Re-defining India-Africa ties

| | in Oped

Perhaps it is early to conclude about the India-Africa summit, but one thing is sure: The forum gave an assessment of ties as they exist today, and also indicated of what the relationship will look like in the years to come

As the curtains are drawn on the Third India-Africa Forum Summit, New Delhi’s largest diplomatic outreach in several decades, we need to ask: Was this just another grand gathering of world leaders or will the conference emerge as a milestone that redefined India’s engagement with the African continent? Of course, it is still too early to offer a definitive answer, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is having bilateral consultations even today (October 30), but it will be fair to say that the summit produced a fair assessment of India-Africa ties as they exist today, and also offered some important indicators of what the relationship will look like in the years ahead.

In the first case, there was an honest acknowledgement of the fact that, while India’s ties with the African continent go back thousands of years and have grown enormously in recent years, they are still under-developed. As Mr Modi himself said at the plenary session on October 29, India hasn’t always been as attentive towards its African partners as it should have been, and on some occasions it has fallen short of expectations. Consequently, India hasn’t been able to fully leverage its inherent advantages in the continent.

That said, there was also genuine appreciation for India’s role in the emergence of a post-colonial Africa and its continued support as a development partner. As is well-known, Indian and African leaders worked together to fight against foreign rule and bring freedom and prosperity to their people. In fact, at its 1928 annual session in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), the Indian National Congress officially linked the Indian freedom struggle to the global fight against imperialism. Later, a newly-independent India, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, continued to lead the global anti-colonial struggle from the front. It promoted the African cause at international forums, placed the anti-colonial movement at the heart of the Non-Aligned Movement and also provided active support to African liberation groups.

By the time most African nations gained sovereignty, India had also established itself as a strong development partner within the model of South-South cooperation. The ITEC programme, which continues with much success till date, has trained and skilled hundreds of Africans in a wide variety of fields and subjects, in India. In fact, many African ITEC alumni are national leaders today — for example, the President of Nigeria, Mr Muhammadu Buhari, was trained at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu; and so was Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who governed from 1999 to 2007.

The other, more recent, tool of Indian diplomacy in Africa has been the concessional lines of credit. Launched in 2004 and disbursed through the Export Import Bank, these soft loans have a host of activities — from mega infrastructure projects, such as roads, railways and power plants, to relatively smaller projects in food processing and IT training, and everything in-between. For example, in Angola, a $40 million Line of Credit has helped modernise the country’s rail system workshop and improve the supply of railway rolling stock, while in Malawi, a $30 million LOC is funding the One Village One Product Programme and the Small Holder’s Irrigation Programme, which bring agricultural plants and equipments from Indian factories to Malawian farms. Similarly, Indian lines of credit have helped set up a hydro-electric plant in Burundi, rice and maize plantations in Cameroon, a technology park in Cape Verde and a cement plant in the Central African Republic.

This brings us to the second aspect: Where does the India-Africa partnership go from here? Of course, we will continue to upgrade some of the core elements such as education, skill development, agriculture and medicine. We can also expect to see, for example, heightened cooperation in the energy sector. Already, in the decade between 2005 and 2015, India’s oil import from Africa has gone up from zero to more than 25 per cent of its total import bill. India is also investing in the Africa’s emerging oil and gas sector. State-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation has stakes in an offshore gas field of Mozambique, in the Greater Nile Oil Project in Sudan and in one of the blocks of the joint development zone of Nigeria-Sao Tome and Principe.

Another area that should open up for greater cooperation is defence. Peacekeeping will, of course, remain an important element, but direct military ties must get a boost. Currently, India has military-to-military cooperation (mostly training) with more than 30 African nations. Indian defence training teams are deployed in countries like Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho and Seychelles. In Namibia, two ITEC experts are on deputation from the Ministry of Defence as advisors in civil and ICT-related works while in Nigeria, India helped set up the defence academy. Gradually, the private sector is also joining in — mostly with non-lethal military supplies.  Another aspect of defence cooperation includes anti-piracy missions and counter-terrorism operations. India has already played an active role in the former. 

A fairly new dimension to the India-Africa partnership will be cooperation in the related fields of climate change and renewable energy. It will be interesting to see how India and the African nations negotiate their positions at the upcoming UN climate change conference in Paris. Prime Minister Modi announced on Thursday that a Solar Group of nations (comprising states that have huge potential for solar energy, and this includes almost all of Africa) will be introduced at that summit. There have also been reports of a similar grouping of coastal nations, focusing on blue economies. These are interesting ideas, but only time will tell how they are implemented on the ground.

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