Commentary. Today, in an Italy that is very different from Mattei's time, we find the same rhetoric accompanying and framing the trade agreements that the country's government is proposing to African countries and Albania, but with all that context completely removed from view.

Italy’s colonial impotence

Agreements, trade, travel, meetings – all those are fine, but acknowledging a common past that was often violent and exploitative is not something the Italian state is willing to do. Our relationship with former colonies continues to be problematic, unresolved, but above all deliberately swept under the rug.

There is no shortage of occasions and dates to talk about it. May 5 is one of them: the day that commemorates the beginning of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936) and, five years later to the day, the return of Emperor Haile Selassie. In Ethiopia, this is a national holiday, “Ethiopian Patriots’ Victory Day,” also called Meyazia 27.

At the grassroots level, things are slowly starting to move in the right direction, with commemorations around Yekatit 12 (the Addis Ababa massacre), but at the governmental level, whenever colonialism is mentioned, this is done in a biased way; the rule is to not talk about it at all. Another missed opportunity to do so came in February, with the return to Ethiopia of the first aircraft built in the country. According to a note from the (Italian) Ministry of Defense, “The airplane made its first flight in December 1935 and totaled about 30 hours of flight time, only to be abandoned in Addis Ababa in May 1936, before the arrival of the Italians, who requisitioned it and then put it on display in 1941 at the Museum of the Aeronautic Academy in Caserta.”

What exactly were the Italians doing in Addis Ababa in 1936? Why does the statement use the word “requisitioned” instead of more accurate ones such as “expropriated,” “stolen,” “plundered”? We should also not overlook the detail of the plane’s “abandonment,” which hearkens back to one of the most die-hard (neo)colonial fabrications: Africans, unable to use their own resources (natural or otherwise), can only abandon them to the elements.

The ministerial note speaks of a “historical relationship between Ethiopia and Italy,” insisting on a rhetoric purged of any reference to relations of domination, exploitation, and colonial crimes – mostly the same kind of rhetoric as was being used at the time, since the end of World War I. It’s not true that colonialism in Italy has not been spoken about, as a perennial fantasy claims: it has been talked about all the time, the problem is how, by whom, omitting what and focusing on which aspects (the “Italians are good people” narrative). In this case, the return of the plane has a particular significance in the realm of the restitutions that followed the end of empires, an issue that Italy has had to face recently and in a very complex manner (see, for instance, the Obelisk of Axum).

The disquieting agreements to build two migrant detention centers on Albanian territory, run by Italy and in which Italian and EU legislation will supposedly be enforced, also bring back echoes of colonialism. They mark a grand return of the latter, to a country that Italy controlled for only a few years during the World War – which did leave an indelible mark, including architectural – but where its influence lasted for decades. Perhaps it wouldn’t have warranted a full blown mea culpa; however, once again there is no mention of colonialism at all, while the issue of the repatriation of Italian settlers from Albania was finally resolved by granting pensions to the few remaining survivors only in the early 2000s, not a long time ago. Italy is keen to have its own little Guantanamo across the Otranto Canal without stirring up skeletons in the closet, whether Albanians or Italians stranded for decades in a foreign country because of a colonial enterprise.

On the occasion of the return of the plane to Ethiopia, Crosetto insisted on the importance of the mirage-like Mattei Plan for Africa. Unsurprisingly, there is a focus on the figure of that former president of the state oil company, and every mention of colonialism is glossed over in the process of returning “Tsehay” to the Ethiopian government, the first plane built in the country and named after Haile Selassie’s daughter. There are very many parallels between the Ethiopian and Albanian cases: not just regarding the territories and populations involved, which correspond in part to those that Italy colonized. It is also – if not mainly – about the attitude that Italy has towards those populations and how it “sells” itself. Today, like in the past, Italian governments and institutions are using rhetoric that sidesteps the country’s colonial history and presents Italians as good allies and equals, not as members of a wealthy Western economic-political elite.

Afterwards, in an Italy that had by then lost its colonies (it maintained a trusteeship over Somalia on behalf of the UN until 1960), a kind of rhetoric that almost cast it as a “third country” became established, even though Italy was included in the Atlantic alliance and had strong links to countries that continued to commit colonial crimes (France, Portugal), which thus claimed to be able to speak to the countries of the global South as partners. This was a decidedly complex geopolitical positioning, in which Enrico Mattei’s ENI could sell the North African countries the image of a peaceful Italy keen on working together, distant – or at least emancipated – from the process of exploitation put in place with colonialism by other European countries, and therefore a reliable and loyal partner, compared to the UK and France, for the countries that had built their new independence through anti-colonialist struggles.

The aim was to get those countries to open up to Italian technology and choose the latter as a partner. This is a rhetorical recipe that had, and continues to have, great success in Italy itself, since the Italians are convinced that their colonialism was special, better than others and, in the end, just a migratory movement of unemployed people to the colonies. However, back then Italy actually saw active movements of anti-colonial solidarity, as pro-Third World leaders (Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral) found refuge here and acknowledged that they felt kinship with large sectors of Italian society. Mattei himself openly supported independence struggles and delivered incendiary speeches that cost him heavy rebukes – and probably cost him his life.

Today, in an Italy that is very different from Mattei’s time, we find the same rhetoric accompanying and framing the trade agreements that the country’s government is proposing to African countries and Albania, but with all that context completely removed from view.

Italy today sees itself as a country with “no colonial skeletons in the closet” (as Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Manlio Di Stefano wrote a few years ago), for which colonial reparations to Libya, agreed by the Berlusconi government in 2008, the return of the Axum stele to Ethiopia in 2005, and this year’s return of Ethiopia’s first aircraft to its rightful owners have never been moments that would involve society and the institutions in a rethinking of the country’s colonial past and the manner in which that history has become central in constructing Italian national identity from 1946 to the present. With the sole exception of Oscar Luigi Scalfaro’s 1997 speech in Addis Ababa, Italy has never had the strength to open that closet and start rummaging through it, thinking about how to organize the change of seasons, about what to keep and what to throw away.

That closet continues to remain closed, and the colonialist garment the country is still stubbornly wearing is now torn in several places. It is time for Italian institutions to cast it aside and put away the colonial garb once and for all. And to keep doing so, perhaps starting with these dates, such as May 5, which are already so full of significance.

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