Tony Iwobi beams as he stands next to a bust of Giuseppe Garibaldi in the Senate building in Rome. Like the 19th Century general, who helped found modern Italy, Iwobi has been called a “history maker”. He is Italy’s first and only black Senator.
Mr Iwobi confesses he felt “like a child on the first day at school” when he took his seat alongside the other 320 senators. He says he feels a duty, not only to his Italian constituents, but also to the continent where he was born and raised: “Anything I do today, I’m not doing for myself, but for the nation I represent and for the African black race!”
He was elected last year as part of a surge in support for the right-wing Lega (League) party, which formed a year-long coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. Now out of power, the League is still Italy’s most popular party with 33% in the latest polls. It is known for its tough stance on migration.
Critics say Mr Iwobi, the party’s immigration spokesman, is being used as a cover for its “racist views”. They point to an incident in 2013 when a Lega Senator referred to Italy’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, as “an orang-utan”.
Mr Iwobi admits his colleague was “wrong” but rejects claims he is being used by his party: “Let them go search my story,” he says. “Nobody is using me. I think with my own brain.”
‘I stand with Salvini’
The Nigerian immigrant arrived in Italy on a student visa in 1977. His plan was to return home after his studies, but that changed after he met an Italian woman, now his wife.
He joined his party, then known as the Northern League, in 1993, attracted by its push for federalism. For 20 years he served as a local councillor in the northern province of Bergamo.
In his office, across the street from the Senate building, hangs a T-shirt bearing the slogan “I stand with Salvini” – a sign of his support for his party’s leader, Matteo Salvini.
When in government, Mr Salvini famously turned away migrant boats, leaving hundreds stranded on the Mediterranean Sea last summer. But Mr Iwobi insists the League is not anti-immigration.
“We are for legal migration. Anybody who comes through the right channel in the legal way is highly welcomed. We are for refugees, but we are against illegal immigration and the death tunnel,” explains Mr Iwobi, referring to the thousands of immigrants who have died trying to reach Europe. “It’s against human dignity.”
Like his party leader, Mr Iwobi sees the arrival of hundreds of thousands of African migrants, who are crossing the desert and sea to land in Italy, as the result of a failed migration policy.
‘Make Africa great’
His view is shared by another black Italian, Paolo Diop. Now 30, Mr Diop arrived in Italy from Senegal when he was two.
We meet on the bank of the River Tiber in Rome where far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) is holding its annual festival. Mr Diop is immigration spokesman for the party, which has roots in Italy’s old fascist movement.
“I don’t think it’s a fascist party,” says Mr Diop. “It’s a party with strong nationalist roots, but that does not mean it is racist. It’s party that wants to protect the national identity.
“I’m the son of immigrants who arrived in Italy legally at a time when Italy’s economy was growing. Now it no longer is, so we can no longer welcome economic migrants.”
Mr Diop stands out, thanks in part to his tall frame but also his skin colour – he’s the only black party member at the festival.
Around us, stalls sell T-shirts bearing the slogans “patriot” and “turn back the boats”, as well as posters and books that nod to the party’s fascist roots. Among the star speakers are the Pan-Africanist Kémi Séba and the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who has warned against a “multi-coloured” society.
Mr Diop says he has never experienced discrimination, but in February 2018, in Macerata, the town where he lives, fellow right-wing activist Luca Traini shot and injured six African migrants.
Mr Diop knew Traini, who is currently serving a 12-year-jail term.
“We were in the same political circles. He was a good lad. I never had any problems with him. I would never want to inspire someone who carries out such acts.
“Macerata is a left-wing town and that left-wing politics has created hatred among the citizens because they’re no longer free to walk down the street because migrants are dealing drugs and hassling girls and people feel very threatened.”
Mr Diop says African migrants in Italy should learn a trade then go home and “make Africa great”.
But so far that message is not getting through.
Outside Milan Central Station I spot a group of around 50 Africans – mostly young men. Some are refugees, some are economic migrants. Others have overstayed their visa.
They’re all homeless and make a living by braiding hair, dealing drugs, begging or selling phone cards. From time to time, police come and make arrests.
Musician Tommy Kuti believes right-politicians are exploiting scenes like this. “They like that situation of chaos,” he says, “to scare Italian people and make it right for them to push discriminatory laws.”
Like Senator Iwobi, Mr Kuti was born in Nigeria – he moved to Italy with his parents as a baby. Now a successful rapper, his music explores identity and politics and is critical of the League.
“I think Toni Iwobi is something that really works against migrants in Italy in a moment when we need people to fight for us to get us more rights.”
Mr Kuti says the League’s time in office bred a climate of hostility to foreigners: “It was a terrible year. I’m happy it ended. I could really feel the tension in the street.
“You’d have people say to your face: ‘I’m down with Salvini’, or there is this famous line that every migrant in Italy gets 35 euros. Then you’ll hear people on the street saying: ‘I can’t believe I pay 35 euros every day to you.'”
He thinks white Italians believe “every black person is a migrant”.
‘Citizenship by blood not soil’
For Angelica Pesarini, the roots of attitudes to race in Italy are deep. She teaches a course in Black Italia at New York University in Florence.
“Italy’s colonial past – especially the fascist regime – has always been very connected to ideas of race and whiteness and this is still visible nowadays. Because to be Italian is to be white,” she explains.
Though born in Italy, Dr Pesarini’s family is from Eritrea and Somalia, a connection dating back to Italy’s colonial adventure in the Horn of Africa.
People from Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea grew up learning Italian and absorbing the culture. Those who moved to Italy were shocked to discover how little Italians knew about them. And even today, many Italians are ignorant about their country’s colonial past, says Dr Pesarini.
“I feel I have to justify my Italian-ness a lot… People assume I cannot be Italian. And so even when people ask me: ”Where are you from?’ I say: ‘I’m from Rome’. They ask: ‘No, but where are you really from?’ I then realised how race and colonialism and whiteness are all connected to Italian identity today.”
Dr Pesarini sees a legacy of these ideas in Italy’s laws on citizenship, which she says is “transmitted by blood, not soil”.
Voluntary repatriation to Africa
Activists want the government to make it easier for second-generation immigrants, those born and raised in Italy, to claim Italian citizenship. Their biggest opponents are Paolo Diop’s Brothers of Italy and Senator Iwobi’s party, the League.
Mr Iwobi dismisses activists’ concerns, claiming that those who are denied Italian citizenship have not followed the regulations.
As for those illegal immigrants still living in Italy, Senator Iwobi wants the government to help them gain new skills to allow for what he calls “voluntary repatriation”.
Rapper Tommy Kuti is dismissive of the senator’s ideas: “I think if he’d rather migrants stay in Africa, he should set a good example and take his ass back to Africa.”
Mr Iwobi, however, sees his proposal – which is part of a bill that he plans to introduce in the Senate – as a way to protect the “dignity” of African people.
“Europe has to help Africa develop herself – investing in Africa, creating jobs for Africa. Europe has to help Africa so young guys are not forced to leave. It should be a choice.”
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