Engaging with an aspirational Africa

India’s attitude towards Africa cannot remain imprisoned in the ‘dark continent’ stereotype. Neither can it be defined solely by the legacy of the colonial era. Our language of engagement needs to create a new edifice defined by an aspirational Africa’s quest for a good life

The views of most Indians, including the educated ones, about Africa are still largely trapped in stereotypes. The episodic reportage in the media perpetuates some myths: Africa is still the land of jungle safaris; the place of Mahatma Gandhi’s first satyagraha; the continent of Ebola, HIV and tribal conflicts; the home-place of both Idi Amin and Nelson Mandela. We also see news items on Nigerian students peddling drugs and the hosting of fancy wedding ceremonies for India’s nouveau riche in South Africa. In short, a ‘dark continent’ with some bright spots. Some new stereotypes have also come to shape contemporary views of Africa — it is a growing market for Indian companies but the Chinese have stolen a march over the Indians.

The success of the Africa-India Summit being hosted this month in New Delhi will have to be measured by the extent to which it challenges these stereotypes and encourages greater people-to-people contact between the neighbouring continents. Can India’s ‘sub-continental drift’, so to speak, away from, what can be called, its ‘Mother Continent’, be reversed?

Rise of the African middle class

At the turn of the century The Economist magazine (May 2000) ran a cover story on Africa titled “The Hopeless Continent”. Thirteen years later the magazine returned to that ‘hopeless’ continent and published a cover story (March 2013) titled “Africa Rising: A Hopeful Continent”. The lead editorial focused on an ‘aspiring Africa’, drawing attention to the rise of a new urban middle class seeking the good things of life.

“Africa is booming,” reported Fred Swaniker, founder and executive chairman of the African Leadership Academy (South Africa), at a conference that the International Institute for Strategic Studies organised on African geo-economics a couple of years ago. “One feels it every time one lands in Lagos, Addis Ababa, Nairobi or Accra... The energy on the streets is palpable, and for once, the rest of the world is noticing.”

Africa is no longer just about resources. A 2010 McKinsey report, entitled “Lions on the Move”, found that in the first decade of the 21st century, growing consumer spending contributed more to the growth of African economies than the commodities boom of that decade. This is one reason the World Bank and other institutions still remain optimistic about Africa’s economic rise despite the end of the ‘commodities super cycle’— the long-term decline in commodity prices, especially oil.

Despite the perpetuation of stereotypes at home, Indian businesses have been betting big on Africa’s rise. Many big Indian companies have already invested in opportunities presented by Africa and, contrary to the widespread perceptions, India is ahead of China at least in terms of private corporate investment. Greenfield projects involving investments from India are twice the number of such projects funded by investment from China, according to a recent report of the African Development Bank.

Business-to-business links

Several Indian business leaders with investments in Africa have told this writer that they are happy to have entered Africa and their business is doing well in Africa. Business-to-business links between India and several African nations, across the continent and including key markets in the eastern, southern and western regions of Africa, have become increasingly important and are driving the government-to-government relationship.

Investment from India accounted for six per cent — compared to three per cent from China — of all greenfield projects in Africa in the period 2009-14. While Europe and North America continue to dominate investment into the continent and still account for over 50 per cent of such projects, their share has been declining over the years while that of China and India has been rising.

Mr. Swaniker attributes Africa’s economic rise to five factors: an improving political governance; a rapidly growing population; urbanisation; a better-educated and skilled workforce; and, global demographics that will enable Africa, like India, to remain a young continent in an ageing world. Clearly, these factors mimic the Indian development experience.

There is one other key similarity between Africa and India — regional diversity. If India is a sum of its diversities, so is Africa, in every sense of the term. Equally, it too is marked by geo-economic diversity. Just as coastal India is more developed than the landlocked regions, coastal Africa is more developed than inland Africa, except where nature has blessed it with oil and other valuable commodities. It may have been a good move for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invite a mix of State Chief Ministers to interact with the African heads of government because the continent-to-continent dialogue is in fact conducted at the level of nations and States.

India’s new middle class may find a better connect with their aspirational African counterparts. Urbanisation is the growth engine for many African nations, spawning a new urban middle class that young India has to discover and relate to. Yet, city-to-city connectivity between India and Africa is virtually non-existent. Barring a couple of flights from Mumbai, there are few flights directly connecting cities in India to African cities. Better connectivity will boost people-to-people links, a weak link in the growing trans-continental relationship. Absence of a greater interaction between the constituents of a new aspirational Africa and their counterparts in a rising India has meant that the trans-continental relationship has been largely defined by the legacy of a shared colonial past rather than by the potential for a dynamic present and a promising future.

African culture deserves exposure

While the language of the new engagement with Africa should build on the foundations of the past — Gandhi, Mandela and Afro-Asian solidarity — it must create a new edifice defined by aspirational Africa’s quest for a good life. African music — especially that from west Africa (Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour) and South Africa (Miriam Makeba and the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo) — has its fan following in India. However, the more recent trends in modern African culture deserve wider exposure, especially on Indian television.

Authorities in China have invested in a systematic, institutionalised campaign to purge at least the educated urban Chinese of their racial prejudice against ‘black’ Africans. Enough has not been done in India, as is evident from the sporadic incidents of racist abuse against African students and tourists. Without a change of attitude at the people-to-people level, mere summitry at the top and government-sponsored events are unlikely to bring India and Africa closer to each other.

Another aspect of Africa’s diversity is the changing power equations among the continent’s leaders and laggards. Before the end of Apartheid, it was the nationalist post-colonial leaders like Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta; Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda; Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah; and Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie who spoke for Africa. Then Nelson Mandela rose to tower over all.

Thanks to Mandela and the competent Thabo Mbeki, South Africa gained salience and emerged as a continental leader. South Africa became part of the IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) group of developing world democracies, countries seeking membership of the United Nations Security Council. It also was admitted to the more high-profile BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), to which it was invited by China. South Africa seems to have since lost the stature, on account of corruption and incompetence of its present leadership under President Jacob Zuma, and its economic slowdown.

On the other hand, despite the fall in oil prices and civil strife within, Nigeria has gained in regional and global stature on account of the successful democratic transition and the new government’s battle against corruption and sectarianism. Given the rise of several other countries in Africa, and Egypt’s stabilisation, it is now not clear which African country would join the Group of Four (G4) — Brazil, Germany, India and Japan — in seeking UNSC membership. This explains Africa’s absence at the recent G4 Summit.

The diversity of the African growth experience, and of the continent’s geo-economic and geopolitical evolution in the post-Cold War period, has opened up new opportunities for Indian diplomacy and business. To be sure, other rising and major powers are also busy engaging with an aspirational Africa. What this means is that the opportunity that presents itself to India requires careful nurturing and much investment at all levels. Old slogans and platforms from the post-colonial Cold War-era will find few takers in modern post-Cold War Africa. It is the interests of a new aspirational, rising and hope-filled continent that India must now address.

( Sanjaya Baru is director for geo-economics and strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 1:32:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/engaging-with-an-aspirational-africa/article7777560.ece

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