Earlier this year, Italy hosted the first ever Italy-Africa Ministerial Conference in Rome. Held at the cavernous travertine-laden Farnesina headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting was attended by high-level delegations from over 40 African countries.
In his closing remarks, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi underscored his intention of broadening political and economic ties with the African continent, by voicing his hope for a “future in which Africa is seen not as the greatest threat—as some demagogues would have it—but as the greatest opportunity.”
The conference, which is intended to be a biennial affair, and Renzi’s visits to sub-Saharan Africa (the first ever by a sitting Italian premier) reflect the Italian government’s commitment to reinvigorating the relationship.
Italy has been late to realize the mutual benefits that can accrue from a more robust partnership with Africa. Even though it is the world’s eighth largest economy, and Africa’s sixth or seventh most significant trading partner, Italy’s postwar political engagement with the continent has been episodic, and commercial exchanges are below their potential.
Other countries have realized much sooner that regular high-level political dialogue featuring targeted discussions about trade and development could spur investment. China and India, for example, both hold triennial summits with African leaders, whereas the United States holds the biennial US-Africa Business Summit. The French arrange an annual Africa-France Summit, Japan regularly organizes the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, and Turkey has periodically spearheaded summits with continental leaders.
What accounts for Italy’s laggardness to date?
Italy’s insularity and relative economic underdevelopment explains Italian officialdom’s comparatively low level of engagement with Africa post-World War II. Political instability wrought by constant changes in government—63 since 1945—also stunted long-term strategic thinking at la Farnesina.
Moreover, at varying times and to varying degrees, Italy’s former colonial possessions—and their relationship with Rome—were beset with problems, some of their own making, others attributable to Italy. As a result, for most of the postwar period, Italy, unlike Britain or France, could not use its former colonies as a launch pad for strengthening political and business ties elsewhere on the continent.
Understanding the factors impeding closer ties between Italy and the sub-Saharan African countries with which it had historical ties requires understanding the nature of Italy’s postwar exchanges with Eritrea (an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941); Somalia (Italian Somaliland comprising most of modern-day Somalia was a colony from 1889-1941, it continued to be ruled by the Italians under a United Nations trusteeship until 1960 when, at independence, it was conjoined to British Somaliland); and Ethiopia (occupied, but never fully pacified, from 1936 to 1941).