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Four Members of Bronx African Community Vie for a Single City Council Seat

By Patrick Wall | January 22, 2013 9:57am

MORRISANIA Four members of The Bronx’s growing African community have entered a closely watched City Council race, delighting supporters who seek more political muscle, but worrying leaders who fear a fractured African vote.

The African candidates in the contest for the 16th District City Council seat include a Nigerian medical researcher, a Guinean businessman and former taxi driver, a Nigerian city tax auditor and a Ghanaian staffer in the office of the district’s current councilwoman.

“This is all very new,” said Mark Naison, a professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University. “This is the beginning of something that definitely, over the next 10 to 20 years, will reshape Bronx politics.”

While a victory for any of these candidates would be groundbreaking, observers say, their odds of winning may be slim considering the relative weakness of the African voting bloc and the strength of the race’s top contender, State Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson, who recently decided to jump into the city election.

Some African leaders fret that the community will diminish its own electoral odds even more if it backs multiple candidates in the race.

So, on Saturday, a diverse group of influential Bronx Africans met to discuss this unprecedented problem and decided they would eventually endorse a single candidate.

“I think two, three, four Africans for the same seat is politically suicidal,” Bourema Niambele, coordinator of the Bronx Borough President’s African Advisory Council, said before the meeting.

The 16th City Council district covers parts of the Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods, which have been at the epicenter of a surge in African migration into the borough since the 1980s.

By 2011, some 48,000 Bronxites were born in Africa about twice as many African-born Bronx residents as in 2000 and far more than in any other borough, according to American Community Survey estimates.

Some experts say this is a vast undercount and that as many as 100,000 Africans may reside in The Bronx.

But they also note that African-American and Hispanic Bronxites still greatly outnumber African-born residents, many of whom are not registered to vote.

Three of the district’s four African candidates were born in Africa, while one is an American-born daughter of African immigrants.

Dr. Bola Omotosho, 52, was a Nigerian Navy doctor before he moved to the U.S. in the 1990s.

Since then, he has served as the chairman of Community Board 5, the board president of the nonprofit Mount Hope Housing Company and the longtime leader of his local homeowners’ association, all while working as an infectious disease researcher at Montefiore Hospital.

Like the other candidates, he emphasized that he is not running to represent just the African community, but the entire district, for which his decade-plus tenure on the community board has prepared him well, he said.

“It’s only in this great country that someone like myself can be given the opportunity to lead a community,” Omotosho said.

Ahmadou Diallo, 49, was the founding president of the Futa Islamic Center, a large mosque on Third Avenue that caters to his native Guineans. When the building went into foreclosure in 2008, Diallo led the drive that helped save it.

A relative by marriage to Amadou Diallo the unarmed immigrant gunned down by NYPD officers in 1999 he drove livery cabs and yellow taxis for years before quitting, partly because of constant questioning about his name.

He now runs a tax preparation business next door to his mosque and a nonprofit that offers free citizenship classes to African immigrants.

“My name is a household name in the community,” said Diallo, who also worked as the campaign treasurer for State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson in his past two elections.

Abiodun Bello, 53, a Nigerian native, has worked as a tax auditor in the city’s Finance Department for a quarter-century.

Until last year, he lived in Brooklyn, where he acted as the community liaison for a city councilman and served as president of his local Community Education Council.

“As immigrants, we don’t have access to quality education,” said Bello, who now lives in Highbridge. “If you don't, you're in trouble."

Naaimat Muhammed, 31, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, became the first in her family to earn an advanced degree when she graduated from Pace University with a master’s in public administration.

An American-born Muslim who speaks her parents’ native language as fluently as English, she said she relates to the way immigrants must balance the push for assimilation with the pull of ethnic pride.

She founded the 16th District African and Muslim Council as a staffer in the office of Helen Diane Foster, the district’s longtime councilwoman who is term-limited out this year.

Yet she believes the needs of the borough’s African community can no longer be met by a monthly meetup.

“We’re not just going to take what’s being handed to us,” she said. “We want to be taken seriously.”

The only candidates among these four to declare fundraising revenue so far are Bello, who raised $200, and Diallo, who brought in $5,200, much of it through small donations from taxi drivers, campaign records show.

Among political observers, who say the 16th District race could draw a dozen or more hopefuls, the favorite candidate is Gibson, a popular assemblywoman who won 90 percent of the vote in last year’s state primaries.

Top Bronx Democrats were said to have encouraged Gibson, who is African-American, to run for the council seat, which is one of only two Bronx districts represented by a black council member.

She began calling other candidates last week to announce her entry into the race, sources said. Her office referred calls on the matter to a campaign manager, who did not immediately respond.

Gibson is expected to enjoy the Bronx Democratic Party's endorsement. A spokesman said the party has not yet made any endorsements for this year’s contests.

About 25 Bronx leaders from more than a dozen African nations convened at the Islamic Cultural Center in Parkchester on Saturday to mull the unexpected emergence of four African candidates, said Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the center’s founder.

“We agreed, moving forward, instead of diluting our support, we will come together as one body and endorse a qualified candidate,” Drammeh said.

This newly formed leadership group will soon invite the four African candidates to a vetting forum, after which it will vote to endorse one person, if any, based on his or her resume, resources, connections and commitment to winning the election, Drammeh said.

Most of these leaders see the election as a long shot, but also as a necessary step forward for the Bronx African community, said Ramatu Ahmed, who runs the African Life Center on 165th Street.

“Whether we win or lose," she said, "this is a process that we must get involved in.”