Italy’s Only Black MP Is Tangled in In-Laws’ Migrant Exploitation Scandal

Aboubakar Soumahoro’s case has become a flashpoint for the right wing.

By , a historian and the Europe editor of Jacobin magazine.
Italian MP Aboubakar Soumahoro casts his ballot for the new president of the Chamber of Deputies in Rome.
Italian MP Aboubakar Soumahoro casts his ballot for the new president of the Chamber of Deputies in Rome.
Italian MP Aboubakar Soumahoro casts his ballot for the new president of the Chamber of Deputies in Rome on Oct. 14, 2022. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

When Italy’s new parliament met on Oct. 13, its only Black member was wearing rubber boots. One leading daily said that Aboubakar Soumahoro wanted to protect his suit trousers from the rain pounding the Roman cobblestones. But the former labor activist was wearing galoshes to send a message: He was an MP now but hadn’t forgotten the laborers toiling in the fields around Italy. If these workers—40 percent of them migrants—were often invisible, his boots symbolized their arrival in the nation’s institutions.

Born in Ivory Coast in 1980, Soumahoro has made a considerable impact in his adoptive homeland since arriving in Aversa, north of Naples, at 19 years old. He spent the early 2000s traveling the country in search of casual work, manning gas station pumps or laying bricks. In his book, Humanity in Revolt, he recounts how he and 14 roommates journeyed to muster points where hundreds of migrants “accept[ed] any job, on any conditions.” But Soumahoro also looked for ways out: He began his studies and, in 2005, started organizing in his workplace. In 2010—the year he finished his sociology degree—his union joined the new USB labor federation, of which he was soon a major national leader.

Soumahoro had also begun to enter the public eye. He gained special fame after the June 2018 appointment of hard-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini—and, the following day, the murder of USB union activist Soumayla Sacko. Through his eloquent responses, he earned magazine cover spreads and, on May 1, 2019, a meeting with Pope Francis. The following year, he left the USB to create a separate Farmhands’ League.

When Italy’s new parliament met on Oct. 13, its only Black member was wearing rubber boots. One leading daily said that Aboubakar Soumahoro wanted to protect his suit trousers from the rain pounding the Roman cobblestones. But the former labor activist was wearing galoshes to send a message: He was an MP now but hadn’t forgotten the laborers toiling in the fields around Italy. If these workers—40 percent of them migrants—were often invisible, his boots symbolized their arrival in the nation’s institutions.

Born in Ivory Coast in 1980, Soumahoro has made a considerable impact in his adoptive homeland since arriving in Aversa, north of Naples, at 19 years old. He spent the early 2000s traveling the country in search of casual work, manning gas station pumps or laying bricks. In his book, Humanity in Revolt, he recounts how he and 14 roommates journeyed to muster points where hundreds of migrants “accept[ed] any job, on any conditions.” But Soumahoro also looked for ways out: He began his studies and, in 2005, started organizing in his workplace. In 2010—the year he finished his sociology degree—his union joined the new USB labor federation, of which he was soon a major national leader.

Soumahoro had also begun to enter the public eye. He gained special fame after the June 2018 appointment of hard-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini—and, the following day, the murder of USB union activist Soumayla Sacko. Through his eloquent responses, he earned magazine cover spreads and, on May 1, 2019, a meeting with Pope Francis. The following year, he left the USB to create a separate Farmhands’ League.

The union man also entered politics. Elected to parliament in fall 2022, Soumahoro sparred directly with the new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. She even had to apologize in parliament for addressing him with the informal tu—a vestige of colonial racism, Soumahoro claimed, as she treated him as a subordinate rather than as a fellow legislator. In November, as her government rejected the Humanity 1 migrant-rescue ship, Soumahoro boarded in solidarity with its passengers.

This may sound like a moving tale of a lone Black activist upending political norms—and for many supporters, that is indeed Soumahoro’s story. Yet recent revelations have muddied the waters. On Nov. 17, La Repubblica reported a scandal over two cooperatives run by Soumahoro’s mother-in-law, Marie Terese Mukamitsindo, which have received public funds to provide services to migrants in the Agro Pontino farming country south of Rome. Carabinieri in Latina are investigating claims that 26 workers went up to two years without pay, were housed without water and electricity, and made to sign fake invoices. In December, Soumahoro’s wife Liliane Murekatete — previously a board member of one co-op — came under investigation, but the MP himself has not. Yet Soumahoro immediately faced political pressure: If he’s such a defender of migrant workers, why hadn’t he stopped this?

Soumahoro’s efforts to justify his conduct have often jarred with his previous defiant challenges to business interests. Quizzed on La7 debate program Piazzapulita on Nov. 24, Soumahoro claimed he hadn’t known about the co-ops before meeting Murekatete in 2018—insisting she assured him that the nonpayment of workers was due to holdups in promised public funding. Yet doubts were also raised over his own behavior. How could he afford to buy a house before he became an MP? Was he always just a media bubble, someone who took selfies with workers instead of helping them? Asked on Piazzapulita about photos of Murekatete wearing designer clothes, he ventured that there was a “right to elegance, to fashion”—a claim widely lampooned on social media. Others emphasized that many of the images of luxury items predated Murekatete’s first meeting with Soumahoro.

The Ivory Coast-born trade unionist had in recent years appeared as both a new face in front-line politics and as a figure who harkened back to Italy’s great labor traditions. But right-wing press today has gleefully proclaimed him to be just another opportunist on the make, gullibly cheered on by leftists desperate for a hero. Such allies have been quick to wash their hands of him. In particular, leaders of the Greens and Left Alliance who ran him for parliament stand accused of ignoring earlier murmurings of wrongdoing—including from a cleric active in a migrant “ghetto” in Foggia province who had warned that Soumahoro’s support for migrants was more “virtual” than real. On Nov. 24, the MP suspended himself from the Green-Left parliamentary group — then quit entirely this Jan. 9, citing its lack of solidarity with him.

This affair has been steeped in a vocabulary familiar to Italian politics. There’s been a fresh awakening of giustizialismo, which puts its faith in the justice system to haul politicians into the dock and bring them to account. This idea took flight in the 1990s corruption scandal known as Bribesville. Back then, the Socialist and Christian Democracy parties were torn to shreds by activist magistrates who exposed the politicians lining their pockets at the public expense. Today, media echo the same idea in the so-called Soumahoro case: He may speak of uplifting the poor, but the police investigation brings at least an association with labor exploitation—and hypocrisy.

But relying on the courts to expose politicians’ misdeeds has another side. This is what Italians call garantismo, a competing creed that emphasizes due judicial process before any political judgment can be made. Soumahoro’s insistence that he is not subject to criminal charges often draws on this idea. Yet this formal assertion of innocence often skirts around the more political question of whether he has really lived up to his principles. This is, sadly, a well-known playbook in Italian politics, reaching its height during former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s tenure. Even after multiple convictions, allies insisted that there was some remaining pretext or appeal that would clear his name. In Berlusconi’s case, giustizialismo and garantismo were often fused—the media outlets that most defended the tycoon’s innocence were happy to whip up scandals around his political rivals.

After pressure on Meloni’s government in mid-November following a diplomatic row with France over the reception of migrant-rescue boats, the scandal around Soumahoro dominated headlines. I spoke to Giulia, an activist involved in a migrant help desk in Campobello, Sicily. (She chose not to reveal her surname.) She told me that after the hiatus brought by COVID and the war in Ukraine, the demonization of migration is again topping the political agenda. “It’s like we’ve been catapulted back in time. It becomes a bar-room discussion about whether it’s legitimate that you work in migrant reception at all.” Right-wing outlets such as Libero and Il Giornale have used the affair to back up the narrative of a leftist-promoted “migrant business” that imports people in order to exploit them—a line used to discredit the entire idea that refugees need help.

Soumahoro, who ignored repeated requests for comment on this article, has stuck to the line that he bears no criminal responsibility and cannot answer for his relatives. In a Facebook post on Nov. 20, he cast himself as the victim of a concerted political attack. The video begins with him choked with tears, his clasped fingers held out toward the camera: “Tell me what I’ve done. My whole life, I’ve been fighting for people’s rights.” But within a minute of the video starting, the tone flips from tearful to belligerent: “You are trying to destroy me. You’re afraid of my ideas; you’re afraid of those who fight. You think you’ll bury me, but you won’t. … I’m fighting for the people you’ve abandoned.”

Soumahoro did not specify who had orchestrated his downfall. But most damningly, the core accusations have come not from government mouthpieces but from Soumaila Sambare and Alfa Berry, former allies in the Farmhands’ League. On Nov. 24, La Repubblica published a letter in which they alleged that most of the 250,000 euros raised by the group during the pandemic remains unaccounted for, and they claimed that Soumahoro has not been transparent. Speaking to Striscia la Notizia, a satirical take on the news on Berlusconi’s Canale 5 channel, Sambare said he even lent Soumahoro his rubber boots—and that he needed them back so he could go to work, not just attend photo-ops in parliament.

Many former allies have expressed feelings of betrayal. Diego Bianchi is presenter of Propaganda Live, a TV show that has often hosted Soumahoro. On the Nov. 25 broadcast, he insisted that rather than “being embarrassed” by the affair, those who had shared his battles were the “most pissed off.” But Bianchi also mentioned, almost sotto voce, the “furious onslaught” of attacks on Soumahoro, perhaps implying that it was not proportionate to his real responsibilities. As pundit Paolo Mieli asked: Would there be such intense scrutiny if Soumahoro wasn’t Black?

His defenders might well point to right-wingers less harshly treated for similar imbroglios. In 2020, the Lombardy region’s governor, Attilio Fontana, remained in office despite a scandal over his administration ordering COVID-related protective equipment from his brother-in-law’s firm (part-owned by his wife). The governor of Italy’s most populous region, Fontana stuck to a defense based on his own lack of personal criminal responsibility, later upheld in court. Yet the complaint of double standards is itself a little unedifying. Did Soumahoro not claim precisely to be something better—a working-class fighter in rubber boots, unlike other politicians?

Perhaps the real problem is that the integration of migrants has to do with private business at all. The issue particularly concerns the so-called second reception—the period, following the initial processing of migrants’ asylum claims, when they are supposed to be provided with accommodation and employment opportunities, but that in practice often turns into a permanent limbo. Figures I spoke with in the sector told me that a series of governments has outsourced responsibility to co-ops and private firms, only sporadically taking interest in migrants’ conditions.

Hervé Faye works for Casa Sankara, an organization that promotes the social integration of new arrivals in Foggia province and fights against mafia-style hiring practices. He told me that while undocumented immigration “exploded” in the mid-2010s, making it possible to speak of an “emergency situation,” years later migrant integration is still treated through short-term fixes. This means outsourcing the job to private migrant-reception firms, rather than investing in public programs to integrate new Italians. This has, he argued, produced a “vast waste of public money.”

Erminia Rizzi, a lawyer in the southern Puglia region, told me that exploitation in cooperatives “is a reality” but that the current discussion doesn’t provide a means of resolving it. “Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, the trials-by-media have a single aim,” she argued: “to promote a language which criminalizes migrant solidarity.” She gave the example of trials against “people traffickers”—often striking against ordinary migrants who pay their way across the Mediterranean, only to be put in charge of the boat. Blaming such figures, or even individual “corrupt employers” in the sector, avoids a deeper discussion of the government’s responsibilities in integrating migrants.

Giulia told me that there was also a much wider problem of transparency in the migrant-reception sector. The local prefetture (branches of the interior ministry) that outsource migrant integration to co-ops and private firms “very often have no monitoring body” ensuring they fulfill their supposed functions. When the help desk for which she works submits migrants’ complaints about their poor treatment, “often prefetture just forward their emails to the co-ops” without removing the names of the complainants or the people employed in the sector. This hardly encourages accountability.

Faye insisted that Soumahoro did not “represent” migrant reception in Italy and that the MP who studied sociology in Naples was “more Italian than African.” The alleged misuse of funds was hardly related to the fact that the co-op is immigrant-led: Faye also mentioned the case of Mafia Capitale, a scandal that broke in 2014 in which Roman mafia members embezzled public funds meant to be used for migrant reception.

On Nov. 30, the Meloni government’s business minister, Adolfo Urso, told parliament that the Karibu co-op run by Soumahoro’s mother-in-law was to be placed under receivership. Yet the demise of this particular firm is hardly likely to be the end of the matter. From being a self-styled defender of migrants, Soumahoro has become a convenient vector for the attack against them.

David Broder is a historian and the Europe editor of Jacobin magazine.

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