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India's hour in Africa

Rajiv Bhatia
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AFTER 2008:Can India deliver what it has promised and, further, can it promise to do more? A file photograph of the India-Africa Forum Summit, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe (left) and the former President of the African Union, Alpha Oumar Konare. —PHOTO: AP
AFTER 2008:Can India deliver what it has promised and, further, can it promise to do more? A file photograph of the India-Africa Forum Summit, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Bernard Membe (left) and the former President of the African Union, Alpha Oumar Konare. —PHOTO: AP

The second India-Africa Forum Summit, to be held in Addis Ababa shortly, promises to be a memorable milestone in India's engagement with the “Mother continent.” Overwhelmed by the cricket World Cup, corruption dossier, the Royal wedding and the gripping Abbottabad drama, Indian audiences may have very little time for Africa. But, it is worth noting that energetic endeavours are being made on both sides of the Indian Ocean to strengthen India's multi-layered relationship with Africa, a trend that may have long-term impact.

African voices

I was privileged to have separate opportunities of interaction, the past two months, with the Prime Minister of Mozambique, the Vice-President of Kenya and the Delhi-based High Commissioner of one of the most important African countries. These meetings and other conversations with knowledgeable people from the continent have led me to make three important conclusions. One, African leaders have been genuinely appreciative of the positives in India's development model. They are keen to deepen cooperation with India in order to profit from our achievements and successes. Two, they are astute and pragmatic enough not to keep all their eggs in one basket. In simpler words, they are determined not to choose China over India or vice-versa. They plan to work with both and utilise the unfolding competition, to their advantage. Three, they are inclined to judge us by our words and intentions as well as action.

This is where true challenges lie for India's diplomacy in Africa today. Can we deliver what we have promised and, further, can we promise to do more?

Delhi Summit and after

After displaying a blend of uncertainty, distraction and ambivalence during the 1990s and later, South Block moved to accord a higher priority to Africa about five years ago. In-depth internal deliberations, dialogue with key partners, stock-taking of the rising competition, and the growing confidence and capability of India Inc. led the government to take its most ambitious initiative, namely the convening of the first India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in April 2008. Not only did it highlight the common perceptions of the two sides on a whole range of regional and international issues, but it also produced ‘the Framework of Cooperation' delineating the focal areas for expansion and deepening of exchanges between India and Africa. Participants and analysts alike were optimistic that this historic event would make a big difference. However, soaring hopes had to be lowered soon as bureaucratic procedures in the African Union and India slowed down the momentum. It took the two sides two years to finalise the joint ‘Plan of Action,' overshooting the deadline by a year. But thereafter, evidence of vigour surfaced, demonstrating how a handful of dedicated officials are capable of ensuring sustained follow-up.

Throughout 2010, Delhi played host to presidents and prime ministers from Africa. India's Vice-President as well as the Minister for External Affairs, the Minister for Commerce and Industry and other ministers found time to travel to several African capitals. They will be followed soon by a group of six Ministers of State who are being despatched as the Prime Minister's special envoys just before the second Summit.

In a first move of its kind, India invited the heads of Africa's Regional Economic Communities (RECs); six out of eight of them showed up to hold a productive dialogue with Indian officials and business leaders.

New Delhi strengthened its credentials by hosting the Ministerial Conference of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), which is another first. This event underlined that India planned to be active as a front-ranking advocate of causes dear to LDCs.

There has also been considerable progress in implementing the joint Action Plan. Disbursements from $5.4 billion as new lines of credit and from $500 million allocated for human resource development projects have reportedly been quite timely. Preparatory work is underway to establish four institutions of excellence symbolising India-Africa cooperation and a string of vocational training centres in various African locations.

Tasks at 2011 summit

In this context, it is to be hoped that the Addis Ababa Summit will try to break new ground. The easier option would be to make minor modifications in the Delhi Declaration of 2008. The more challenging and also more desirable strategy would be to broaden the vision, adopt a future-oriented approach, and show clear political will to scale bigger heights.

Leaders meeting in the Ethiopian capital — 14 from Africa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — could strive to set new targets such as of $100 billion for two-way trade and $150 billion for investment flows in the next three years, i.e. by 2014 when the third Summit will be due in India. They could work to create a climate in which India's products, expertise in services, technologies and project assistance find an easier entry into those parts of Africa which need them. They could also utilise information and communication technologies (ICT) as a powerful tool for expanding human resource development (HRD)-related cooperation that Africa needs. Above all, they could help India's cooperation with Africa to be re-balanced so that its reach towards Central and Western Africa becomes as potent as it is in Eastern and Southern Africa. A critical marker by which Addis Ababa may be judged would be greater generosity by India in financial terms: will India be ready to show it? The answer may depend on Africa's capacity to absorb fruitfully the substantial funding which has already been put in place.

Developments in Africa

While Africa's rise is no longer in doubt now, its nature and pace are being hotly debated among experts. Recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, the Ivory Coast and the Horn of Africa have sent out mixed signals at best. India follows an apolitical approach focused on building cooperation at bilateral, regional and continental levels. But, the political context can hardly be ignored. We should, of course, continue maintaining a low profile on internal developments in Africa and on intra-African conflicts, but we should not shy away from monitoring and appraising them on a sustained basis. This is one area where our own Africanists can help the government, for its ambassadors, though doing ‘political work,' have their hands full with day-to-day management of the relationship. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) can thus do with some additional assistance. Besides, our opinion makers and media need to make themselves better informed about the continent which is being hailed as ‘the new Asia'.

The Summit's planners have deployed a combined force of artistes, craftsmen, journalists, editors, academics and business leaders so that the labours of officials, diplomats and political leaders bear fruit optimally for the general cause of stronger partnership. Perhaps the Addis Ababa Summit will excite popular imagination, both in Africa and India.

In one area though a glaring deficiency stares in our face, which needs to be corrected. In the past five years, our highest ranking leaders — the President, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister — have managed to visit only a handful of African countries. This is hardly adequate. Long-pending invitations from African governments should be respected. Our higher political visibility will definitely help accelerate India's drive into Africa. It is time for the PMO to seize the moment.

(The author is a former High Commissioner of India to Kenya, and later to South Africa and Lesotho.)

Higher political visibility will help accelerate its drive into the continent.


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