Wanted: African-born Republicans.
Many share Republican conservative values but not stance on immigration

By Edwin Okong'o
September 4, 2008


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.

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."

Robert Ngwu with Tom Ridge.

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.

"Most Africans support Democrats only because they have fallen for stereotypes," Ngwu said. "I know it was Ronald Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty that allowed so many immigrants to stay."

"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.