India has been boasting of its unique ties with Africa, and rightly so. Since the first India-Africa summit in 2008, the country has committed billions in concessional credit and grants, aside from boosting ties with Africa over education, infrastructure development, public transport, clean energy, agriculture and more.
Last year, the Barkatullah University in Madhya Pradesh conferred an M. Tech degree on Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in a special ceremony, 27 years after he passed out of the institution.
Nostalgia plays a vital part in strengthening ties between countries. But there is no nostalgia if despicable incidents shape ones memories.
Incidents like the stripping of a Tanzanian girl and torching of her car, which smacks of both mob rule and racism, can poison the root of such goodwill.
Not so long ago, Africans were targeted in Delhi and Goa.
There is plenty at stake – political and strategic -- if relations begin to sour.
India has a fair amount to offer. It’s the source of more than 80 percent of the drugs to fight AIDS in African countries. A large number of African students find it attractive to study in India, many of them on government scholarships. For education in English medium, India offers reasonably good quality education at a fraction of the price at American universities.
A comment from Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete to former PM Manmohan Singh four years ago neatly encapsulated the challenge and the opportunity for India in Africa.
“The Chinese might build hospital buildings, but we need Indian doctors and nurses to serve there,” quipped Kikwete after his meeting with Singh, who was visiting the east African country, underscoring how his country wants to tap both Asian rivals for its many needs.
India has to do things differently in Africa. And helping Africa in capacity building has remained a crucial aspect of this strategy. Ensuring the goodwill of Africans is something India cannot do away with in succeeding in this objective.
Keying into this, PM Modi had told officials who were briefing him about last year’s summit to always factor in the role African students in India will play in boosting ties. And then there was the fairly large credit India offered in grants and scholarships.
“To add strength to our partnership, India will offer concessional credit of $10 billion over the next five years. This will be in addition to our ongoing credit programme. We will also offer a grant assistance of $600 million. This will include an India-Africa Development Fund of $100 million and an India-Africa Health Fund of $10 million. It will also include 50,000 scholarships in India over the next five years,” Modi said while addressing leaders from the 54 African countries at the summit.
However, India cannot match China in terms of money power; the Chinese will swamp the continent with $100 billion in investments by 2020. Nor can it match the US in terms of the superpower clout it wields.
But that is not the end of the story.
The country has already overtaken the United States as the largest trading partner of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and one of the largest oil producers in the world. With oil prices falling and political instability rearing its head in west Asia, it makes immediate business sense to switch to spot purchases of African oil from long-term contracts with suppliers in the Arab world.
Needless to say, it also makes strategic sense to invest in the energy sector in Africa, which now supplies 17 per cent of India’s total oil imports.
Also, African countries could be partners in Modi’s ambitious plans for a solar energy revolution.
Many Indian companies have subsidiaries in Africa, and have settled in with an ease that’s the envy of Western rivals. Africa offers an attractive demographic dividend – Kikwete’s Tanzania, for example, has nearly half of its population in the 18-45 age group. By 2020, Africa will have some 226 million people between 14 and 25. Many business leaders, executive chairman of Alphabet Eric Schmidt among them, speak of the continent’s youth as its hope.
Inevitably, what India does in and for Africa will be compared with what China does. Beijing is aiming for a trade volume of $400 billion in the next five years. India’s trade is projected to be a relatively modest $90 billion this year.
Winning their hearts and minds will be key in meeting these strategic objectives. But for that, we the people need to behave first.
(The writer tweets @jayanthjacob)