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Decades of foreign service in Africa

Decades of foreign service in Africa

A great advocate for the rich bilateral relationship between his nation and Ethiopia, Ambassador Giuseppe Mistretta of Italy to Ethiopia as well as to the African Union, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) as well as Djibouti and South Sudan is departing to take up his next big assignment as Director for Africa at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Approaching his 60th birthday, the Ambassador opened up to Samuel Getachew on his two decades association with the continent, on Italian-Ethiopians, his immaculate fashion and on why he thinks his ambassadorship in Ethiopia was the highlight of his career. Excerpts:

The Reporter: So it has been 20 years in Africa for you. What were some of the highlights?

Giuseppe Mistretta: The highlight is certainly Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also the most important country for us in Africa. It was quite rewarding for me to be assigned to Ethiopia four years ago. It was great news for me not only in terms of my professional career but also in terms of my personal experience.

We have a big Embassy in Ethiopia. We do have more than 110 employees, including the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation office, Italian Trade Agency, the Military Attaché, the Consular Section, Italian Cultural Institute and Italian School. Ethiopia is therefore one of the most important countries in Africa for Italy and this Embassy is one the most important in our network.

So, the highlights for me here, in Ethiopia have certainly been the numerous visits we hosted: from the President (of Italy), Sergio Mattarella, last year in March and also our former Prime Minister in July 2015, Matteo Renzi. We also had two visits of Paolo Gentiloni, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is now the Prime Minister of Italy.

Another highlight I feel strongly about is the State visit to Italy of the President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Mulatu Teshome (PhD), whom I personally accompanied to Rome and Milan in October 2016.

We travelled together and shared many ideas and thoughts. This gave us the opportunity to talk about Ethiopia and Italy and our current bilateral relations. This has been the most rewarding moment for me as it would be for any diplomat. I feel very honored to have had the chance and opportunity to meet and take part in these very high-level visits, from the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Ministers and numerous other authorities.

Having your President in the country for five days with a full five-day program pushes you to your limits. But I can see now that these are the moments and highlights I will take with me when going forward.

Also while I served in Angola, I was very passionate about the country. I even wrote a book on tourism while the other was on the history of the bilateral relations between Italy and Angola.

You are now going to be heading to the Foreign Ministry in Rome, where you will be in charge of the African desk.

I spent 20 years in Africa before coming to Ethiopia. I was previously Ambassador to Angola and also worked in Libya. I see this new appointment as an opportunity to continue my commitment to Africa.

I was recently having a conversation with the Ambassador of Denmark where we both highlighted your style of clothing. You always wear beautiful ties. So who is your stylist?

That is nice of you both to notice that (laughs). I am an Italian and this is the way we dress. I own about 100 ties. In the Italian tradition, we try to change our ties every day. Italian ties are always better, but I do also own lots of British ties as well.

Your Embassy has been announcing a number of funding for local projects. What is the grand vision?

Ethiopia remains the second largest recipient of development assistance from Italy. That is after Afghanistan. For Afghanistan it is a completely different case, as we are involved in the reconstruction as well as spending on the military sector. In Ethiopia, we implemented a multiyear funding that lasted three years. We renewed it recently. The new development cooperation framework, which is worth 125 million euros, represents an increase of 25 percent from our previous funding. It is true we have been announcing small funding here and there, but the bigger envelope is worth much more. Our goal is to support the government’s Growth and Transformation Plan II for the socio-economic growth of the country.

But remember, we also continue to provide emergency funding; for example, during the droughts in the Afar region and Gambell and, in the last case, with refugees coming from South Sudan. We also contribute to the European Union’s effort for a better coordination of migration to Europe. We do that with the SINCE program (Stemming Irregular Migration in Northern and Central Ethiopia) which is worth 20 million euros and is currently in the implementation stage. The main goal of the SINCE program is to reduce the causes of irregular migration by creating better job opportunities, vocational training for women and youth in the most migration prone areas. In some ways, this initiative complements the objectives of the industrial parks of the country.

We also promote our culture and cultural cooperation with Ethiopian cultural partners. We also give opportunities for local actors to perform within our institutions.

The population of Italians in Ethiopia is small. What are some of their concerns?

We count them around 2,500. These people are in the main sectors of the economy, especially in infrastructures, constructions, textile and food. Most of the times they ask me to advocate for them on customs, taxations and the lack of foreign currency issues in order to enable them to do better business in Ethiopia and to contribute to the economy. What I tell them is that Ethiopia is a country of opportunities of almost 100 million people. Even if it has some shortcomings, Ethiopia offers a great deal of opportunities for investors and I ask them to have confidence in our bilateral relations and in the potentialities of Ethiopia.

There is now a European Business Forum in the country where we Europeans gather to discuss the challenges and we try to address them through proper channels.

Let me explain what I hear from outside and from my Italian-Ethiopian acquaintances. That some are being denied citizenship even when born in Ethiopia and even the cultural centers of Italy in Ethiopia now seem in tatters and Juventus is one example.

Sure. The ID card is a complex issue. Before, it was granted automatically but not anymore. For several years, there have been some difficulties by some Italians to get that card, which gives many benefits and privileges. Some of the benefits include being a shareholder of a company, own properties and even stay in the country as long as you want. There were delays on the renewal of these ID cards. For many nationals, this was seen as a great obstacle.

Now, there is a new law that came into effect a few weeks ago. We have to study it closely and see what the impact will be on the ground. I have not examined the technicalities of this new legislation but we shall see. Perhaps, it will be the answer for those who have been increasingly facing obstacles.

Regarding the Juventus Club, the Italian community together with Ethiopians and foreigners have recognized and identified that place as a cultural center. It has 3,000 members and most are Ethiopians and those with mixed backgrounds and others. When the issue of losing the property came out, it created a big a concern for us all.

We would like to treat this diplomatically with the Ethiopian authorities and I tried my best to identify a viable solution. Of course, considering the complexity of the situation, I think that the issue should not just be dealt as a merely judicial or technical issue but as a question of identity, cultural bonds and friendship between the two countries.

The solution should take into consideration the cultural bonds that Juventus Club fosters and closing it down would bring a substantial loss for the whole city. We hope that a diplomatic solution could be found, or that some kind of proposal will be identified in order not to lose sight of the rich cultural hub the Juventus Club has been over the last decades.

Any plan to buy the property?

It is impossible now to buy the premises of the Juventus Club and that has been declared by the Agency of Government Housing. It is a long and complicated story. The ownership of the property was never questioned since the 1950s. It was considered Italian. And some law came during the Derg era, giving it to the tenants and giving them the right to own it and to implement cultural activities in it.

There have been many rulings, interpretations that were in favor of the Club. Then, all of a sudden, there was another ruling that was against the Club. I am not in a position to judge the judicial aspects of the case but I would like to reiterate the importance of the Club as a cultural hub for the people of Addis Ababa.

The Italian culture is beautiful and inclusive. We see an African becoming Miss Italy and then we see the racism part, where Italians are throwing bananas at an African football player. As an Italian person and representative, how do you see your society dealing with the challenges of diversity?

We are mostly exposed to the challenges of multiculturalism. First of all, the flow of migrants arrives generally to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. Some use Italy as a transit to move elsewhere, while a relevant number remain in Italy. The hospitality of Italians to migrants, despite some issues with its politics, has been legendary. Italians are generally in favor of migrants.

But the migration issues should be manageable. The problem of migration is not just one of Italy but all of Europe and Africa. There is a big debate across Europe on how to distribute the responsibilities of migration. Not all countries agree on one solution. But as someone, who has spent many years in Africa, I think we should also have a flow of regular migrants and asylum seekers.

Now that you are heading home, has there been a place in Ethiopia that reminded you of home?

The most traditional place is perhaps Castelli. The taste of Castelli restaurant is quite traditional of the Italian culture and cuisine. I also like Gusto. To be honest, most Italians identify Castelli as one that is the best Italian restaurants. But, I would like to say, the market is big to open Italian restaurants in Ethiopia and in the region where there are not many Italian restaurants. In Djibouti there are few, in Somalia none but there is a large place for the Italian teaching, culture to be promoted across the continent.

Any lasting wisdom you gained in Ethiopia that you intend to take forward?

The hospitality of Ethiopians is always fantastic. I saw and benefited from the strong bond of friendship with many. I will remember that forever. The country is beautiful. If you go outside of Addis Ababa, as I often did, I consider the mysticism, the religious flavor, in Lalibela, Axum, Gondar and the beauty of the nature and landscapes; I will treasure and remember the memories forever. 

By the way, you are seen as an exceptional dancer.

(Laughs).  I just try to stay fit via sports and dancing. I use it to release the stress, the demands of my job, as it is with most of us in my field. I always try to balance my perspective in life. I try to move around and take care of myself. It has always been important to show the humane side of my life. We might be diplomats but we are also humans like everybody. I won a marathon reserved for the diplomats at the Great Ethiopian Run last year.

Was that a strategy to not have an Ethiopian win?

Nooooo! (Laughs)