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Inside The Right-Wing Stronghold That Elected Italy's First Black Senator

Voters in the northern town of Spirano helped put a hardline conservative in the senate. Only the man in question —Toni Chike Iwobi — is an immigrant from Nigeria.

Toni Iwobi and League leader Matteo Salvini
Toni Iwobi and League leader Matteo Salvini
Davide Lessi

SPIRANO — More than a week after a divisive election that handed half of the vote to anti-establishment parties, Italy is still mired in a political crisis that continues to raise serious questions about the nation's identity. Spirano, a small town northeast of Milan, is no exception.

The two big winners of the election were the populist Five Star Movement, which swept southern Italy, and the anti-immigrant League party, which won big in the north as part of a right-wing coalition. Both parties railed against immigration during the campaign which in Spirano, allowed the League to win over most of the town's 6,000 people. But that's only part of the story.

Surrounded by fields and industrial warehouses, Rome feels very distant here. Spirano has always been a League stronghold, even before current leader Matteo Salvini transformed it from a separatist party, seeking independence for northern Italy to a nationalist, xenophobic movement drawing votes across the country. Salvini's promises to put an end to illegal immigration were a key part of his appeal to voters here and throughout Italy.

But Spirano also bucked the national trend by electing the 62-year-old Toni Chike Iwobi to the Italian Senate in a landslide. Iwobi was born in Nigeria. And he'll soon become the country's first senator of African descent. He has also been a member of the League and a representative on the town council for the party since 1995, and he has deep roots here.

His own successful integration story has not softened his attitudes towards immigration.​

Iwobi arrived in Spirano as a 20-year-old student, earning a degree in accounting in nearby Treviglio before eventually getting married and settling down. "For the first few months I was hosted by another Nigerian living in Spirano," he says. "Now my whole life is here: my house, my wife, two kids and my IT business, where I employ 12 people."

Campaigning on a tough law and order platform that echoed the national party line, Iwobi's own successful integration story has not softened his attitudes towards immigration. His positions have attracted criticism from notable Black Italians including footballer Mario Balotelli. Iwobi shrugs off those accusations, noting that he's worked in the town council for 25 years and was one of the first card-carrying members of the League in Spirano.

Iwobi was the one who introduced Giovanni Malanchini, Spirano's mayor, to the League. Malanchini, who was elected to the Regional Assembly of Lombardy in the March 4 elections, has been a champion for the local dialect and holds hardline anti-immigration positions in line with those of Salvini.

"Immigrants make up 11% of Spirano's population, around 700 people, and they're all properly documented," says Malanchini. "But we don't want to host asylum seekers. I refuse to discuss it. I'd rather take care of my constituents who face eviction from their homes."

Iwobi's own views are somewhat more complex, outlined in his contributions as the League's national head of immigration and security policy since he took the position in 2015. "Italy needs to eliminate the status of humanitarian protection, a policy of subsidies for people who don't qualify for political asylum," he says. "We should only be welcoming real refugees and deporting those who don't qualify, either with bilateral agreements or by pushing them back at sea."

A League party demonstration in Milan in February — Photo: Lega - Salvini Premier

He also supports French President Emmanuel Macron"s efforts to screen asylum seekers in African countries — before they begin the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. Iwobi's views were endorsed by just under half of Spirano's voters in the elections, even though he finished third among the League's candidates in the district. For some older League voters in the town, however, he still isn't the right person for the party.

Gerri, 76, founded the first local branch of the League in Spirano. "I still voted for them but I disagree with Salvini's changes. We have nothing to do with the South," he says over a cup of coffee. "Iwobi is a good guy, but he's different from us."

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