Route to Africa: multiple identities and Italy’s role

On 15 December 2020, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio launched the “Partnership with Africa”, a strategic policy document delineating our country’s attitude towards the African continent. This paper represents a synthesis between our vision of Africa, the awareness that we are operating within a continent where complex international initiatives are intertwined (not always in the company of like-minded countries) and the image that we think African nations have of us. Indeed, this is a dimension that requires pragmatism in pursuing the realisation of national interests as well as the necessary social and economic growth of our partners.

Eurispes’ Permanent Observatory on International Issues – Analysis

Recently, a new scramble for Africa is often evoked by international competition for natural resources, new markets, investment opportunities in newly developed industries, and economic-commercial (when not political-military) influence in some areas of the continent. Countries like Italy suffer from a conventional foreign policy’s disadvantage: the absence of secret agendas or a predatory approach when dealing with African countries.

And yet, never before has Africa resembled a block that is anything but monolithic, divided into areas of influence and primary intervention, with a high level of instability in which the international rivalry (sometimes cloaked in soft power confrontations) takes on the characteristics of an actual ‘clash of civilisation’.

Africa is presented as a block that is anything but monolithic, divided into sectors of influence and intervention 

Italy is finally reknitting the threads of dialogue in Libya, as shown by Minister Di Maio’s recent visit to Libya with his French and German counterparts, and under a more interested American gaze (also regarding the role of our country in this delicate situation), partially compensating for the continuing political and military invasiveness of Russia, Turkey, Egypt and the Emirates. More generally, we are witnessing a struggle without quarter in the Afro-Mediterranean basin. In reality, one side exploits migratory phenomena, adopts indiscriminate geostrategies to secure energy routes, and employs the threat of allowing the expansion of violent radicalism and organised crime towards European shores.

Sahel: a complex theater divided between the EU, Russia, China and the United States

Moreover, we observe that international cooperation initiatives multiply in the Sahel region – usually under French leadership – which is increasingly understood as an area expanding eastwards (beyond Chad) and southwards to meet the Great Lakes Region. However, the scarcity of primary resources, the impoverishment caused by climate change and natural disasters, the growing detachment between institutions and citizenship, the captious use of jihadist and rebel ideologies to mask common criminality generate profound instability and social discontent that leads to episodes of violence, in a scenario where it is often difficult for an external actor to identify the real adversaries.

It is a complex theatre, where the EU, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are increasingly harmonising their collaboration through the ‘Coalition for the Sahel’, an alliance based on the four pillars of military cooperation (e.g. with the ‘Takuba’ operation), capacity building for security and the civil sphere (‘Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel – P3S’), and development cooperation (‘Alliance pour le Sahel’). Several uncertainties hang over this scenario, such as the insufficient capacity of “force generation” of the integrated military action of the G5 countries, a visible but intermittent American commitment, a greyed-out narrative about the UN’s commitment, the role of China and its political and financial invasiveness – proposing a policy of conditional prosperity rather than a policy of economic development. Lastly, Russia’s policy offering a power and pragmatism approach that contrast with the more arduous path of emancipation proposed to the countries in the area to secure EU cooperation.

The situation in the Horn of Africa

Similarly, we observe another complex situation in the enlarged Horn of Africa region, where some international partners’ stubborn action is acting as an additional divisive element on the road to the increasingly unfeasible triad of “security-stability-development”. The Gulf Monarchies have exported the harsh intra-Islamic confrontation to countries such as Eritrea (increasingly isolated from the rest of the world), Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, slowing down the dynamics of cooperation in the area and subjugating them to one-way interests. This interest is expressed in conditional financial aid and support for religious and cultural initiatives with peaceful contours that cannot always be defined and through strategic alliances with adversary countries such as Turkey and Egypt.

Accordingly, Turkey, Egypt, China and Russia are also very present in East Africa, with investments, commercial and cultural alliances, military training, and young generations enrolled in their academies. And again, we observe an unbalanced relationship for the countries of the African Horn in terms of cultural identity (think of Ethiopia and the unresolved problem of its ethnic federalism), capacity for good border relations (see the recent breakdown of diplomatic relations between Kenya and Somalia), good governance, inter-ethnic dialogue and self-sustainability.

Shadows are advancing on the Ethiopian-Egyptian-Sudanese dispute over the construction of the Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Ethiopian soil. As their planned attempt to fill up the reservoir next summer is pushing Cairo – because of the necessity to control the Nile’s river flows – to retry to internationalise the issue by looking for arbitration support from the United States (recently active in the Horn), the UN, the EU and the African Union – whose persuasive potential on the continent does not seem to be taking off.

 Slow but steady growth in Sudan

Lastly, Sudan is growing slowly but steadily, supported by the international community, and is searching for a new social and communitarian identity in the context of the – still fragile – post-Bashir democratic transition. There have been setbacks in Ethiopia – with the crisis in Tigray – and Somalia – in the turbulent relations between the federal government and the federated states – where the splintering dynamics dictated by ethnic and clan affiliation and by the thirst for power prevail over inclusive dialogue; thus hindering the common interest of gathering forces to face the challenges of the post-pandemic comeback. The possibility of fair elections in both countries is receding, and the wall-to-wall confrontation between contenders, tribal groups and visionless institutional interlocutors is approaching.

Territorial and corporate breakdown in some key states of continental identity

Moreover, the territorial and social disintegration, the worsening of the rule of law, of human rights and of fundamental freedoms in African countries that have always been the icons of the continental identity, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon and Zimbabwe are of great concern to us. These countries are currently corroded by corruption, infighting, violent extremism, separatist dynamics and worsening socio-economic and health standards, reflected in the growth of vulnerable citizens. All this, under the distracted eyes of that part of the international community that prefers to look elsewhere in the absence of national gains.

The situation is different in Mozambique, where the advance of Jihadi terrorism, the conquest of strategic areas in Cabo Delgado, and the dangers connected to an unmanageable crisis in significant energy supply areas have shaken international waters. Consequently, this motivated the EU and the US’s activism, who have pushed for the development of an anti-Daesh coalition aiming to develop a counter-offensive capable of defending the central institutions.

What does this mean for Italy’s national interest?

The “Partnership with Africa” clearly defines our geostrategic priorities in Africa and how to pursue the national interest best.

Promoting peace, security, good governance and human rights; virtuous management of migratory phenomena; trade alliances and investments in search of new markets for our companies; development cooperation, combating climate change, cultural and scientific cooperation. These are issues on which Italian attention will continue to focus, provided that this commitment is accompanied by an awareness of the importance of pursuing a valuable degree of shared values with our African partners to strengthen our positive narrative in terms of consistency and moderation and to close the gap with other competitors.

Essentially, it is fundamental for Italy to continue to weave an enlarged international fabric, capable of keeping the door of dialogue and negotiations open, of emphasising – in every forum – the shared interest in developing real energy and environmental diplomacy, through which we could articulate the common good of our partners.

The strengthening of the Italian diplomatic presence in Africa

It also applies to the management of irregular migratory flows towards the Mediterranean and the related removal of jihadist and criminal threat from the Sahel area. In this sense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has begun an essential journey by strengthening the diplomatic presence in the area (with offices in Guinea Conakry, Burkina Faso, Niger, and others soon to come in Mali and Chad). Indeed, we believe that it is only through a conscious analysis of local dynamics, together with an effective ground presence and a direct approach to cooperation – not just the one resulting from the mediation of Brussels or New York – that our country can continue to play a leading role in international cooperation.

Accordingly, it will be essential to ensure the coordination of the various State bodies and to continue participating in the different multidimensional formats of cooperation in the region and military peacekeeping missions, as was recently done with the “Takuba” operation. Moreover, Italy contributes with a contingent in Niger and participates in the European EUTM and EUCAP missions in Mali and Niger, providing training in security, human rights, electoral processes, the rule of law, and good governance. In these scenarios, the Italian training component’s high level of expertise and the unusual ability to adapt to local conditions make Italy’s collaboration highly desirable for other international partners.

In the Horn of Africa, growing centre-periphery tensions are cancelling out the positive effects of the 2018 Ethiopian-Eritrean peace agreements. Italy enjoys respect in the area, capitalising on a traditionally moderate posture even in complex countries like Eritrea. In other words, there is a need for a more significant Italian presence in the Horn. Defence Minister Guerrini’s recent visit to Djibouti and Mogadishu goes in the direction indicated. In full communion with the strategic priorities of the EU, we observe the need to stabilise the Horn area to avoid a ‘balkanisation’ of the region. In truth, it is a crucial necessity to preserve the security of the naval and commercial routes in the Red Sea; to manage the migratory and criminal dynamics to avoid that criminal groups – through the porous Sudanese borders – could join the Sahelian area or to the south towards Tanzania and Mozambique – where we have an essential tie. Moreover, an improved presence of Italy in the Horn is needed to weaken the expansive capacity of Al Shabaab in Somalia, which has become more resilient and capable of logistic-organisational ties with a wide range with other African areas (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Burkina Faso), and is always ready to fill the institutional gaps in certain federated States of the Country.

Effectively, it is fundamental to capitalise on the Ethiopian heritage of gratitude and respect for Italy, hence allowing the EU (and the USA) to play a valuable and realistic role in the negotiations to stop the Tigray fight, respect human rights and humanitarian law, and stimulate a genuine and inclusive national dialogue. Italy needs to continue to make a visible contribution to multilateralism and continental integration within African regional organisations on a broader horizon.

The strategic positioning of Italy in the balance of the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Europe

Italy, traditionally located in the hearth Mediterranean, European and Atlantic geopolitical spheres, is better placed than others to highlight to African partners the positive benefits of an integrationist approach to international relations.

The year 2021 is a significant one for our country in the African context, with the presidency of the G20 and the co-chairmanship of COP26. Today, the numerous dialogue spaces allow us to call for international actors to accelerate the path of continental integration by strengthening the customs union mechanisms of the African Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).  While also encouraging an integrated and solidarity-based approach to the debt of African countries by broadening the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). Or again, drawing international attention – with important ministerial events in the field such as “Meetings with Africa” next October – to the need for a common approach to climate change and energy transition on the African continent, to encourage change, resilience and adaptation, in the name of shared benefits deriving from the respect and defence of the environment and the pursue of eco-sustainability.

*Fabrizio Lobasso, diplomat, Deputy Central Director for Sub-Saharan African Countries at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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