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Is Italy’s $6bn plan for Africa just PR-friendly neocolonialism?

The Mattei Plan was drawn up without any input from African leaders and is named after the controversial founder of Italy’s fossil fuels major.

It is troubling that many African leaders who skipped the G77+China Summit in Uganda last week flocked to Rome this week to attend the Italy-Africa Summit. Summoned by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to the grand Palazzo Madama, they were presented with the Mattei Plan for Africa.

The operative word there is for Africa. As Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, made clear to his credit, African leaders went to Rome unaware of the plan. “We would have liked to have been consulted,” he said.

Since African governments don’t have a plan for Africa, the continent continues to be part of someone else’s – be it Europe, the US, China, or the G7 (which Italy is president of this year). However, neocolonial plans in 2024 come dressed up in PR-proof rhetoric with descriptions like “not predatory, not paternalistic, but not charitable either”.

This is how Meloni described Italy’s “vision of development in Africa” that was otherwise light on detail. What was announced was that the four-year plan will have initial funding of €5.5 billion ($5.95 billion), of which €3 billion ($3.24 billion) is from a climate fund established by Italy in 2022. Finance will take the form of loans, investments, loan guarantees, and grants.

The plan will cover a variety of sectors – including education, agriculture, health, and water – but its main focus will be energy. Meloni explained that a key goal is to transform Italy into an “energy hub” that creates a “bridge between Europe and Africa”.

Another operative word is important here: Mattei. The far-right Italian government’s plan for Africa is named after Enrico Mattei, the late founder of Italy’s national oil and gas company, Eni, and someone notorious for using bribery to get things done. Eni has extensive fossil fuel projects across a dozen African countries. Its CEO, Claudio Descalzi, attended the plan’s launch alongside the heads of other state-owned companies.

The expectation of Eni’s significant involvement in the nearly $6 billion project has understandably raised many concerns among analysts and civil society. They have noted that the deal has very little detail on the energy sources that will be targeted and that it does not rule out oil and gas projects.

Ahead of the Italy-Africa Summit, over 80 African civil society organisations, led by Don’t Gas Africa, issued a joint letter to the Italian government. They warned that the exclusion of African perspectives in the formulation of the Mattei Plan “not only undermines the spirit of mutual respect and collaboration but also perpetuates a cycle of inequality”. They also raised fears that the plan is “spurring more investments and financial flows into new fossil oil & gas projects”, which is not only destructive but is “distracting resources from other sectors – such as the expansion of renewable energies or adaptation projects”.

African civil society and independent expert voices have made it very clear that Africa cannot accept partnership offers that deepen structural problems, increase dependence on extractive industries, and lock countries further into the obsolete, expensive, unhealthy, and unjust fossil fuel energy system of the past.

Countries need to build renewable energy infrastructure to serve the 600 million Africans who have no access to electricity rather than export it for Europe’s energy security. They need to invest in food sovereignty and agroecology, not cash crop exports to complement the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). And they need to escape the bottom of the global value chain and invest in high value-added manufacturing that prioritises clean energy, clean cooking, and clean transportation manufacturing for deployment in Africa.

If the Italy-Africa partnership does not respect these needs, then it is nothing but a blatant colonial project that must be exposed and rejected rather than celebrated by African leaders. Far from being good for the continent, the plan will be another part of a broader project to ensure that Africa continues to play the same role imposed under colonialism as a place for cheap raw materials, a consumer market for European industrial output, and a dumping ground for obsolete technologies and assembly line manufacturing.

One of the goals of the Mattei Plan is to curb migration. Italy is the gateway to Europe for thousands of migrants every year. Between January and July 2023, over 120,000 people arrived in Europe through the Mediterranean and Northwest Africa maritime routes, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). This was a 77% increase from the same period last year and will only grow as the climate crisis intensifies. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 (aka the day after tomorrow on the climate calendar) about 216 million people will be internally displaced by climate events globally, about half of them in Africa.

Despite the many benefits that inward migration brings, Italy – and Europe more broadly – have tried desperately to stop this movement. They mostly try to do so by more heavily policing their borders and intensifying their security apparatus with cooperation from North African governments. The Mattei Plan claims to address the root causes of migration but completely misses the mark. Migration is partly driven by push factors such as climate change and poverty. A plan that fails to address Africa’s structural needs and instead increases carbon-emitting fossil fuel projects, further burdens the continent with debt, and keeps countries rooted at the bottom of the global value chain will only add fuel to the fire they hope to douse.