In conversation with Marco Aime,
Igiaba Scego and Nedeesha Uyangoda
by Davide Coppo
This text is a small miscellany of episodes, dotted around time and space, but nevertheless concentrated in southern Europe. Only at some points is the thread binding them together clearly visible. That thread is the colonialism and racism that in 2021 continue to stain the institutions and European society.
1 – It’s July 2013. Roberto Calderoli, Italian senator of the Lega political party, is on a stage in Treviglio, in the province of Milan. He’s holding a rally at the festival of the local party branch, at this point still called Lega Nord. Roberto Calderoli is vice-president of the Senate. He utters a sentence, full of grammatical errors. Written down, word for word, this is how it reads: “Every so often when I’m fiddling with the Internet, I open ‘Italian government’ and what the fuck comes out? Kyenge. I’m gobsmacked. I love animals too, for heaven’s sake. I’ve had tigers, bears, monkeys and all the rest. Wolves I’ve had too. But when I see – I don’t say that – when I see the features of an orangutan coming out I still am…” At the time, Kashetu Kyenge, known as Cécile, was Minister for Integration in the Letta government. Born in Congo, she studied medicine in Rome and ophthalmology in Modena. She got Italian citizenship in 1994 and was elected to the Chamber for the first time in February that same year, with the Democratic Party.
2 – Three months earlier, on 29 April 2013, Mario Borghezio, MEP again with Lega Nord, declared in a radio programme: “This is the government of Bonga Bonga.” Then: “Kyenge wants to impose her tribal traditions on us”. And he continued: “Africans belong to a very different race from our own. They haven’t produced any great geniuses as anyone can see from a Mickey Mouse encyclopaedia.”
3 – In 2020, in Belgium there were still over 20 statues celebrating Leopold II, king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909 and of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, namely, Belgium’s colonial enterprise in Africa. The Congo Free State was an anomaly, even for the European colonial empires, in both political and administrative terms: it was neither a colonial state, nor an actual state at all, but Leopold’s private possession. There was a sole aim: to get as much rubber out of it as possible. “It was a hecatomb, a slaughter on a staggering scale,” writes David van Reybrouck in the book Congo. Exploitation of the rubber destroyed the indigenous balance, farming and trade.
4 – “The Free State administration contained out-and-out racists and sadists. Torture, abuses of power, and massacres occurred. A person like René de Permentier, an officer in the Force Publique, reveled in completely pointless bloodbaths. He had the brousse (jungle brush) cleared around his house so that he could shoot at passers-by from his veranda.” (David van Reybrouck, Congo).
5 – Romelu Lukaku is one of Belgium’s best-ever strikers. After several years in England, he was bought by Inter in 2019. Born in Antwerp of Congolese parents, in the 1990s his father Roger was picked to play for Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo and once the Congo Free State owned by Leopold II. “When things were going well,” wrote Lukaku in a letter to The Players Tribune website in 2018, on the subject of the Belgian media, “I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”
6 – On Friday 5 December 2019, on the eve of the Serie A match between Inter and Rome, the Corriere dello Sport, one of Italy’s most popular sports newspapers, published a front page with two large photographs of Lukaku and Smalling, former Manchester United teammates and then on the opposing teams that would be playing against each other a few hours later. Smalling is British, of Jamaican origins by his father. The headline between the two photographs of the footballers was: “Black Friday”.
7 – More football: during the European Cup in 2012, the biggest-selling newspaper in Italy, La Gazzetta dello Sport, published a comic strip (by Valerio Marini) referring to the match that Italy won against England. It portrays Italian striker Mario Balotelli, of Ghanaian origins, as a gorilla climbing up Big Ben. The day after, the newspaper made an apology “if someone found it offensive”. Nevertheless, it declared the accusations of racism as coming from “some ill minds”, deeming them “offensive, instrumental and absurd”.
8 – In 2013, announcing that he was heading off to the San Siro stadium at the end of a rally in support of the then centre-right candidate for the Lombardy regional government, Paolo Berlusconi, vice-chairman of Milan and brother of Silvio, said: “And now let’s go and watch the little Negro of the family”. He was referring to Mario Balotelli, Italian former Milan striker bought by Manchester City in January of that same year.
9 – In Fermo, in July 2016, Amedeo Mancini, aged 35, diehard Fermana supporter, killed Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, aged 36, Nigerian asylum seeker. Chidi had left Nigeria with his partner Chinyere to escape the Salafi terrorist group Boko Haram. They had crossed Libya and got on a boat headed to Sicily. On the way across the woman was beaten. She was pregnant and lost the baby. Mancini would be sentenced to 4 years for manslaughter; the woman was granted compensation of 5,000 euros.
10 – “At the start of mass immigration there was a disjointed reaction in Europe. We might not even be able to call it racist, in the sense that there was an aversion towards whoever could be defined as foreign. Then there was a more elaborate stage, conducted initially (in Italy) by the Lega and the new Right, when the concept of race was replaced with that of culture. But it was culture thought of in racial terms, an inherited and unmovable given, very close to the conception of race. So, culture became the new line of separation between us and the others. Expressions such as culture clash and clash of civilizations emerged. More recently though, it seems that even this has been abandoned and that we’ve gone back to plain hate against foreigners. They’re no longer drawing up a model based on culture. However false it may have been, at least there was some thought behind it” (in conversation with Marco Aime, author of Classificare, separare, escludere. Razzismi e identità, 2020).
11 – On 3 February 2018 in Macerata in the Marche region, a 28-year-old man shot several rounds of a pistol against a series of non-white people. He didn’t kill anyone but injured six. A copy of Mein Kampf and a flag with the Celtic cross were found in his home. The year before, the man, Luca Traini, had stood with Lega Nord at the municipal elections in Corridonia, a village in the province of Macerata.
12 – Matteo Salvini, Lega prime minister candidate, commented on the episode: “It is clear and obvious that out of control immigration, an invasion like the one organized, promoted and financed in recent years, leads to social conflict”.
13 – On 1 August 2019 Lega leader Matteo Salvini wrote probably one of the most explicitly racist tweets by a leading politician since the Second World War: “But is it normal for a gypsy woman in Milan to say: ‘Salvini should be shot in the head?’ Be good, dirty gypsy, be good, for the bulldozer is arriving soon”.
14 – “Today there’s not much thought going into these ideas. The level of thinking is low, very very low: There’s a disjointed anger, a blanket hatred which associates gypsies, Jews, gays, whoever is presumably different. There’s no theorizing the different, it’s simply an aversion for no particular reason. Which is even more dangerous” (in conversation with Marco Aime).
15 – On 15 March 2019, in New Zealand, first at the Al Noor mosque and then the Islamic Centre in Linwood, another 28 year old, Australian Brenton Harris Tarrant, indiscriminately shot hundreds of Muslim worshippers. He killed 51 people and injured 49. The first 17 minutes of the shooting were streamed directly on Facebook, recorded by the camera he’d put on his helmet. Tarrant was armed with two semi-automatic rifles, two pump-action shotguns and a lever-action rifle. On the weapons and loaders, he wrote the names and surnames of historic battles between Christians and Muslims and various people who’d inspired him. Including Luca Traini.
16 – In the days running up to the vote to elect the new mayor of Milan in 2021, a video reportage was broadcast on the Italian Fanpage website. In it some Fratelli d’Italia candidates for the municipal council call each other “comrades” and greet each other with the Fascist salute “boia chi molla” (death to traitors). According to 2021 surveys, nationally Fratelli d’Italia is the leading party in Italy.
17 – There’s no need to go hunting out those explicitly declaring their nostalgia for fascism. In the same period, French president Emmanuel Macron declared that the “official history of Algeria has been rewritten, not based on truths, but based on hatred against France”. Moreover: “The construction of Algeria as a nation is a phenomenon to watch. Was there an Algerian nation before French colonization? That is the question”.
18 – “We’re breathing a different air, and you can see it all over Europe. The idea of democracy, which was a consolidated, positive value that we took for granted, is no longer the same for everyone. This can be said mostly for the young generations who have lost the historical memory of what happened in the past” (in conversation with Marco Aime).
19 – “In continental Europe we tend to almost exclusively speak of colonialism in reference to Africa, because it was almost completely colonized. However, I for example was born in a country [Sri Lanka] that experienced Portuguese followed by Dutch and British rules. I think that if we deal with racism as a global phenomenon, we should have a similar approach to European colonization, which affected nearly 80% of the world.” (in conversation with Nadeesha Uyangoda, author of L’unica persona nera nella stanza, 2020).
20 – In January 2020, the daily newspaper Avvenire published a video filmed with a smartphone in a migrant camp in Libya. These videos are produced by the slave traders, usually Libyans, and sent to the victims’ relatives to extort money. In the film, you can see an Eritrean woman tied by the ankles and hanging head down while being beaten with a stick. According to the newspaper’s estimates, the amount requested for prisoners in the Horn of Africa is around 12,500 euros. Other prisoners, for example from Bangladesh, “cost” less: they usually have relatives with fewer financial resources.
21 – “The entanglement is between an old fascist idea and localist sovereignisms. There’s no longer an aspiration towards a common right. Instead, we see paradoxes such as Matteo Salvini’s satisfaction at his friendship with Orbán, while it’s Hungary that opposes Italy the most in Europe. It’s a very different agglomeration from the classic right wing, but it’s also different from the nouvelle droite of the Génération Identitaire. The idea isn’t to expand a thought anymore but instead to root each one firmly in its own little corner” (in conversation with Marco Aime).
22 – On 16 July 2021, the Italian Chamber again approved funding for the so-called “Libyan coastguard” and detention centres in the African country. A Democratic Party amendment was approved asking the government to verify if the same mission can, from next year, be entrusted to Europe in order to keep the same funding but release Italy from direct responsibility. A few days before, the Sea Watch NGO had published a video showing a boat from the so-called coastguard shoot against a boat of migrants. Libya does not recognize the Geneva Refugee Convention signed in 1951.
23 – “This racism is difficult to fight because it’s not explicitly based on the concept of race, which might be easy to counter with the tools that science has given us. It’s mixed up with a European economic crisis, the disappearance of citizens’ past securities, the welfare state, and therefore increasing uncertainties. Hence, it’s a many-sided racism, in which social problems are propelled against foreigners, entangled with historically left-wing topics which are however channelled in that direction” (in conversation with Marco Aime).
24 – “Fascism copied a lot from liberal Italy. The same propaganda used in the Libyan war reappeared later with the invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s. There are lines of history that don’t belong to a single period. It’s wrong to consider colonialism as only linked to fascism” (in conversation with Igiaba Scego, writer, editor with Chiara Piaggio of Africana. Raccontare il Conteinente al di là degli stereotipi, 2021).
25 – Italy occupied Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in 1912, under the government led by Giovanni Giolitti. To justify the war, in his memoirs Giolitti wrote that he couldn’t let the southern Mediterranean become “an Anglo-French condominium”. It was a long and complex war, and Libya never achieved pacification. In the following years attempts were made to dampen the Libyan war (supported by Turkey) through the work of generals Badoglio and Graziani. They worried little about the consequences on the civilian victims. Instead, they built various concentration camps for the population of the Jebel Akhdar uplands, whose aim was to fight the resistance guided by Libyan hero Omar al-Mukhtar. From 1935 to 1936 Rodolfo Graziani was commander of the military operations against Abyssinia, making a name for himself here for his use of illegal mustard gases, massacres and retaliations. The most famous were the Debre Libanos massacre, in which over 1,000 Ethiopians were executed, most of whom monks; and the Addis Ababa massacre, following a failed attempt against Graziani’s life. Angelo Del Boca, in this case, estimates the number of the dead at around 3,000, over three days of vendetta and violence.
26 – In August 2012, a monument to author of war crimes and massacres Rodolfo Graziani was unveiled in Affile in the province of Rome. The town mayor, Ercole Viri, was condemned in 2017 to eight months’ imprisonment for fascism apology. The sentence was quashed in 2020 by the Court of Cassation.
27 – “There’s no place for Africa in Italy,” shouted Matteo Salvini in a television programme on 9 January 2017. He added that it’s legitimate to welcome “Syrians and Iraqis” who are escaping the war. Instead, everyone else should “go home to rebuild their country”.
28 – In the night between 30 and 31 January 2017, in around 100 towns around Italy, Casa Pound neofascists hung banners with the same slogan: “No respect for people escaping war abandoning parents, wives and children”. In Reggio Calabria an anonymous protestor added the words: “Like the Duce”.
29 – “Racism has made a volte-face. While it had always been either supremacist or based on the idea of superiority over the other, today racists are crybabies, victims: ‘they’re stealing our jobs’, ‘they give them a house first’, as if ‘they’ were the strong ones, the winners. Hence, it’s a racism that no longer posits superiority: these days no one is theorizing that foreigners are inferior to us, but that they are different and this is enough to make them dangerous (in conversation with Marco Aime).
30 – “All journalists agree in finding the sky of Africa to be a ‘light blue’, distance ‘vague’ and the sunsets ‘made of purple and gold’” (Ennio Flaiano, Aethiopia. Appunti per una canzonetta).