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Africa-Italy, upside down look – World and Mission

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Africa-Italy, upside down look – World and Mission

With the Mattei Plan and the Rome Summit, Italy seeks to reopen a channel of collaboration with the continent. But what is Africa’s vision of our country? What are the prospects for a truly equal relationship? We talk about it with the historian Uoldelul Chelati Dirar. Also listen to it in podcast

Last January 28-29, the Italy-Africa summit was held in Rome in the presence of 25 heads of state and government from the continent and the leaders of the European Union. An opportunity to outline a “programmatic platform” that should relaunch our country’s commitment and collaboration with African nations. Already the starting point, however, shows a disproportion between a small country like Italy and a large continent made up of 54 nations and 1 and a half billion people. But a distortion was also evident, explicitly highlighted by the leaders of the African Union who declared that they had not even been consulted in the preparation phase.

In short, the gaze – despite some attempts at denial and “adjustment” – was essentially unidirectional, from Italy towards Africa. An aspect that not only political leaders, but also African civil society organizations (CSOs), have severely underlined: «Enough of the neocolonial approaches of European countries: we need to reset Europe-Africa relations and put an end to the actions of the Northern countries who claim to establish plans for Africa.”
Perhaps then we should try to reverse our gaze and look at Italy from the perspective of Africa. An exercise – this too – which implies necessary generalizations, but which can help to better situate our country both in the African geopolitical and economic dimension, and in the imagination of Africans. We do it with professor Uoldelul Chelati Dirar, professor of African history and institutions at the University of Macerata, an expert on colonialism especially in the Horn of Africa, and therefore able to add another dimension that is always too neglected, that of depth historical.

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Professor Chelati Dirar, how is Italy seen in Africa today?
«Overall, I would say it’s not entirely negative. “Made in Italy” continues to have a certain appeal. And the business sector also has its credibility, for large works but not only. In the last 15-20 years there have been many investments, for example, by companies linked to the textile and manufacturing sectors, which create jobs, even if they are often low-cost labour, and in countries, such as Ethiopia, which apply very favorable tax policies.”
The Mattei Plan, however, seems to have two main priorities: energy supply and control of migratory flows…
«Someone summarized it in the formula “more gas, less migrants”, which I find quite effective. In fact, these two priorities have emerged strongly, despite the rhetorical devices with which this Plan was presented, about which, in reality, very little is still known. The substance, however, is the same. And it’s not from today. It is a trend that has been consolidated for about ten years now and which, with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, has become even more urgently relevant. For the moment, however, the Mattei Plan seems to me more like a declaration of intent with little substance.”
Speaking of rhetoric: much emphasis has been placed on the creation of equal relationships, not predatory or paternalistic ones.
«The thing that seemed most evident to me – and perhaps not adequately highlighted – is the fact that a type of colonial-style narrative continues to be used. A clearly paternalistic narrative at the very moment it denies being so. A flaw of form, but also of substance. How is it possible to build an equal relationship if the agenda and priorities were not decided together from the beginning? I see in it the revival of a scheme that remains profoundly paternalistic.”
Even the “one nation-one continent” formula is.
“Certain. How is it possible to invite an entire continent “to your court” and then expect to have equal exchanges? Furthermore, it is a somewhat pretentious idea: many of the objectives identified cannot be pursued on a national basis. They should be shared at least at the level of the European Union, which was represented at high levels at the summit, without, however, the desire for a strong financial commitment emerging. This applies both to the EU and to Italy itself, which has put 5.5 billion on the table, an inadequate figure if it wants to be significantly present in Africa.”
Furthermore, on the continent there are other players who have established themselves in a much more structured way in recent years…
«I think that Italy, especially in the Mediterranean, can and must play an important role, even if it risks entering a collision course with other countries such as France. But entering this “game” on a continental scale has a series of implications. And it requires, in fact, significant investments at many levels, otherwise we risk making impromptu interventions with little impact. Other nations, such as China for many years now, or Turkey are consolidating their presence: a structural and coordinated presence on different scenarios, from North Africa to East Africa and beyond, through investments, infrastructure construction, development cooperation, humanitarian interventions and a massive policy of scholarships which is another way of building relationships also in a future perspective.”
But is it possible to look to the future without having come to terms with the colonial past?
“Yes and no. Memory is often a little short. And this on both sides. The various Italian governments have differed very little at least on declarations of principle. And, as I was saying, on a certain rhetoric according to which Italians are different from others, they do not have a colonial past comparable to those of France and Great Britain, and therefore they have all the “qualifications” to help Africa. But this is an unbearably colonial discourse and is perceived as such in Africa. There is an under-estimated sensitivity not only in Italy, but also in Europe, where speeches and clichés that are very poorly received in Africa often continue to be repeated or resurfaced.”
But how much is Africa interested in the Mattei Plan?
«My impression is that the various delegations that came to Rome – not all of a high level and with some important defections such as Nigeria and Egypt – presented themselves with a mixture of disenchantment and expectation. There are mutual interests and needs, that’s clear. But perhaps it was necessary to connect them more first, for example by having the Mattei Plan dialogue with the African Union’s Agenda 2063, in which the continent has given itself long-term priorities and objectives. The same name Piano Mattei – which can be evocative in North Africa – says nothing in the rest of the continent other than an immediate reference to hydrocarbons. But in my opinion, it would be necessary to look a little further in this specific area, in Italy as in Africa. Moreover, there are already many interesting projects linked, for example, to the production of alternative energy. Attention to environmental issues should be developed much more.”

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