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Eritrea: Asmara pushed to close the Italian school, story of a lost relationship

by Guido Talarico

 The closure of the Italian school in Asmara, Eritrea, which with 1.200 students is perhaps the largest that Italy has abroad, may seem like a small thing. An accident along the way, a local issue, the result of misunderstandings, or at most misunderstandings. At least that is how it was perceived by the Italian and international press, so much so that the episode passed under silence or seen as a whim of the local authorities. But this is not the case. The intervention of the Eritrean government, which revoked the license and thus definitively closed the school, is a formal act that in fact loosens, perhaps definitively an important experience but which over the years has ended up becoming increasingly difficult and a mirror of the sterile relationship between the two countries. The reconstruction of the facts is all in all simple. The Coronavirus pandemic also breaks out in Eritrea, the Government promptly adopts the necessary measures to combat it, but the Italian school, on the initiative of the Headmaster, endorsed by the Italian Embassy, goes its own way and closes the school without agreeing or even informing the competent Asmarine authorities in advance.

 With two letters sent a few hours before closing, Headmaster and Ambassador informed the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Italian school was closing due to the virus and this at a time when there were still no established cases in Eritrea. Goodbye and thank you. Little does it matter that the competence is local, forgetting respect for national sovereignty. Little matter that 90% of the students are Eritrean, very little matter that the management of the school is governed by a bilateral agreement between the two countries which, on initiatives of this kind, requires prior opinions and approvals from the Eritrean authorities. And evidently it is even less important that a country such as Eritrea had every right to establish which paths to follow in order to fight the pandemic, given that today, in the light of the facts and according to the New York Times, this is one of the African nations that has been able to better fight the virus and assist the population. The unilateral closure of the Italian school for the virus, albeit in contempt of current regulations and respect for a minimum of institutional etiquette, could also be robbed as a mere accident due to management ignorance if it did not come, as we said, at the end of a season of foreign policy that has made Italy increasingly distant from Africa, even in those territories where there are ancient roots and ties, as is certainly the case in Eritrea. 

 We’ve been to Asmara several times. We visited both the elementary school and the high school. We spoke with the teachers and we were able to see the beautiful and ancient maps of the whole Horn of Africa made by Italians at the beginning of the 20th century and preserved with care and I would say miraculously in a library of the high school. We also saw the enthusiasm of hundreds of kids proud to be in that wonderful school and to be able to speak Italian. A pride that is obviously not born from the misdeeds of the colonial era, which remain etched in everyone’s memory, but that finds nourishment in the good that Italians have done in decades of stay in Eritrea. A stay that lasted until the end of the 60s. The building and urban infrastructure, still of great charm, the trades handed down for generations, the professional and even entrepreneurial skills remained in the DNA of many Eritreans. Asmara is as everyone calls it ‘Little Rome’ and Eritrea is the country where the presence of Italian culture is the richest in Africa. And yet, all this, as the ‘Blade Runner’ replicant Rutger Hauer would say, risks being ‘lost in time like tears in the rain’. In the course of our travels we had already been told about some unpleasant episodes, where some representatives of the Italian teaching staff have been involved in gestures that have contributed to poison the climate with the authorities and the population. Polemics, impatience, gestures and misplaced words.

But in the past the school has experienced other vicissitudes and willingness to close down on the Italian side also for reasons of cuts and savings in public spending. A short-sighted project that was immediately thwarted by luck and shelved. The creators of that project will be able to sing victory today. But we must all be aware that the closure of the Italian school is not a secondary episode, quite the opposite. And to be considered a serious fact because it testifies how Italian foreign policy in Eritrea, as indeed in large parts of Africa, even those dearest to Italy is managed, to say the least, without a strategic vision. From what we have been able to reconstruct, the firm decision of the Asmara government to close the Italian school is also a way of saying enough to this policy. A reaction that is the result of an exasperation motivated by years of continuous acts that were certainly not friendly, not to say hostile, carried out by the various Italian representatives sent to Eritrea and by a disinterest and ostracism that was felt during the 20 years of war against Ethiopia and that in fact continued even afterwards. History has shown that Eritrea was on the side of the just and the international community finally recognized this truth, favouring peace and cooperation treaties and, for example, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy, who wanted to share it with President Eritrean Isaias Afwerki.  But Italy has not taken the leap, it has not seized the opportunities for peace and openness. It is necessary to pay tribute to Premier Giuseppe Conte who went immediately to Asmara to re-establish relations, promising a resumption of commercial and entrepreneurial relations between the two countries. Other visits by business representatives followed, but then not much happened, also according to the entrepreneurs we met, because of the not exactly encouraging action of the Italian Embassy in Asmara. So everything remained in the enunciation of good intentions, of that “we will come, we will develop, we will do”, that lasts the space of a public intervention and that, sadly, sometimes characterizes the Italian way of doing abroad. Perhaps, as we have said, the size of this episode may seem modest. But what’s behind it is much more serious. Asmara’s decision to revoke the Italian school license is a sign of intolerance and condemnation of the attitude of the representatives of the Italian government that goes well beyond the last episode. It is now up to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio to succeed in stitching up and re-establishing a more fruitful reaction. At this point it is an uphill challenge, quite difficult to recover. We’ll see how he plays it out. For now the news is that one of the largest Italian schools abroad is closed. A shame for Italy, for the Eritreans and for the teachers who, while complaining, were there at 7.000 euros a month.

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