The coup in Niger is not good news for Italy, potentially putting its much-touted new ‘Mattei plan’, which seeks to reinforce energy partnerships with African partners, to a halt, and increasing immigration flows towards Southern Europe, writes Francesco Sassi.
Niger coup is major threat for Italy’s energy ‘Mattei Plan’

Francesco Sassi is a research fellow in energy geopolitics and markets at Ricerche Industriali ed Energetiche (RIE) in Bologna.

As the Niger coup initially unfolded, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was in Washington, meeting US President Joe Biden. This was a long-awaited visit, seen to legitimise her right-wing politics at the highest international levels.

Reportedly, Africa was at the heart of the bilateral talks. In fact, Rome is seeking US and EU support for its “new” and “peer-to-peer” approach towards continental instability – a plan dubbed the “Mattei Plan”, named after Enrico Mattei, founder of Italy’s oil conglomerate Eni.

But the ousting of Bazoum could put this plan into jeopardy. The Sahel is on the brink of a dramatic conflict, which could facilitate the spread of jihadism in West Africa. The regional destabilisation would likely increase the threats to strategic energy infrastructures and trigger massive flows of immigrants to the southern borders of Europe, a lose-lose result for Italy.

EU’s energy hub

In continuity with her predecessor Mario Draghi, Meloni is looking towards Africa to reshape Italian energy security and transition.

The Italian government wants to revive the country’s strategic positioning at the centre of the Mediterranean, transforming the peninsula into a hinge between energy-thirsty Europe and Africa’s vast energy potential.

Over the last 18 months, Italy’s energy diplomacy has forged a renewed South-North axis, replacing the one built on European interdependency with Russia. With Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine politicising the country’s energy relations with Europe, Rome is now looking at the coastal states of the Mediterranean Sea to diversify imports.

Eni, the Italian energy major, reinforced bilateral partnerships with Algeria, now Italy’s main gas supplier, and brokered the largest energy investment war-torn Libya has witnessed over the last 25 years. The Draghi and Meloni governments expanded Italy’s energy outreach even farther south, boosting partnerships with Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, and Mozambique.

According to Meloni, energy investments will help countries in both North and Sub-Saharan Africa, shoring up local economies and reinforcing political relations with African leaders, and unlocking unprecedented opportunities to mitigate chronic issues like food security and climate change.
The regional implications of Niger’s coup

An island of democracy in a sea of military-ruled countries (including Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad, but also Libya and Algeria), Niger ultimately is a strategic outpost in the Sahel. Washington, together with Paris and Rome, poured hundreds of millions of euros into Niger in both development aid and military presence to fight radical Islam and protect their strategic interests, including uranium mines.

However, this contributed to rising anti-colonial sentiments in part of the population as well as acrimony within the military establishment, turning Niger’s soldiers against the president they vowed to protect.

Now West Africa is on the verge of a new scenario and potentially even a war. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, announced it had suspended all economic ties with Niamey. Nigeria also cut electricity exports to Niger.

What is yet more concerning is ECOWAS’s threat to restore Niger’s constitutional order through military intervention. Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire have already said they were getting ready. Meanwhile, the juntas of Mali and Burkina Faso have backed the new Nigerien rulers, stating that an attack on Niger would be perceived as a declaration of war.

Now, a number of Sahel countries, stretching 3,000 kilometres from Guinea to Sudan, have undergone coups, and political instability is at its highest. The region effectively cuts Africa in two, threatening to destabilise Northern and Southern neighbours.

The hour of truth for the ‘Mattei Plan’

And Italy is looking at the unfolding events with great concern.

On Monday (31 July), Italian Ministry of Defence Guido Crosetto that Niger is part of a “hybrid war” fought by international players. He alerted Western countries – in particular, France – not to intervene like “a cowboy in a saloon” and warned about the “deflagrating effects” of Western boots on the ground.

After all, turning away from the African turmoil is not an option for a country so keen to secure new energy access. A regional conflict, should it erupt, will likely exacerbate chronic problems in the area and fuel those same international organisations fomenting illegal immigration Meloni has promised to counter.

The absence of the West would further open the door to Russian, Chinese and Turkish influence, which all have strategic and long-term goals in the Sahel.

Even without a war, the outlook for the Mattei Plan is rather grim. Jihadists could increase attacks on energy infrastructures in Niger and neighbouring states, including Nigeria, a major exporter of oil and gas to Europe. Against the background of a falling EU-Russia interdependency, Abuja is projecting to increase exports to the EU but faces continuous challenges because of theft, vandalism, and systemic corruption.

In the meantime, Nigerien and other African migrants will continue to flee from coup-ridden countries and reach Mediterranean shores, hoping to board ships headed to Italy or other EU countries. West African migrants will swell the ranks of already-established communities in Libya and Tunisia.

These countries are primary partners of Italy in the realisation of the Mattei Plan, but they are politically fragile and unable to manage migrant flows without resorting to brutal practices.

European governments, including Italy, promised economic aid to, and monumental energy investments in, Tripoli and Tunis in exchange for resolving migratory issues on their behalf.

With the Niger crisis, Rome could very soon (re)discover that energy interdependencies are, after all, just another political game.



A Anne DeLaterre

The Niger war is very vital. Russia is cleverly trying to control this country to put pressure on European countries.

10 months ago


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