Why Libya Needs Italy

By Gesu Antonio Baez

Twitter @JesusABaez


French Africa.

British Africa.

Even German Africa from times to time.

The legacy of the colonial powers from the Berlin Conference in 1885 still haunts discussions around the African continent to this day, in particular concerning current relations between former colonial powers and former colonies.

But Italian Africa? This is rarely in the political lexicon nowadays but truth be told, Italy joined late as one of the powers that ultimately took a “piece” of the African pie during the early days of the “Scramble for Africa”. At the time, Italy was freshly unified after a long battle led by the Savoy family of Turin and the famed General Giuseppe Garibaldi who unified the country after more than 1500 years following the fall of the Roman Empire. By the time the country took part in the Berlin Conference, it was itching to join the ranks of “European Superpower”.

But while the key European powers divided the continent like a birthday cake, Italy’s late arrival to the party left it with left overs nobody wanted; that is, the colonies of Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya.

Today, these are among Africa’s most troubled nations from crushing autocratic rule in Asmara to the disaster that has engulfed Libya following 40 years of Qaddafi’s rule. But there’s something to be uniquely said about Italy’s engagement with its former colonies which hark complete contrast from France and Britain. While France tries to exert itself as regional saviour in Mali and Britain keeps its influential grasp via the controversial organisation entitled The Commonwealth, Italy’s trying desperately to help its former colonies keep the peace.

Call it Catholic guilt perhaps but for the past several decades, Italy has tried to foster stability in countries and in scenarios where many have simply given up. This was seen in the last days in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu in that 90’s, when Italy was the last Embassy to leave the country and continued to maintain strong relations with Somalia even during the civil war, in efforts to foster peace and discussion.

And now, these same efforts can be seen in Libya and it is there above all where Italy’s help is needed more than ever. It’s there where the Italian government must continue to invest its aid and collaborative efforts in order to ensure future stability for Libya in the long run.

It goes without mention that Libya is in chaos; with two governments – one UN backed, another rebel supported -, ISIS controlling parts of the country and an emergency situation which perpetually seems to have no end in sight, the country is beyond the scenes of “democracy and peace” which the Arab Spring protests of 2011 seemed to promise. And it appears even more that the cries of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in Tripoli, just days after the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime, of a “new era” was indeed quite accurate – albeit not one of prosperity which they tried to conjure up for its future. Since then, Libyans have been weary of Western influence and are bitter at the result the Arab Spring has left on the country. Violence in the country has deterred many countries from doing business there, with very few states having reopened their embassy following the ill-fated Benghazi attacks which took the life of high-flying US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens back in 2012.

All embassies except Italy of course, who opened its embassy doors in Tripoli early this year. In fact, despite having closed its door, Italy never really has left the scene as it has been investing in a stable Libya since the early days of 2011 by hosting talks between Western powers and Libyan political factions in Rome. Italy’s interest goes beyond just the negotiating table and potential colonial guilt; it’s practical. With Lampedusa only 1,111 kilometres from Tripoli, Italy has become the key touching ground for the thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing chaotic scenes in Northern Nigeria, Eritrea and Somalia.

According to a recent Pew Study, Italy received little more than 160,000 refugees last year, only 10,000 shy of Greece’s total (170,000). The country is overwhelmed by the influx and with little support from the European Community, it realises that a stable Libya with an effective government can help control the borders and decrease the flow of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

And Libya needs Italy’s support. With divisions on all side, the country needs an ally who believes in its future still, regardless of how opaque it may seem at present. And an ally Italy has proven to be, concerning itself in both the developmental and humanitarian efforts of the region. The GNA, which is currently in power, struggles to provide basic services to its people, from medicine to urban fixtures. As part of its commitment to Libya, in 2016 the Italian government  provided assistance to medical infrastructure, such as field hospitals in Miserata. In addition, with the Libyan government also overwhelmed by the rapid rise of ISIS on its soil, Italy has also played a crucial role in working to rally support in Libya for the GNA to form a coalition in the fight against the Islamic State, providing hospital treatments in Italy for wounded Libyan government soldiers (a move many considered risky given recent reports of ISIS members disguising themselves as wounded soldiers just to reach Italian shores).

The Italian involvement in Libya must continue its partnership in order to support the country’s transition during this violent period, quell migration and gather global credibility for the future of Libya. Colonialism’s legacy in Africa has left an ugly mark on the continent and perpetual meddling from Western powers in local affairs in efforts to maintain their own interests and gain has added to the burden of many local citizens. But where there is partnership instead of ownership, there can flourish possibility – such is the case with Italy in Libya.