Africa, India’s next frontier: Today’s gambit is different | india | Hindustan Times
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Africa, India’s next frontier: Today’s gambit is different

india Updated: Oct 25, 2015 10:30 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
India-Africa summit

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, at the 1961 NAM conference in Belgrade.(Getty Images)

The ancient Romans had a saying: “There is always something new out of Africa.” Two thousand years later, this still remains true. Next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will host the India-Africa Forum Summit.

This isn’t new: it’s the third in a row and Africa summits are hosted by China, the European Union — even Turkey. But it is shaping up to be the biggest one ever: Over 40 heads of state or government are scheduled to come, over 50 African states will be represented. Even China didn’t do so well.

Delhiites will curse a week of snarled traffic, but this marks a new era in India-Africa ties. India’s earlier attempts at a continent-wise relationship were grounded in anti-colonialism, diaspora ties and nonalignment. How shallow this was became clear when most African states supported China in the 1962 war.

Today the gambit is different. “We are looking forward to a qualitative upgrade in our engagement with a resurgent Africa,” says Navtej Sarna of the Indian foreign ministry about the summit.

What has also changed is Africa.

Today the continent is more stable, more wealthy, economically much more diversified than it was a decade ago. Over half the African states have per capita incomes greater than India. Even in human development, about a dozen fare better. This is one reason Africa has registered a steady 5% GDP growth the past decade and, last year, was home to seven of the fastest growing economies in the world. Africa, while battered by the commodity price drop, is today much more than just stuff dug out of the ground. Financial services are the continent’s fastest growing sector. Even the economy of Nigeria, one of India’s major sources of oil, is 60% services.

Africa is not the epitome of political stability, but it is much improved. Coups, once a fortnightly event, are rare. The civil strife of Libya or Somalia is the exception not the rule. Over 30 African countries are democracies. Rising investment and the growing need for public services means the average African is asking for more. Survival is being supplanted by aspiration. Polling data shows poorer Africans put healthcare as their top priority, richer ones hunger for education. Food and housing they take for granted.

India’s aid programme in Africa is among its most extensive in the world. Indian investment, led by its private sector, is now $15 billion and rising. In polls they give among the highest positive ratings to India. This, despite continuing cases of racist attacks on African students and visitors inside India.

But China scores even better on all fronts. India has also not reciprocated Africa’s lowered tariffs, argues Harry Broadman of the World Bank, inhibiting trade. Nonalignment, the Cold War and the struggle against apartheid, writes Nigerian academic Kingsley Moghalu, were the “anchors of the India-Africa relations” of a past era. “Today, the economic ambitions of India and Africa... create an imperative for a win-win partnership.”

That so many African leaders have asked to come to New Delhi — 15 delegations was the norm — is a sign they feel India has something to contribute to their continent’s future. Modi will have much to offer, but delivery in the years to come will determine if the new era becomes the new norm.

Public profile

If India wants a United Nations permanent seat it can’t do it without Africa’s 54 votes. Most of its regional multilateral bodies — BRICS, IBSA, NAM, the Commonwealth and the Indian Ocean Rim Association — have an African component.

Africa is too big a contingent to ignore. Global realities are changing. Western influence in Africa is slowly declining or is stagnant.

China, whose presence in Africa is roughly threefold that of India’s, is the main external player filling the vacuum being left by the West. Though many commentators are alarmed, polls show that most Africans are appreciative of what Beijing is doing — at least for now.

India is exploiting its soft power edge by a huge aid programme built around the lines of credit, education and the like. But India will have to repair its own economy to be able to leverage this better.

China is already moving fast, setting up dozens of Confucious Institutes across the continent.

But it struggles with its lack of a common history with Africa. That is an advantage India has. Having Africans looking to the country on climate change or UN reform would massively boost India’s global influence.

5 percent growth

Africa has one of the fastest growing continental economies in the world — and the crash in mineral prices hasn’t stopped it yet. Growth will be a healthy 5% this year and telecom, finance and transport will lead the boom. Rwanda now has a better business rating than Italy and is positioned as a financial hub.

The growth in the service sector has been the big change in recent times in Africa and it is now spreading into education, health and banking as a new generation of Africans look to invest in themselves and their children.

These are exactly the areas where India’s economic advantage lies. Even China has understood this — only a third of its African investments are now resource-driven. Its new investments are in telecom, infrastructure and transports — not in just mining and extraction. In most polls, China gets approval ratings of about 10 percentage points more than India in part because of its growing footprint in every economic field.

Bottomline: Africa will continue to grow even as oil, iron and other commodity prices drop because its growth has been moving away from these for some time. Africa is as wealthy as India, its GDP being slightly more and its population a little less. If Indians can spend, so can Africans. And the evidence is that Africa’s growth has reached a sustainable level that is more impervious to global ups and downs.

Chinese construction employees take a break at the Port of Abidjan. (AFP Photo)

Security issues

Somali pirates, al Qaeda affiliates, Nigerian 419 scammers and drug running mean Africa is also a key part of India’s security structure. Working with African states is essential for India to tackle these sensibly.

But the return of piracy and the uptick in Chinese naval activity is a reminder that New Delhi needs to start taking on greater responsibility to set the agenda in the Indian Ocean. Hence, island tours by Narendra Modi and Indian naval co-operation with African states on the Indian Ocean littoral. Countries like Mozambique are now the centre of a multi-faceted Indian engagement — investment, trade, military training and development aid. Having such countries looking to New Delhi is necessary to ensure that this is India’s Ocean.

The African Union issued its own 2050 Integrated Maritime Strategy which helps. India now needs to look for convergences between this strategy and its own naval missions. But it will also have to keep talking to African coastal states separately — many have their tweaks to the AU’s maritime paper.

Not all African countries, even those on the Indian Ocean, necessarily feel the need to move closer to India. Some are happy with the US; others have become too close to China. Summits are good places to influence them to give some thought to a third geopolitical option.

Investments

If India wants a United Nations permanent seat it can’t do it without Africa’s 54 votes. Most of its regional multilateral bodies — BRICS, IBSA, NAM, the Commonwealth and the Indian Ocean Rim Association — have an African component.

Africa is too big a contingent to ignore. Global realities are changing. Western influence in Africa is slowly declining or is stagnant.

China, whose presence in Africa is roughly threefold that of India’s, is the main external player filling the vacuum being left by the West. Though many commentators are alarmed, polls show that most Africans are appreciative of what Beijing is doing — at least for now.

Also read: Scaled-up India-Africa Summit promising amid global transitions

India is exploiting its soft power edge by a huge aid programme built around the lines of credit, education and the like. But India will have to repair its own economy to be able to leverage this better.

China is already moving fast, setting up dozens of Confucious Institutes across the continent.

But it struggles with its lack of a common history with Africa. That is an advantage India has. Having Africans looking to the country on climate change or UN reform would massively boost India’s global influence.

Political model

Africa used to be the land of “presidents for life” and shades-wearing dictators. Today, over half the countries are democracies and multi-party constitutions exist in over 50 African states. Not all would pass the liberal democracy litmus test of a John Locke but they represent something new in a continent whose recent history has been one of coups, civil wars and rigged polls.

India is an obvious example for Africans — a low-income country that has evolved one of the most stable democratic structures in the world. India prefers not to promote democracy to others but has provided technical assistance like electronic voting machine technology to the likes of Egypt and Namibia, when asked. As a new African middle-class emerges, India could be an example of how to get one’s politics right in resource-poor environment. It helps that there’s such a close connect between Africa’s and India’s moral leaders — for example, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

A similar connect is needed between a new generation of African leaders, civil society activists, journalists and academics with their Indian counterparts.

Says Sarna, “The future points to a close, mutually beneficial people-centred development partnership.” A larger civil society engagement is required beyond the summit-level. It is one where India scores decisively over one-party China.

Ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria became the first opposition candidate to defeat an incumbent. (AFP Photo)