As he strolled around his neighborhood everyone greeted him and he responded in his fluent, French-African-accented Russian. Boys waved to Sagbo, who had promised them a soccer field.
Sitting in the newly painted playground with her son, Irina Danilenko said it was the only improvement she has seen in the five years she has lived here.
“We don’t care about his race,” said Danilenko, 31. “We consider him one of us.”
Go ‘head Sagbo. Congratulations. One small step for man, one huge step for mankind.