Lessons learned during his youth in war-torn Nigeria helped shape Councilman Amy Ahanotu’s mission of fostering political agreement
By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
At debates, candidate forums and the hundreds of Rohnert Park homes he visited, Amy Ahanotu said the same thing over and over again during his successful campaign for a seat on the City Council.
“We can have disagreements, but as long as we solve the problem, that’s what counts,” the 53-year-old Redwood Credit Union banker said.
It was an unremarkable statement for a candidate trying to win votes in a city with a history of sharp council divisions and fierce political battles.
But his was in many ways a remarkable candidacy.
A Nigerian-American, Ahanotu is in what observers say is a tiny vanguard of immigrants from the West African nation who have sought public office in the United States.
And his plea for a productive, civil political discourse was rooted in terror, in a bomb’s blast, in shrapnel tearing his skin, in the ghastly costs of a war in which an estimated 1 million to 3 million people died.
“It shaped me as far as the role of government,” Ahanotu said of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War. He became a teenager during the conflict, part of a large family from a region of the country fighting to secede.
“Government is, to me, in place to address issues in the society and not to take sides that divide people,” he said. “Yes, we can disagree, we can oppose each other, but we can find a solution to the problems without demonizing another person.”
Congratulations pour in
Within hours of his election victory in November, Nigerian Internet forums filled with dozens of congratulations, from people he knew and strangers.
A Washington man wrote: “I join the millions of Nigerians abroad and at home in congratulating Amy Ahanotu and Emmanuel Ogunleye (an East Bay healthcare district candidate) on their success. They are worthy Nigerians who have made us very proud.”
The attention Ahanotu’s victory garnered arose from the rarity of the occasion, said Austyn Ogannah, editor of The Will, a Bay Area Nigerian-American newspaper.
Nationwide “you probably have one or two (Nigerian-Americans) throwing themselves into politics … trying to get themselves elected,” Ogannah said.
Ahanotu became a U.S. citizen in 2005, opening the door to public office. In 2007, he was appointed a city planning commissioner.
“He’s a really good guy, honest, credible,” said John Borba, the commission chairman, who was one of Ahanotu’s opponents in the council race. “He seems to be receptive to new ideas and dedicated to having a cordial discussion regarding issues.”
Tuesday, as a councilman, Ahanotu made his own planning commission appointment.
It was the latest step on an American journey of a quarter century and one that some experts say may turn out to be a milestone.
“I think he’s going to be very important,” said Amadu Jacky Kaba, a sociologist who studies African immigrants in the United States and has focused on Nigerian-Americans.
“He may begin to set that trend, in that, from the point they (Nigerian-Americans) get citizenship, they may think about running for office, not just contributing intellectually,” said Kaba, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University.
At The Will newspaper, Ogannah said Ahanotu’s victory “tells every Nigerian that it’s possible to put yourselves out there for an elected office and really succeed.”
One of 10 children
Ahanotu (his given name is pronounced Ah-mee) was born and spent his early years in Port Harcourt, on the Gulf of Guinea, in southeast Nigeria.
His father was a shipping port official. The family was of the Igbo ethnic group in the country’s middle class, and he was the second youngest of 10 children.
The war erupted in 1967, after years of conflict over political power. The Igbos, predominant in the secessionist southeast, returned to their homelands from around Nigeria; Ahanotu’s family made their way back to their ancestral homeland, Obazu, which he refers to as a “village” but is actually slightly larger than Petaluma.
Ahanotu was 10. The fighting was at hand. Schools shut. “Soldiers and warplanes, people shooting at each other. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Hunger, poverty and death,” he said. “You weren’t going to go to school with people shooting at you.”
The family wore name tags in case they were separated, or if someone was killed.
“Lucky to be alive”
On a day the fighter planes came he ran toward a house to take shelter. A bomb blew up the house as he got there. Shrapnel shredded his back. The scars remain.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said last week, sitting in his office at the credit union’s State Farm Drive branch.
On a shelf is a photograph of his family: his Colorado-born wife, Rhonda, a Postal Service secretary whom he met in San Francisco when she was an Army linguist, and grown son and daughter, Onye and Chima. They are dressed in the Nigerian robes that Ahanotu still occasionally wears.
“You always miss it,” he said of Nigeria. “But Rohnert Park is home. The goal I have set is that this is a city that has given me everything. It’s time for me to give back.”
As a councilman, Ahanotu will have to adjust to a playing field different from the commission or the business world, Borba said, one where consensus cannot always be reached.
“I think what Amy has to remember is that politics is much different and I think he’ll find it to be less civil than perhaps he thinks it will be in the long run,” Borba said.
“In politics, when you have competing interests, people tend to take it personally and you are elected to make decisions,” Borba said.
One of about 200,000 Nigerians in the country, according to the U.S. Census — although many believe the number is much higher — Ahanotu took a roundabout route to Sonoma County’s third-largest city.
The three-year civil war he lived through scattered a Nigerian immigrant diaspora across the globe. Many were from Biafra, the name the secessionists took for their region of the country. Often they settled in Canada and the United States.
Later yet, the nation’s oil boom led Nigerian students abroad, many of them to U.S. universities and colleges.
In 1980, Ahanotu, then 24, immigrated to Canada. He earned his business administration bachelor’s degree from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, then moved to the United States to find work.
He credits the influence of his mother, who owned a small grocery market, with steering him toward the business world.
“She was very enthusiastic when it came to business,” he said. “She was a very strong woman who tried to use business to elevate women in Nigeria.”
His own working life has taken him from selling furniture to fast-food restaurants to toy stores.
He moved to Rohnert Park in 1986 to work at a Commerce Boulevard Taco Bell, manning the cashier registers and deep fryers as an assistant manager.
“It made me more humble and willing to fight for the less privileged in our society,” Ahanotu said of his fast-food career. “It gave me a broader view of humanity.”
He returned to school at the University of San Francisco and earned a master’s degree in business administration in 2003. He then entered banking, first with Washington Mutual then, in 2005, joining Redwood Credit Union.
In 2008 he became chairman of the city’s chamber of commerce.
On Tuesday, he cast his first votes as a councilman, favoring, as part of a council majority, the elimination of development fees that support affordable housing and public art.
He and others noted the fees had raised almost nothing since taking effect and said that getting rid of them would help the city compete for new businesses.
It was the sort of meeting Ahanotu could appreciate.
There was strongly felt disagreement. Vice Mayor Jake Mackenzie said the votes were shortsighted. And the Cultural Arts Commission’s chairwoman argued passionately against eliminating the art fee.
Ahanotu said little, but he said his piece: “I think this is going to show that Rohnert Park is supportive of the business community.”
The vote achieved what he believes is in the city’s best interests in tough economic times.
And everybody who wanted to had their say.
“Even though I was not born here, I have a voice,” Ahanotu said. “In Nigeria, unless you’re a government official, people that speak up invariably end up not well off, put it that way.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or email@example.com.