Italy's cautious approach towards Niger's political crisis
In light of Niger’s recent military coup, which removed President Mohamed Bazoum from power, the risk of the crisis breaking out into a wider regional conflict must be considered.
Meanwhile the West African bloc says it's prepared to deploy military forces to Niger in order to restore the country’s constitutional order should diplomacy fail. Four days earlier, the African Union kicked out Niger and began preparing targeted sanctions against the junta’s leaders.
But it is not just fellow African states who are watching the situation in Niger unfold closely.
"The idea of a Western-led military intervention in Niger under the guise of restoring the constitutional order does not sit well with Italy’s leadership"
Italy, which has maintained a small military presence in Niger, has high stakes in the African country’s future. Officials in Rome have concerns about how exacerbated instability in Niger stands to negatively impact Italy.
Since coming to power last year, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government has made migration a top issue, and Italian leadership sees events in Niger through this lens. This is no surprise given that Italy is where hundreds of migrants arrive from Africa each day.
“The main interest in Niger for the Meloni government remains the migration problem, which is deeply linked to the country's stability,” explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with The New Arab (TNA).
“The government headed by Bazoum had signed important agreements related precisely to the control of migration flows. Without Bazoum, it is not certain that things will continue in this way,” she added, citing Law 2015/36, which the EU and Niamey formulated to criminalise people smuggling from Niger to Libya.
No to Western military intervention, says Italy
The idea of a Western-led military intervention in Niger under the guise of restoring the constitutional order does not sit well with Italy’s leadership.
On 31 July, Italy’s Defence Minister Guido Crosetto warned against Western (i.e. French and/or American) military intervention in Niger.
He reminded Italy’s NATO allies that “playing cowboys in the saloon” comes with risks at a time in which “we cannot afford any more earthquakes” in this part of Africa. As Crosetto explained, the West should be pouring “water, not fuel” on the fires in Niger and other African countries.
Two days later, Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani also voiced his opposition to a possible intervention in Niger by NATO members: “I think we must apply pressure for the return of democracy in Niger, but any Western military intervention is to be ruled out because it would be seen as a new colonisation.”
To understand why Italy wants to rule out the idea of NATO intervening militarily in Niger, it is important to take stock of events in North Africa that unfolded in 2011.
After the Arab Spring erupted in Libya, Italy was a participant in the NATO-led military campaign which toppled Muammar Ghaddafi’s government. Among Italian policymakers and citizens, this intervention was seen as not only reckless and irresponsible, but also producing negative outcomes for the country.
The legacy of that NATO-led campaign informs much of the discourse today in Rome about Niger. Ultimately, the Italian government does not want to get drawn into another military fiasco in the region at Paris and Washington’s behest.
“In Italy, and especially within those political forces supporting Meloni’s right-wing government, the debate is unanimously asserting that it is because of the French [and US/UK] intervention in Libya against Ghaddafi in 2011, to which Italy reluctantly participated, that the North African country precipitated into an endless war,” Dr Francesco Sassi, a research fellow in energy geopolitics at Ricerche Industriali ed Energetiche, told TNA.
"The current Italian approach seems to be opting for a more cautious reaction that might be able to grant the collaboration of the future governing elites regardless of how the coup unfolds"
“Among the EU countries, Italy has lost the most from the deposition of Ghaddafi, a close friend with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the destabilisation of the country, an important energy partner to Italy and major hotspot for illegal migration towards Italian coasts,” he added.
Whereas France is Niger’s former coloniser, Italy has been far less involved. Colonial baggage from the past is not there with Italy, which, unlike France, does not have a track record of exploiting Niger’s uranium.
“Italy, which has historically had few relations with the Sahel, is among the European countries that are most accepted by local governments and the population. It is paradoxical considering the migration policies of the Meloni government,” explained Dr Francesca Caruso, a researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, in a TNA interview.
Mattei Plan in the context of Niger’s coup
Core Italian interests in Niger and other Sahelian countries pertain to the 'Mattei Plan’, named after Enrico Mattei, the founder Italy’s energy giant ENI who had a vision of Italy achieving energy independence.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year and the resultant energy shocks felt across Western Europe, policymakers in Rome have recently been speaking a great deal about the Mattei Plan.
This ambitious plan aims to make Italy a key Mediterranean energy hub that works closely with energy-rich African states like Algeria and Libya while at the same time better regulating migrant flows from Africa to Italy.
“Migrant flows in Italy remain at the highest level in the last six years. A war in Niger or an expanded influence of Islamist militants in the Sahel would force local communities to flee their homes, pressuring Niger’s northern neighbours and leaving the Meloni government to deal with less confident partners on the Southern side of the Mediterranean Sea—exactly where Rome is trying to source alternative energy resources to imports from Russia,” said Dr Sassi.
“The destabilisation of Niger, with a 25 million population, could have many political and economic implications for the whole Sahel. New migrant flows would certainly affect two pivotal countries for Italy’s Mattei Plan - Tunisia and Libya - already hosting large communities of Nigerien, and respectively afflicted by a deep economic crisis and a chronic civil war,” he added.
Such factors highlight Italy’s incentives for addressing the situation in Niger perhaps more pragmatically than the US or France.
“By reducing the emphasis on the respect of democratic values and procedures, the current Italian approach seems to be opting for a more cautious reaction that might be able to grant the collaboration of the future governing elites regardless of how the coup unfolds,” Dr Silvia D’Amato, assistant professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University and Secretary General of the European Initiative for Security Studies, told TNA.
"Preventing more turmoil from breaking out in the Sahelian country—as opposed to pressuring Niger to restore its constitutional order—tops Rome's agenda"
The Russian factor
Conventional wisdom in the West is that Russia is the global player which stands to gain the most from the Nigerien coup and mounting tensions between Niamey and Western capitals—namely Paris and Washington.
Policymakers in the West, including in Italy, perceive the Wagner Group’s activities in countries neighbouring Niger such as Libya and Mali as dangerous.
“The Russians can have a disruptive power in terms of stability. If we then consider that the French militarily are not present, that during the first moments of the protests some bangs of the population were hymning Russia, and that the junta self-instituted against President Bazoum has clear contacts with Prigozhin...there is nothing to be cheerful about,” Dr Fasanotti told TNA shortly before Prigozhin’s demise.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death notwithstanding, the potential for Russia and the Wagner Group to take advantage of the situation in Niger will remain a concern for Rome.
“To counter the Kremlin’s assertive Africa policy, Italy should coordinate much more with its own EU allies. The government’s shaky relations with Brussels hinder this possibility, and the 2024 EU elections will thoroughly test Rome’s ambiguous Europeanism,” Dr Sassi explained.
Important foreign policy decisions
The Italian leadership seems to have opted for a pragmatic approach to dealing with the Nigerien junta. Preventing more turmoil from breaking out in the Sahelian country—as opposed to pressuring Niger to restore its constitutional order—tops Rome’s agenda.
Bazoum’s July 2023 ouster, “puts Italians in front of the question of foreign regime change and, in general, cooperation and support to non-democratic countries,” Dr D’Amato said.
She noted that Italy and other EU members have embraced some contradictory policies in relation to undemocratic changes not only in the Sahel and North Africa, but also in Turkey too.
Meanwhile European governments—both on a national level and through the EU—have embraced rather undemocratic practices for dealing with migration.
“In this sense, Niger is putting Rome in front of a crossroad. The spotlight is now on whether to prioritise national interests and keep collaborating with countries experiencing democratic backlashes—and therefore potentially compromise our democratic rhetoric and narrative—or to stall cooperation and assistance in the name of democracy and human rights,” said Dr D’Amato.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero