Meet 62-Year-Old Toni Iwobi, Italy’s First Black Senator
Italy’s first black senator has said his election for the League has proved that the far-right party, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric helped it to its best ever result on Sunday, has no problem with legal migration.
Campaigning under the party slogan “stop the invasion”, Toni Iwobi, a 62-year-old businessman originally from Nigeria, won his seat in Spirano, a small town in the Lombardy province of Bergamo, as the party took almost 18% of the vote nationwide.
“It’s an incredible honour for me to be Italy’s first black senator,” he told the Guardian.
He shared success in the region with his party colleague Attilio Fontana, the new governor of Lombardy, who at the start of the election campaign said Italy’s migrant influx threatened to wipe out “our white race”.
Iwobi, who owns an IT company, came to Italy in the late 1970s to study in Perugia. He later moved to Spirano, where he said he found the two loves of his life: his Italian wife and the League, then known as the Northern League. He became a councillor for the party in 1995.
Iwobi, a Catholic, argues that people should travel to Italy legally, just like he did. “I came on a student visa,” he said. “During that period over 40 years ago, coming here meant needing a visa. My party is fighting to restore legal immigration.”
The League was the strongest force within a three-party rightwing coalition that won most of the votes in the elections but fell short of the 40% majority required to govern. Horse-trading between parties is now under way to come up with a coalition government.
Iwobi has played an instrumental role in driving the League’s success, having helped to create some of the party’s key policies since being appointed by its leader, Matteo Salvini, as head of its immigration and security committee in 2015.
Party goals include making it easier to deport migrants deemed to be in the country illegally, refusing to accept those without documents arriving on charity rescue ships, and developing EU-wide economic aid projects with countries of origin to stop people coming.
“Salvini appointing me as the head of immigration shows that he knows exactly what he is doing,” he said.
Like Salvini, who has called for a “mass cleaning” to rid Italy of people in the country illegally, Iwobi takes aim at the 600,000 people who have landed on its southern shores within the last four years. The highest number of asylum requests in Italy come from Nigerians.
“Anybody running away from a country because of conflict and war has to be hosted,” said Iwobi. “But anybody leaving their country for the wrong reason and travelling to others in the wrong way has to be stopped. Immigration shouldn’t cost thousands of lives at sea and neither should it cost a cent to the host country,” he said.
“I want to stress that the League isn’t against immigration as such – nobody in this world can stop people moving, it’s in the human DNA. But we are against illegal immigration.”
Iwobi’s views contradict those of Cécile Kyenge, who became Italy’s first black minister in the chamber of deputies, the lower house of parliament, in 2013 and later served as integration minister in Enrico Letta’s government.
Kyenge suffered high-profile racist attacks during the brief tenure, including having bananas thrown at her and being likened to an orangutan by a League senator, Roberto Calderoli. Iwobi criticised her policies on migrant reception, saying at the time that “we should help them at home”. He also opposed a law drafted by Kyenge that would have granted an earlier path to citizenship for children born in Italy to foreign parents.
But he insisted the party was not racist and urged foreigners worried about the recent spate of racist attacks to “stay calm”.
“Our policies are intended to bring peace and order to the nation,” he said.
Originally first published in The Guardian (UK)