Lapo Pistelli is Italian deputy minister of foreign affairs. He is among representatives of non-African states taking part in the 22nd Ordinary Session of African heads of state and government summit meeting here in Addis Ababa, headquarters of the African Union.
While the official was in Addis, Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter spent a few minutes with Lapo Pistelli to discuss Ethio-Italian and Afro-Italian diplomatic relations and related issues. Excerpts: The Reporter:
How do you describe Ethio-Italian diplomatic relations?
Lapo Pistelli: The state of relations is excellent at the moment not only because of the historic ties between the two nations but also because bilateral relations in terms of cooperation has also improved across time. For instance, Italy cooperates with Ethiopia in managing crisis in this region. In this regard, we have appreciated the role that Ethiopia is trying to play vis-à-vis the crisis in Somalia and South Sudan through regional mechanisms like the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development). On the other hand, since Addis Ababa is the seat of the African Union, it is quite clear that Ethiopia is a diplomatic hub both to the region of Africa as a whole. This clearly gives us a lot of political space to deepen this relation. What are the priorities of the Italian government with respect to supporting Ethiopia?
As you know, Italian development support does have its own general priorities and as a country Ethiopia has to, let's say, adapt these Italian priorities to the priorities of its own. In this part of the world, usually we deal with sustainable agriculture, education, health and similar fields. In this particular case in Ethiopia, we have a good program which we support in collaboration with UNIDO (United Nations International Development Organization); it is about creating small/micro and medium enterprises in the leather sector. Now, the program is three years old and we renewed the support agreement the last time I was here in May. We would like to work more in areas that we focus on in some other countries, such as gender equality and women empowerment. But for the time being, we are dealing with some other priorities in Ethiopia.
There is an initiative by your government called the Africa Italian Initiative. What is it all about?
First of all, it is a sort of general headline, a title track in a way, in order to re-address the priorities of Italian diplomacy in Africa. We are not the first in the row and not going to be the last, but now everybody is aware as to the role that Africa is going to play in the world in the near feature. Seven out of the ten fast-growing economies in the world are in African and if you combine the demographic trend and the growth rate it would be clear that Africa is the next place where everybody wants to be. It is also clear, on the other hand, that the percentage of African trade in the world is still very low; we are talking about less than two percent of the world trade accounted for by African economies at the moment, but if you see all these trends from a long-term standpoint, the importance of the continent would be very clear. The demographic feature as well is very much promising. For us, it is very important to be here. How can we be here? It is clear that Italy, like any other European country can be here; we can be hear just like China. Yes, we may not have the EXIM banks or financial facilities like that of China, but we are here to build a fair partnership, one that is not dependent on a power of financial aid. Rather, we are here to cultivate long-term friendship. So, in a way, the general headline is how to turn the spotlight on Africa and say to our people, national constituency, NGOs and business community members that a new light has dawned on Africa. During our presidency in the next semester at European Union, we will keep pushing that light on Africa.
As you know, Ethiopia is constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile (Abay). What do you say about it?
First of all, we know that Salini, like other Italian companies is well-known and experienced in its trade. The required level of skills needed in building dams and big infrastructures is one of the skills that we are bringing not only to Africa but also to the Gulf region. Secondly, the infrastructure projects in Ethiopia is not a project which is run by the Italian government or financed by Italian Cooperation. Rather, it is up to the Ethiopian government. We closely follow the involvement of Salini in this big infrastructure here. Coming from Europe, it is to be remembered that up to the Second World War, it was not possible to transform the source of potential division and conflict. For example, coal and iron in parts of central Europe were shared resources for the region and the continent. So through time coal and iron stopped becoming a source of war and were being shared for prosperity. We hope that hydro-power energy should be the future source of shared benefits in this region. As far as the government is able to build a positive relation with Sudan on the basis of infrastructure connection, we really hope there will be a fruitful solution between Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. Even in the development of this very big infrastructure, we also hope that the technical dialogue that is in place will be able to bridge the differences between the governments. A few months ago there was a movement objecting to the erection of a monument and a mausoleum to commemorate the former Italian viceroy in Ethiopia during the Italian Occupation, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. What do you say about it?
For us it is a very old and buried story. It started some years ago. It was not an initiative by the Italian government; now it is over. For us, the file is completely closed. There is no monument at all: no new initiative in that regard. There is also an inquiry from the judiciary in Italy to understand whether some other aspects of the matters need to be explored.
So are you saying there is no monument erected to commemorate Graziani?
No, not at all.
What is the role of Italy in promoting peace and security in Africa, like in the cases of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and so on?
We are trying to do our best either on a bilateral basis or multilateral basis to find solutions to the problems. On the multilateral basis, I would like to say that Italy is strictly cooperating with the EU and AU framework. On the one hand, we are also working under the United Nations structure. We have to underline that Italy is the first contributor to the UN peacekeeping operation from the western countries. And, we are also providing help through the bilateral instrument which is the African peace facility allowing the Africa Union to pay a part of the salary of soldiers who are involved in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). So there is a commitment in trying to strengthen all the process of stabilization in the post-conflict period. Unfortunately, as I said before, Africa is the next place to be: but it is also a place where we have still a lot of conflict. We are involved also in the stabilization of Somalia in the Horn of Africa. We fully respect the principle of ownership, this is one of the main mantra of all Western and Europeans here in Africa. We have to enhance this to enable Africans within the African Union to deliver political decisions in managing their conflict.