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Italy’s Africa investment plan gets cool reception

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni unveiled a package of investment proposals covering multiple African countries during a summit with the continent’s leaders in Rome in late January. The total investment could amount to some $5.95bn, Meloni claimed.

“We believe it is possible to envision and write a new chapter in the history of our relationship, a cooperation among equals, far from any predatory imposition or charitable stance towards Africa,” she told leaders at the summit.

Italy has added diplomatic clout this year as it is presiding over the G7 group of advanced economies.

But not everyone was impressed with the Italian initiative. Meloni’s claim of a “new chapter” immediately prompted scepticism from African officials who complained that the right-wing Italian leader had failed to involve them in designing her plan. At the summit itself, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, bluntly told delegates: “we would have liked to have been consulted”.

Faki also stressed “the need to match actions with words,” adding pointedly that “we cannot be satisfied with promises that are often not kept.”

Italian job

The package unveiled by Meloni forms part of the so-called “Mattei Plan”, which takes its name from the founder of Italian oil and gas giant Eni, Enrico Mattei. The overall aim of the plan is to position Italy as a bridge between the two continents, with Italy receiving energy imports from Africa that may be re-exported to other parts of Europe.

Europe has increasingly looked to Africa to help compensate for Russian gas imports, which have drastically declined since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

The Italian government and Eni have been among the most active players in working to strengthen energy ties. Meloni has visited North African gas exporters Algeria, Tunisia and Libya multiple times since taking office in October 2022. Eni, meanwhile, has committed to huge investments in gas projects in several African countries in recent years, including an $8bn project in Libya announced last January.

As well as oil and gas, Italy is also set to import electricity generated from solar projects in North Africa. Several major projects to construct subsea transmission lines between Italy and North Africa are in various stages of development.

Meloni, however, was short on specifics at the summit. She did unveil measures to develop the biofuels supply chain in Kenya, while emphasising projects already underway such as the ELMED electricity interconnector between Tunisia and Italy, along with the planned H2 South Corridor to enable Africa to export hydrogen to Europe.

Beyond the energy sector, Meloni claimed that the Mattei Plan will also focus on education, healthcare, agriculture and water, and announced several small projects covering each of these themes. The thinly-veiled subtext of the plan is Italy’s belief that investing in African development must form part of the strategy to combat migration across the Mediterranean.

“Illegal mass immigration will never be stopped, human traffickers will never be defeated, unless the root causes that drive people to leave their homes are addressed,” Meloni said.

Clarity absent

But critics say Meloni’s headline promise of $5.95bn investment is not as generous as it first appears.

This figure will include loans and loan guarantees, as well as grants, Meloni said. In other words, the promised level of investment is dependent on persuading private sector companies to finance projects, and on convincing African governments that the terms of Italian loans are favourable.

There is also limited clarity on which projects are to be included in the plan, suggesting that already-announced schemes, such as the ELMED interconnector, will be covered by the $5.95bn claim.

A coalition of 80 African NGOs wrote to the Italian government in the aftermath of the summit to outline their concerns over its “neo-colonial” approach. The NGOs criticised the “exclusion of African perspectives and needs” in the design of the Mattei Plan, while also lambasting Italy’s heavy focus on fossil fuel investment.

“The continued ‘dash for gas’ in Africa by Italy and other European nations is perpetuating the climate emergency as well as the security and food crisis which in turn forces African people to dangerously migrate to Europe,” the NGOs said.

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