Forgive and Forget?
A graduate of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Edwin Okong'o is a writer and a freelance journalist.
Robert Ngwu may be the loneliest man at the GOP's National Convention this week. A Nigerian-born international businessman, who now lives in Minnesota, Ngwu is a proud delegate at the gathering. But among his fellow African immigrants in the U.S. he's a rare species: an African Republican.
The population of African-born Minnesotans is now estimated between 60,000 and 90,000. It's the fastest-growing African immigrant population of any state in the country. But despite this rapid growth, Ngwu may be their only standard bearer on the convention floor in St. Paul. As Ngwu is well aware, most African immigrants prefer the Democratic Party.
"Thank you for remembering me, my brother," he said when we met recently in Minnesota and I told him I was a Kenyan-born immigrant. Ngwu was glad to find someone from the African community willing to listen to his views.
"Republicans judge people based on merit, not race," he said. "That is why they have embraced me and that's why they supported Colin Powell and continue to support Condoleezza Rice."
The absence of Africans in the Republican Party can be explained, in part, by their captivation with Obama, a fellow immigrant's son, but it goes deeper than that. Even before Obama's political rise, Africans have historically had more affinity with Democrats than Republicans. In my home country of Kenya, for instance, you are more likely to find children named in honor of John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton than Ronald Reagan.
African immigrants who have voted Republican in the past often don't express themselves openly for fear of ridicule and being shunned by their fellow immigrants.
I recall years ago hearing two of my Kenyan countrymen at a party in this country whispering about a young Kenyan woman one of them liked.
"She is a Republican," one man warned.
"A Republican?" the other man asked, as if it were incomprehensible.
Until then, he hadn't been able to take his eyes off her. But now, he just walked away, shaking his head.
American politics was rarely discussed at such gatherings, but it was understood by all of us that once we arrived in the United States we automatically became Democrats. We also realized that most black Americans are Democrats, and Kennedy, Carter and Clinton were all popular in Africa for their policies toward the continent. Still, the dearth of African immigrant Republicans is striking, especially since many of them share some of the same beliefs as the GOP's "social conservatives."
At this week's GOP convention in St. Paul, Robert Ngwu meets with Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security.
This became clear to me several years ago when as a graduate journalism student at U.C. Berkeley I was assigned to interview African immigrants about a special election in California. But I had great trouble finding a Republican to talk to, even casting far beyond the traditionally liberal Berkeley boundaries. Every African immigrant I called said they were Democrats.
I finally managed to track down that same Kenyan woman whose Republican affiliation had turned off the Kenyan man at that party. She agreed to talk but only if I promised not to reveal her identity.
She told me that she had voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because he had "proven that he could defend America against terrorism." (The simultaneous Al Qadea bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998 killed and injured hundreds of Africans and left a lasting revulsion against terrorism.) But the longer we talked, the more she mentioned "moral values." She was a devout Christian who went to church every Sunday. She was anti-abortion. She opposed gay rights because "the Bible forbids homosexuality." She echoed beliefs that I have heard from many African immigrants here.
So why still vote Democrat?
I turned to George Ayittey, a Ghanaian-born professor of economics at American University in Washington, DC. Ayittey, who has lived in the U.S. since 1981, confirmed that most African immigrants were very religious and therefore tended to share certain values with the Republicans. Where they differed, he said, is on immigration.
"It is not just Africans," Ayittey said. "Immigrants in general see Republicans as being very strict on immigration," and against their interests.
Although most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. come from Latin America, nearly 2.5 million of them are from other parts of the world. Many of them are people who came to the U.S. legally but overstayed their visas. The Africans in this group see Republicans as anti-immigration.
Ngwu, the Nigerian-born delegate to the Republican convention, told me he thinks the GOP can woo African immigrants by better explaining their immigration policies.
"Most Africans support Democrats only because they have fallen for stereotypes," Ngwu said. "I have too much knowledge to become a Democrat by default. I know, for example, that it was Ronald Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty that allowed so many immigrants to stay."
Ngwu joined the GOP as soon as he became a naturalized citizen nearly 10 years ago, and he has never hidden his political allegiance. To African-born Republicans who are afraid to speak out, he offered this advice: "If you are going to be ashamed of what you believe in, don't believe."
By the time I caught up with Ngwu on Wednesday, he had already reaped some of the benefits he had been urging other Africans to seek. He sounded upbeat on the phone as he drove to St. Paul for the third day of the convention. He did not seem bothered that he had not met any African-born Republicans at the RNC. (I had planned to report from the RNC but could not get press credentials).
Ngwu said he had already met with various GOP leaders, including Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, and Sen. McCain himself.
And by "met" Ngwu did not mean he posed for a photo or two with the GOP's flag bearer.
"I met with Senator McCain and his wife Cindy for two minutes," Ngwu said. "I know it is only two minutes, but how many African Democrats can say they got two minutes from their presidential nominee?"
The way Ngwu saw it, those encounters he had with GOP leaders, however brief, may in the future yield longer appointments with them -- appointments that will allow him enough time to propose the business ideas of Mega Souk, Inc., his business development company.
"I'm very passionate about stopping the exodus of professionals like you and me from Africa," Ngwu said. "I want to see more Americans doing business in Africa, and if anyone is going to do it, it's Republicans because they are the party of business."
Ngwu has the spirit of a true believer, but in this year of Obama, it's going to be harder than ever to find an African Republican voter. No amount of Republican preaching is likely to convert souls. This year, the hearts of African immigrants belong to the son of a Kenyan immigrant.
Ike Chidolue - Port Harcourt, Houston, Rivers, TX
I'ts all about the politics, and Robert my dear friend has chosen which side of the divide to anchor. Although I am a conservative, Obama's first speech changed my leaning at least for this historic election. I believe I can smell were Robert is going with this, lonely African in the Republican camp, getting all this national coverage... hmmm Robert, I hear you. Go ahead and rewrite your story, another audacity of hope.
Dr John Wright - Phoenix, Arizona
The article is well written, and indeed very relevant considering the current political climate faced by all Americans. The question I have for all Africans living in US is "If Senator McCain wins the election (looking very unlikely as of today), what would 99% of you do to advocate your interest? Are you all going to go through Mr. Robert Ngwu? At that point, only 54 Presidents representing 54 countries of Africa may have that access.My main point is that it is not smart getting all packed up on one side of the political equation...simply a foolish gamble.
Dr. Ken Ogbonnia - Houston, Texas
Good leadership, Mr. Ngwu!I applaud you and other African American leaders who identify with the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has taken the black vote for granted--for too long. It is under a Republican Party (during the era of George W. Bush) that Africa enjoyed its longest period of both economic and political stability. The volume of trade between African and the US quadrupled and there has not been a successful military coup in Africa since George W. Bush became the US president. Even though President Clinton has maintained a great Sub-Saharan African health initiative, it is on record that his successor, a Republican, did more to fight AIDS in Africa. Further, if Senator Barack Obama wins the presidency, he will be following in the footsteps of other African Americans who were elevated to top US positions, such as General Colin Powell and Dr. Condi Rice. Both Powell and Rice were also appointed Secretaries of State under a republican, George W. Bush. Finally, all blacks should not belong to one political party. When a particular group or even state historically but blindly tilts towards one political party, they usually lose relevance. After all, the American presidential election is fought in a handful of swing states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire, etc. In simple terms, the peoples of such states basically determine the American policy.
R. R - Barrow, North Carolina
Its interesting that Mr. Ngwu says that the GOP judges people based on merit, but this is the party that has traditionally upheld slavery, domestic violence against women, hate crimes, lop sided economic conditions, and a plethora of issues which not just plague black, immigrant or minority America, but America as a whole. I commend Mr. Ngwu on being forgiving, but I must caution him against forgetting and potentially turning his back on his brothers and sisters caught in the struggle of living in America and abroad.Brother, please don't allow yourself to be used for a two-minute dance with the devil. Your party affiliation is your choice, but to think that because you are a member of the "party of business" you can advance your company and its cause is delusional in my opinion.In the great state of North Carolina where I live, there are many poor white Americans campaigning for the GOP with lawn flags on the lawns of their mobile homes. If they do not take care of their own that support their cause, what makes you more special that they will work to further you and your cause? After all, they make decisions exclusively with their heads and not their hearts.
Albert Aryee - St Paul, MN
I have know Robert for about 12 years. We attended the same university and also worked for the same employer for a few years. He is driven and is not afraid to be open about his beliefs. If Africans are to choose political parties based on the principles and values on which they were raised, a majority of them would be republicans. I hope Robert's openness will encourage such Africans who secretly support the Republicans to "come out of the closet".
Albert Aryee - St Paul, MN
I have know Robert for about 12 years. We attended the same university and also worked for the same employer for a few years. He is driven and is not afraid to be open about his beliefs. If Aficans are to choose political parties based on the principles and values on which they were raised, the majority of them would be Republicans. I hope Robert's openness will encourage such Africans who secretly support the Republicans to "come out of the closet".
Uzo Abbah - Corvallis, OR
I am African and a PROUD INDEPENDENT, when it comes to political affiliations that is.
I completely agree with Mr. Ewoh who says there isn't a DIME DIFFERENCE between the Republicans and the Democrats. That said, I am voting for Obama/'Biden ticket because their views align the most with mine. I am completely PRO-Choice and Pro-Gay Rights in my political leanings. America is a Democratic country, which by default means that EVERYONE has a right to live their lives as they wish so long as they or their actions do not pose a threat to others. Republicans and their fellow Christian-bible-carrying-Muslim-hating constituents will destroy this GREAT country and everything it stands for: PERSONAL LIBERTIES AND FREEDOM. I like McCain of Old, not this new McCain. He might have been my guy if he didn't sell his soul for the chance to be President.
Paul Ezeodogbo - Dallas, Texas
I am a Republican, and also I am pro-Bush. This is the only President who
has dealt a blow to those Moslems that had been killing innocent people who don't pratice or believe in Islam. Go to Nigeria, they have killed thousands of people and are still killing and if you try to say something they will label Fatwa on you.
Chuka Nwokoye - london, United kingdom
I must commend Robert for his political stand, belief and persuasion. I knew him for more than 30 odd years..he has been a man that stands for what he believes in. We grew up together and share a lot of personal convictions but on this election I truly believe that timing and world political changes makes Obama a better choice than McCain. We are living in a world that no matter how powerful you are, you ought to listen to other people views, issues and problems. McCain does not sound like that, Obama does. Obama has a foresight of world affairs as shown on his speeches that we have a big issue in Kabul that needs tackling which Mr Bush did by deploying more personnel and withdrawing more from Iraq. McCain did not see that. Space does not permit me to marshall out more points.
Dr. Andrew Ewoh - Kennesaw, Georgia
I commend my brother-in-law, Mr. Robert Ngwu, for being a member of my party. Every person in this country, as a nation of immigrants, has the right to belong to any political party.I must warn readers of my comments that my stance on "party activism" may be different from theirs for several reasons. First, I was a political science educator for over two decades, and have always told my students that there is really no dime difference between the two major parties in the United States. Second, politicians, as rational actors, are always looking for support from both sides of the political ideological spectrum. As a result, we the voters, on average, cast our votes for the party or candidate that enriches our pocket books, however defined. Now that I am a public administration educator, I will not expect every African immigrant to belong to the Republican Party. In fact, it is healthy to find some of us in the Democratic Party as well. It is even daunting that those of us in the Republican Party should not let party label blind us from begging to defer from our party or party members. You may ask: Where am I going with this? The answer is that we need a change of heart in the 2008 Presidential Election. I do not know about you, the reader of these comments, but I am going to cast my vote this time--just like I did in the Texas primary--for someone that will represent me, and most Americans, very well. That person is the one that talks about real issues that concern the masses. The 2008 Election should not be about personality or party! It should be based on real politics, that is, on substantial public policies such as education, health, foreign affairs, home land security, and other domestic issues to mention but a few. In sum, I am going to vote for someone that is very passionate about "changing Washington," not "shaking Washington." The person that makes up his slogan, and not the one that copies a competitor's slogan. The difference is very clear in this election regardless of our political party affiliation. You go figure-:). I personally will respect any one that goes out to vote in this election. But please let your decision be based on issues not on party affiliation.
Ngozi Okoli - Bowie, Maryland
The Hispanics, unlike Africans are more politically savvy and sophisticated. You will find Hispanics well represented in both Democratic and Republican party. As a result, no one takes their vote and support for granted. In return, their agenda will always be addressed by both parties. If not for Hispanics, the Immigration topics would have dissipated on any political radar. Congratulations to my country man Robert Ngwu for this great awareness and achievement.
Did anyone notice the difference between the diverse crowd at the Democratic convention and the lily white sea of faces at the Republican gathering? No wonder poor Mr. Ngwu was lonely! Once upon a time it might have made sense for African Americans to vote Republican. But not for a LONG time. And not now. The GOP is a white, conservative party that has tried to keep black people from voting in swing states like Ohio and Florida. And now McCain, who voted AGAINST declaring Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday, names Sarah Palin as his running mate! Give me a break. She's from the white Alaska conservative fringe.
Peter Maduabum - Randolph, New Jersey
I am a Republican; have been since coming to America. I recently gave my wife (an Obamacan) a test on ideological positions and she answered 8 out of 10 in line with the Republican platform. Almost all my African friends concede an alliance with the GOP's platform. Problem is they believe that they "have to be Democracts". I affectionately refer to them as "Republicans in Denial". Me, I am African, Black and Proudly Republican. Card carrying Republican.
Trina Bradford - Minneapolis, MN
I commend Mr. Robert Ngwu for breaking the culture of ignorance and stereotypes that Democrats had fed innocent but ignorant African immigrants all these years. To start with Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, as well as Martin Luther King. If Senator Obama was a Republican, he would have won the Primaries on March/April with less resistance. Why do you think Collin Powell was the first choice for Vice President for both President Bush and Senator McCain? Because they get it!
All of my Republican friends are very prejudice people, against gays but more so toward African Americans. I think that is one of the top reasons they would never vote for Obama, even though they would never openly say so. But if they think this way, why would any African American want to belong to a party that sees them as second class citizens?