Elected on a promise to stop the “invasion” of immigration, in many ways Toni Iwobi is an archetypal politician of Italy’s far-right League party — except he is black.
Originally from Nigeria, Iwobi made waves earlier this week when he became Italy’s first ever black senator, bagging the Bergamo-Brescia seat after taking part in a campaign that demonised the more than 690,000 people who have landed on Italy’s shores since 2013.
His anti-immigrant rhetoric saw him blasted by none other than Italian international footballer Mario Balotelli, who on Wednesday called Iwobi a “disgrace”.
Balotelli, who was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents but adopted by an Italian family, wrote on Instagram: “Maybe I’m blind or maybe they haven’t told him that he’s black yet.”
Like thousands of other people born in Italy to foreign parents, Balotelli had to apply for citizenship after he turned 18 and Iwobi has opposed proposals which would make that process easier in the future.
“Why should the children of foreigners become Italian just like that? It’s not right,” Iwobi was quoted as saying in right-wing newspaper Il Giornale.
The proposed reforms were rejected in the Senate in December.
If Balotelli was shocked by Iwobi’s anti-migrant rhetoric, he shouldn’t have been — the 62-year-old has been an activist for the League, previously known as the Northern League, for a quarter of a century.
– ‘No-one could get in’ –
Born in Gusau in northern Nigeria in April 1955, Iwobi is one of 11 siblings in a Roman Catholic family.
He came to Italy on a student visa in 1976, and worked as a plumber, a bin man and in construction while gaining degrees in accounting and computer science, until his diplomas opened the door to more white collar work.
“Back then no-one could get in the country without the right papers. It’s not like that anymore,” he said in a recent interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano.
Iwobi currently runs an IT security and services company in Spirano, where he has lived for the majority of his 42 years in the country.
In 1993 Iwobi was made city councillor for the League in Spirano, a time when the party concentrated its ire on the “thieving” government in Rome and the poorer south, which it considered a drain on the economy.
But since Matteo Salvini took control of the party in wake of electoral disaster in 2013, and moved the party towards a more traditional far-right nationalism, Iwobi has made a much bigger name for himself.
– ‘Stockholm syndrome’ –
In October 2014 Iwobi was chosen by Salvini to head the party’s new Federal Department of Security and Immigration, leading the drafting of its “General Immigration Guidelines”.
“Borders exist and they should be respected. We should help Nigerians in their own country,” he said in an interview with rightwing daily Il Giornale.
Iwobi has repeatedly insisted that the League is not a racist party, that both he and his party are in favour of legal immigration and that it will support the five million legally resident foreigners living in Italy.
That’s despite incidents involving party colleagues like former Senate vice-president Roberto Calderoli, who once compared former integration minister Cecile Kyenge — Italy’s first Afro-Italian minister — to an orangutan.
In another outrage, former mayor of Treviso Giancarlo Gentilini once said that immigrants “should be dressed like hares” so he could aim his rifle better.
When asked about the incidents by Il Fatto Quotidiano, Iwobi said “we can’t look back at the past”.
In January, Iwobi even stepped in to defend League compatriot Attilio Fontana, who was elected president of Lombardy in a landslide over the weekend, after he said the “white race” and western culture was in danger of extinction.
“Where is the problem?” Iwobi asked.
“My friend Attilio Fontana simply asked for respect for the host culture and that the traditions of a people are preserved,” he insisted.
Balotelli is not the only prominent Italian to criticise Iwobi’s attitude to African migrants. Jean-Leonard Touadi, a Congolese-born MP with the centre-left Democratic Party, said that Iwobi was suffering from “Stockholm syndrome”.
“He acts as a mouthpiece for the anti-African proclamations of his own jailers,” he said.
“I’d like to remind Iwobi that illegal immigrants have a face, a history, a destiny of suffering that he can’t ignore.”