Tag Archives: Italy

Italian Colonization in Africa

Flag of the Italian Empire

When we think of the colonization of Africa, the British and the French are the key empires that first come to mind, followed by the Portuguese, Belgians, Dutch, and Germans.  In the Scramble for Africa, Italy was not considered a key player in comparison to other major European powers. Italy did come to occupy Libya, Somalia, modern-day Eritrea, and later on Ethiopia briefly (although Ethiopia can boast to have had the only army to successfully repel an European force, the Adwa victory in 1896). As a student of Nigerian history, I have spent the last several years analyzing the nature of British rule in West Africa, especially in comparison to the French style. An overly simplified description would be that the British were comparably hands-off, I emphasize comparably, preferring to use indirect rule by bribing local chiefs and maintaining pre-existing structures of indigenous rule.  France however took a more top-down approach, centralizing its governments in Africa using officials from France, ousting local rulers, and imposing oppressive law known as IndigenatSince arriving to Florence to write my Niger Delta findings, I have spent more time thinking about how a European power could have been comparably less successful in its attempts to colonize African territories. Italy is an example of this.

At lunch with a noted Italian historian yesterday, I asked, “Why was Italy so poor at colonization?” His answer was direct, that Italy simply arrived too late to the colonization game to be able to compete with the firmly established empires that were already occupying most of Africa.  He emphasized that Italy did not become united as a country until 1861, and by then European colonizers had already been exploiting African peoples and resources for centuries.  At this time Italy barely knew how to govern itself, let alone far away foreign lands.

I would add to his account that there was a resurgence in the idea of an Italian Empire during WWI, a war during which Italy secured its stronghold in Libya particularly.  There existed a popular rhetoric of nationalism, in which interlocutors described Libya as still part of the ancient Roman Empire, and by extension of that as being part of Italy. Giovanni Pascoli, a great nationalist writer, stressed the importance both in his written works and speeches of forging an expanded national identity through conquest and praising of the proletariat. Yet still, Italy could never quite “catch up” with other Europeans in the colonization of Africa.

Mussolini‘s regime sought to regain a foothold in Africa starting in the 1920′s, and did so with his conquering of Ethiopia 1936, when he declared an official “Italian Empire.” However, WWI had depleted the resources of the Italian government and Mussolini failed to understand realistically what was necessary to successfully maintain rule over African colonies. It was only a matter of time before his fascism was brought to an end, and WWII created such reverberating changes in the European-African relationship that Italy essentially no longer had any power in Africa by the end of the War.

There is a bridge in Addis Ababa that I have heard about which has Mussolini’s inscription on it, essentially marking it as his future domain.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and apparently makes rulers have totally unrealistic goals for their conquests.

Benito Mussolini

Falling birth rates across the world, some more than others

I am currently in Italy analyzing the field data I gathered last year in the Niger Delta.  The transition has clearly been challenging, as I am re-adjusting to being a place with clear rules, and where I can spend more time being professionally productive and less time “surviving,” e.g. finding potable water, clean food, sources of electricity, etc.  However, one of the more startling thoughts I had my first week here occurred to me when I was roaming through the streets of Florence among a sea of silver-haired adults. I realized that I was only seeing perhaps one baby per day during my daily commute, and almost all of them were with mothers who had clearly immigrated to Italy from another country.  I asked myself, “Where are all the babies?”

In subsequent research, I have learned that Italy has the second lowest birth rate in Western Europe this year, at 1.4 children per woman. The CIA World Factbook, a reliable statistical source, says:

A rate of two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, resulting in relative stability in terms of total numbers. Rates above two children indicate populations growing in size and whose median age is declining. Higher rates may also indicate difficulties for families, in some situations, to feed and educate their children and for women to enter the labor force. Rates below two children indicate populations decreasing in size and growing older. Global fertility rates are in general decline and this trend is most pronounced in industrialized countries, especially Western Europe, where populations are projected to decline dramatically over the next 50 years.

In stark contrast, Nigeria has a birth rate of 5. 38 children per woman, almost four times that of Italy. Nigeria has the 13th highest birth rate in the world, in country that is already the most populous in Africa. This average probably would show a stark contrast between low rates in major cities and high ones in villages. As an anecdote,  the women I interviewed in rural areas typically said they had 6-9 living children.   Just from my observations, I recall that between 1/4 and 1/3 of rural Niger Deltan women I’d see would be carrying a pekin (baby) in a wrapper on their back. No wonder I noticed the missing babies here in Italy.

Italy’s low birth rate is coupled with a low mortality rate and longer expected life spans. The life expectancy in Italy is almost 82 years. Conversely, in Nigeria it is just over 51 years. Italians get 60% more life than Nigerians! Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a youth bulge and has been for decades; it is one of the driving explanations for ongoing violent conflicts in the region.  Europe, Asia and Russia do not even have replacement birthrates. While African governments struggle with feeding, educating and housing booming populations, Europeans and Asians are worried about who will pay into the social security necessary to care for aging populations.

The stress of the youth bulge: Lots of young people without older ones to help ensure stability.

Sociologists and economists hypothesize that the poor financial state Italy, Spain, and the U.S. are the reason for plummeting birth rates in those countries, but I will add a caveat.  In modern industrialized countries, I will buy the argument that people have less babies during times of economic strain, because in those societies children are financial burdens.  However, birth rates in developing African countries remain high because children there are not just burdens, they are also viewed as labor for rural families.  In agricultural areas, it makes just as much sense for families to actually produce more children during times of economic hardship, under the belief that they children’s labor will overall produce more resources than the children will consume. This is the reason that I don’t buy the historical argument I have read that the American birth rate in the U.S. went down during the Great Depression because of economic conditions; at that time, as is true in rural Africa today, children could create capital through their labor. The relationship between birth rates and the economy is not so clear to me.

Have any thoughts on this?

Italy’s population

Nigeria’s population