In the ‘repats’ series we’ve been publishing over the past six weeks, I have profiled diaspora Africans who chose to return to the continent, seeking new opportunities and new challenges. Although I have focused only on West African women, so far, today I want to showcase — and endorse — a gentleman I would call ‘the ultimate repat’.
Lionel Zinsou, 61, is currently the Prime Minister of Benin, and a presidential candidate facing Patrice Talon in today’s run-off vote. With Benin now lauded as one of Africa’s promising democracies, today’s elections should be relatively peaceful, and fair. The name of the winner will not be announced until Monday or Tuesday, but Zinsou is already facing a herculean task.
Talon, a businessman who controls the country’s cotton industry, is considered the front runner, having secured the endorsement of several of the country’s leading politicians, who have chosen to campaign against Zinsou by labeling him “a white man”. (Full disclosure: I am related to Lionel Zinsou, and he has been a great mentor of mine for the past decade.)
In describing the process of repatriation, I wrote that the process of adjusting to mentalities can be brutal. Zinsou, whose is a citizen of both Benin and France, is a well regarded economist and successful investment banker who has had to confront racial slurs and all kinds of xenophobic insults ever since he was appointed Prime Minister in June 2015.
Zinsou is a light-skinned black man, but he is a black man nonetheless. He may be French, but he is also ‘Béninois’. He may be European, but he is also African. During the presidential campaign, Talon has been promoting a series of ‘White Man Go Home’ attacks, as a way to undermine Zinsou’s credibility. During the televised debate that aired on ORTB (Benin’s national broadcaster) on Thursday, March 17th, Talon said to his opponent, ‘You are a French Prime Minister, you are French.’
African politics is cut-throat, and not for the faint-hearted.
What Talon did not say on TV, was that he himself was granted refugee status and chose to live in exile in France after fleeing Benin in 2012, when he was accused of being the mastermind of an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Thomas Yayi Boni, the sitting president. African politics is cut-throat, and not for the faint-hearted, we know that, but Talon, a man also under investigation for several financial crimes, has chosen to seize his moment in the spotlight with equal parts authoritarian nationalism and blustering ‘anti-white’ and ‘anti-French’ machismo.
In a recent article, Le Monde quoted former First Lady Rosine Vieira Soglo, a Talon supporter, as saying, ‘Zinsou is white. And no white man can rule Benin.’ I am a citizen of Togo (and also of France and the United States) and I normally choose not to interfere in other countries’ political debates, but today I am writing this piece as a transcultural African (or Afropolitan) who cares about the people living in Togo’s neighbouring country.
To me, the real question is not which of the two candidates is more ‘Béninois’, or whose skin tone is darker. The only thing that matters, in a country grappling with massive youth unemployment and all kinds of social issues related to income inequality, is which candidate is better qualified for the top job.
Zinsou’s four priorities for Bénin: reducing poverty through inclusive growth and redistribution, focusing on agriculture and digital innovation, reducing corruption for better governance, and opening the country to the outside world—are, to this foreign observer, just what a country like Benin needs right now.