Italian national footballer Mario Balotelli has harshly criticised the country’s first Black senator, Toni Chike Iwobi, who was elected on Sunday on the platform of the anti-immigration League (formerly known as Northern League) party.
“Maybe I’m blind or perhaps they have not told him yet that he is Black. But shame!!!” the footballer posted on his Instagram page, which has over 6 million followers.
The Italian striker of Ghanaian origin, who plies his professional trade for Nice, published his post on Instagram on Tuesday. Accompanying the text was a photo of the 62-year-old Iwobi and the League leader Matteo Salvini, both raising clenched fists and wearing T-shirts saying “Stop Invasion” at an anti-immigration rally.
Reacting to the criticism of Balotelli, Iwobi said: “I prefer to ignore it right now. I do not care what he writes, I have enough of the controversy: I want to think about my territory and the new task that they have entrusted to me.”
While Iwobi has refused to join issues with Balotelli, his party leader has been less diplomatic. Salvini’s reply is dry: “Balotelli, I do not like you on the pitch and I like you even less outside the field”.
While Iwobi is the first Black member of the upper house of parliament, there have been two Black members of the lower Chamber of Deputies: Jean-Leonard Touadi from Senegal and the DR Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge — both of the centre-left PD party. Kyenge served as minister of integration in the previous government.
Iwobi’s feat and Black ambivalence
How to react to Iwobi’s election has proved problematic for Africans in Europe. Normally, Black people have always enthusiastically welcomed the election of one of their own to important political positions as it promises them representation in government.
However, reactions to the election of the Nigerian-born Iwobi as senator has elicited mixed reactions, ranging from indifference to scorn.
The reason for the ambivalence is the party on which the African politician, who has been a member of the League for 25 years, achieved his feat. Iwobi used the slogan #StopInvasione (“Stop Invasion”) during his campaign and claims the League would help people “in their own home country” rather than in Italy.
While Iwobi claims that racism only exists among the Left, leading members of the xenophobic League are known to hold racist views about Black people.
Roberto Calderoli, a leading member of the League, caused outrage last year when he said Kyenge, Italy’s first Black minister, reminded him of an orang-utan.
In 2013, Kyenge’s appointment set off a storm of hostile reactions from those who deemed her membership of the Italian cabinet an attempt to destroy the country’s “national identity”.
The League’s MP Mario Borghezio had set the ball rolling in May 2013 by claiming that Kyenge would impose “tribal conditions” on Italy and help form a “bongo-bongo” administration. Africans, he added for good measure, had “not produced great genes”.
A Milan court later ordered Borghezio to pay Kyenge, a medical doctor, 50,000 euros for making repeated slurs against her.
It was a tough reception for the Congolese-born minister who moved to Italy to work as a home help while she trained to become an ophthalmologist, marrying an Italian man and joining local politics to push for greater rights for immigrants before winning a seat in parliament in February 2013.
Several partisans of the League have also been involved in violent attacks on Africans in Italy. In February, a member of the far-right party who once ran on its platform at a communal election, opened fire on African migrants in the city of Macerata, wounding six before he was captured, in what police said was a racially motivated attack.
In December 2011, Gianluca Casseri, 50, who was described as a right-wing extremist, killed two street sellers from Senegal and wounded three other people in a racially-motivated shooting spree in Florence before committing suicide.
The policy positions and utterances of the League’s leaders make it untenable that an African can be a member of the openly xenophobic party not to talk of representing it in parliament.