Italy has elected the first black senator in its history, it was announced on Tuesday, and he belongs to the anti-immigration League.
Toni Iwobi, of Spirano in Lombardy, announced “with great emotion” on his Facebook page that he had been elected to the Senate in Italy’s general election.
“After more than 25 years of fighting as part of the League’s big family, I’m about to start another great adventure,” Iwobi wrote, going on to thank leader Matteo Salvini and his other fellow party members.
“I’m ready, friends,” Iwobi said.
Iwobi, 62, was born in Nigeria and came to Italy on a student visa some 40 years ago, before going on to marry an Italian woman and start his own IT company here.
Before running for senator he represented the League as a municipal councillor in Spirano back in the 1990s, and more recently headed Salvini’s national committee on immigration.
In that capacity, he helped write the League’s anti-migration platform, in which it proposed among other things to make it easier to deport migrants, to use economic incentives to get countries to agree to repatriate their nationals from Italy, to refuse to take in migrants rescued by NGOs from the Mediterranean, to renegotiate EU agreements that oblige Italy to house migrants that arrive here while their application to stay is processed, to threaten withdrawal of the right to seek asylum or benefits if migrants commit a crime or break the rules of the reception centre where they’re housed, and to stiffen existing requirements for the children of immigrants applying for citizenship to include a test on Italian “language, culture and traditions”.
While his positions may seem surprising given his own experience, Iwobi says that he does not oppose immigrants who – like himself – come to Italy legally and seek to integrate; instead, he says, his problem is with what he calls “the clandestine invasion”: people who seek to stay in Italy illegally.
Campaigning with the slogan “Stop Invasion”, Iwobi says his concern isn’t just for Italians but for migrants, who the League claims it prefers to help “in their own home” rather than in Italy – though its “Italians First” programme contains few proposals for international development aid.
Despite being one of very few black members of the League, whose leader has made many inflammatory remarks about non-Italians and Muslims, Iwobi insists that the party isn’t racist. “Racism means thinking yourself better than others, while in the movement I find many firm positions, but also a lot of respect,” he told the Corriere della Sera.
He was quick to defend fellow party member Attilio Fontana, who caused outrage during the campaign by saying that immigration to Italy threatened the survival of “our white race”.
“Where’s the problem,” Iwobi asked, claiming that Fontana had simply been referring to Italian “culture”.
Fontana went on to win his campaign to become president of Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region, by a margin of 20 percent.
Iwobi has certainly received warm words from Salvini, who told Rai News he thought Iwobi “would do more for legal immigrants in one month than Kyenge did in her entire life”. He was referring to Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first and only black government minister to date, who served as minister of integration in the previous centre-left government.
One of only a handful of black Italians to occupy a prominent position in national politics, she was subjected to a torrent of racist abuse from members of the public and fellow politicians, including being compared to an orangutan by one of the League’s leading senators.
The same senator, Roberto Calderoli, ran alongside Iwobi in Bergamo in this latest election. Calderoli won his race and is already being touted as a possible speaker of the upper house.
Responding to news of Iwobi’s election on Tuesday, Salvini declared: “Racism is only on the left”.