Italy’s problem with racism goes far deeper than recent slurs against Cécile Kyenge


It seems like barely a week goes by without another story coming out of Italy about another racial slur hurled at the Mediterranean country’s first black government minister, Cécile Kyenge. Italy Flag Icon

This week’s row comes from Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Lega Nord (Northern League), the autonomist right-wing party that has in the past allied itself with Silvio Berlusconi, though it’s not part of the current ‘grand coalition’ led by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta.

Calderoli, speaking over the weekend, railed against Kyenge, arguing that her success encourages ‘illegal immigrants’ to come to Italy, that she should be a minister ‘in her own country,’ and added this gem:

“I love animals – bears and wolves, as everyone knows – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan,” Mr Calderoli said in a speech to a rally in the northern city of Treviso on Saturday.

Calderoli’s comments were unthinkably crass but, unfortunately, they are not atypical in the three months since Kyenge came to power, nor are they incredibly out of the norm for a political culture that has long treated racism with a wink and a smile, such as when Berlusconi himself described Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, as particularly ‘suntanned.’

Kyenge (pictured above with Letta), an Italian citizen who was born in Congo, came to Italy in 1983, when she set up a practice as a doctor in Modena, in the central Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.  Earlier this year, she was first elected to Italy’s Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) as a member of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Letta appointed her as the government’s minister for integration, in part due to the work Kyenge has done since founding DAWA, an association designed to promote multicultural awareness in Italy and to foster cooperation between Italy and Africa.  Prior to becoming an Italian deputy, Kyenge served as a provincial councilor in Modena for four years, and she’s a proponent of a jus soli, a law that would grant citizenship to those children of immigrants who are born in Italy.

In short, Kyenge personifies a new kind of 21st century success story for first- and second-generation Europeans in a world where globalized ties are now bound to blur ethnic, racial, national and cultural borders.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t the first time Calderoli has been accused of racism or insensitivity.  He was forced to resign as a minister in a previous Berlusconi government in 2006 after purporting to wear a t-shirt showing the printed cartoons of a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Mohammed.  (Having returned to a subsequent Berlusconi government a few years later, it was Calderoli who drafted the election law that now virtually everyone in Italy agrees is worthless).

Nor is it the first time Northern League politicians have made controversial statements about Kyenge — one of its local politicians earlier in June called for Kyenge to be raped, so she would understand how victims feel, and in April, another European Parliament member, Mario Borghezio, called her part of a ‘bonga, bonga government’ and argued that she wanted to ‘impose her tribal traditions from the Congo.’

Kyenge has accepted Calderoli’s begrudging apology, but it’s not even the only incident this week — members of the far-right Forza Nuova (New Force) party held an anti-immigration protest featuring nooses in Pescara in central Italy.

In the long run, it may well be that Kyenge’s graceful responses to unacceptably mean-spirited and racist comments convince more Italians that there’s no place for racism in Italian public discourse — she has the power to turn ugly incidents like Calderoli’s slur into what Obama himself might call a ‘teachable moment.’

But that task is made equally difficult by the integration portfolio that Kyenge holds, which means that she is responsible for policymaking on immigration and the nearly 4.5 million foreign residents who live in Italy.  Even as Kyenge tries to deflect tensions, Calderoli and other Northern League politicians may be using outbursts about Kyenge as a deliberate strategy to inject racial resentment as a potent political wedge issue.

Although migrants have been coming to Italy since the 1970s, which makes immigration to Italy a more recent phenomenon than in other European countries, about two-thirds of Italy’s current foreign residents have arrived in the past decade.  The net result is a country that hasn’t had time to develop the political or cultural institutions to cope with a very rapid influx of foreigners, let alone to develop the vocabulary of multiculturalism in a country that can be sometimes quite insular in a way that’s both profound and provincial, troubling and quaint Continue reading Italy’s problem with racism goes far deeper than recent slurs against Cécile Kyenge

Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy


In the next three months, eight sub-Saharan African countries will go to the polls to elect a new president and/or parliament, a relative blitz that will not only highlight the region’s growing, if fragile, democratic institutions, but will call attention to many unique issues facing sub-Saharan Africa: unequal and unsteady growth rates, the role of Islamic jihad and security, improving health outcomes, the rule of law and governance standards, and further development of vital infrastructure.african union

Between July 21 and September 30, voters in countries with an aggregate population of around 100 million are scheduled to cast ballots, though of course not all elections are created equal — or conducted on incredibly equal ground.  In some countries, such as Guinea and Togo, it will be a success if the elections actually take place as planned; in other countries, such as Swaziland and Cameroon, elections will be essentially a sideshow of powerlessness.  In  Zimbabwe, where longtime president Robert Mugabe (pictured above) is seeking yet another term after 33 years in power, and in Madagascar, where voters will choose a new president and legislature after a problematic 2009 coup and a four-year interim government, the vote could herald once-in-a-generation leadership transitions.


Here’s the rundown, in brief:

Togo: July 25togo

Togo, a small west African nation of 7.15 million people, is scheduled to vote for a new parliament, despite the fact that elections have been cancelled twice — first in October 2012 and again in March 2013.  There’s no guarantee that elections this month will actually go forward, either.  While the government and opposition have apparently now reached a deal to hold elections later this month, the composition of the electoral commission remains a major open issue.

Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, took office in 2005 with the support of the country’s military following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had served as Togo’s president since 1967.  Despite winning election in presidential votes in 2005 and 2010, he’s seen as somewhat of an authoritarian leader and his party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais (RPT, Rally for the Togolese People) dominates the unicameral Assemblée nationale, holding 50 out of 81 seats.  Unlike its neighbors, there’s neither a Christian nor Muslim majority in Togo — out of every two Togolese adheres to indigenous beliefs, though one-third of its residents are Muslim and one-fifth are Christian.

Continue reading Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy