What role can Italy play in today’s Africa? And what are our priorities?
Of course, our country cannot compete alone with the global giants either in size of funding or in impact on the continent. Yet, as a founding member of the European Union, it can certainly contribute significantly to forging EU policy and strategies beyond the Mediterranean, and indeed it is fulfilling this role quite effectively.
The adoption of the European External Investment Plan, the “La Valletta” Trust Fund for migration, and the more general partnerships between the EU and the African states on the continent came about with Italy as one of the leading advocates. It would be true to say that Italy often gives voice to African needs within the group of the 27 member states, thanks to its position in the Mediterranean, its intense and long-standing relations with Africa and its capacity for dialogue with leaders on the continent. This is particularly true for Europe’s recent political line towards Somalia, and more generally, towards the Horn of Africa, adopted with Italy as one of the main proponents.
Italy is a reassuring advocate for African governments; it is a credible partner, without the hidden agendas characterising some of the new actors. This lack of “vested interests” is often a strength our politicians refer to with confidence in dialogue with African leaders; who in turn easily recognise this quality in our cooperation. Morally speaking, the lack of a hidden agenda is an advantage especially in the debates held within multilateral forums, where this aspect is a strong lead for our action in Africa.
Whatever its impact on the continent may be, Italy’s role in Africa is important and very distinctive, characterised by a skilful use of soft power, an ability to dialogue and co-opt and a refusal to take excessively rigid positions towards African governments.
Furthermore, there are few countries that can boast such a rooted tradition in cooperation with the continent, and such a widespread presence of NGOs and associations in the region, as Italy can; this makes our contribution to Africa’s growth and socio-economic progress almost unique, even if the resources we are able to allocate are certainly not comparable to those of the other new actors operating on the continent.
Having said that, our main sphere of interest is the expanded Mediterranean, which would take in the northern part of Africa, the Arab peninsula and the Gulf of Aden. All these regions are now closely linked and interconnected and have points of intersection with the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden; our country can rightly aspire to be involved in this area, and not just because of the obvious migratory issues that come to mind.
A model of successful synergy between the various components of the “Italian Approach” can be seen for example in the case of the Sahel region, with which Italy has developed a strategic alliance in the last three-year period. This has included: the opening of new embassies in Niamey (Niger), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), and soon also in Bamako (Mali); the launch of an important military training initiative by the Ministry of Defence (MISIN project) in Niger for improved anti-terrorism control of the territory; the inclusion of Italy in the so-called Coalition pour le Sahel, on an international level, which coordinates the capacity building and development aid of various Sahel partners; the continuation and strengthening of bilateral cooperation interventions, worth about €150 million in the whole area; support for state budgets (valued at a total of €60 million in 2018 in Niger and Chad); a series of political visits, including that of the Prime Minister in March 2019; economic support and non-lethal materials for the Joint Force G5 Sahel, and more generally for the group of five Sahelian states; finally, our recently announced engagement in the so-called Takuba Task Force, for tackling terrorism more effectively.
Our action is defined by focusing on interventions in peacekeeping and security; on good governance and respect for human rights; on migration and mobility; on aid and investment; on sustainable development; on the fight against climate change; and on cultural and scientific collaboration.
Of course, beyond the Sahel, the Horn of Africa is the region of sub-Saharan Africa where Italian influence is greatest, both because of historical relations, and because of our steady commitment in terms of aid and political dialogue. Indeed, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia traditionally look to Italy as one of their preferred partners.
With the leaders of the three countries (presently the Somali President, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmajo’, the Eritrean Head of State, Isaias Afewerki, and the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed) there have been various bilateral occasions to meet and collaborate, which are aimed at encouraging integration and overall growth in the region. Unfortunately, the very latest developments in Tigray, with the growing tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, and even some armed confrontations, risk derailing the entire commitment and strategic plan.
A further Italian priority in the Greater Horn of Africa is Sudan, emerging from a deep internal political crisis, where, thanks to the formation of a transitional government, peace and development seem now achievable.
Italy will maintain and strengthen its historical ties with this region, both bilaterally with new political, economic, social, and cultural initiatives, and within the EU context, where we are called upon to encourage the other members to support the easing of tensions, and possibly to foster new investments and projects financed by Brussels (if the political situation allows).
After Brexit, Italy has become the main EU point of reference for the Horn of Africa, and it will be called upon even more to continue this role of “facilitator” of peace and stability in the area, and promoter of cooperation and economic growth.
In order to fulfil its task as honest and reliable broker in the region, Italy should consider in future greater and broader financial commitments. This is feasible with a combination of public initiatives (Italian aid) and private ones (by our largest companies, but also by small and medium-sized enterprises, and with the use of innovative financial initiatives), capable of accompanying the countries in question towards growth and steady sustainable progress, especially in the agro-industry, renewable green energy, protection of the environment, and infrastructures.
These Italian priorities in Africa will be confirmed by our Presidency of the G20 and co-Presidency of Cop 26, in 2021, where specific initiatives will be dedicated to the continent, especially from the financial and environmental points of view. Accordingly, the new year will begin with a clear “African focus”.