Reaching out to Africa

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta could be a willing partner for India to deepen relations

January 11, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta , one of India’s most important African partners, is here in India. He has participated in the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit as a special guest and will hold discussions with leaders in Delhi beginning January 11. When a foreign leader reciprocates a visit by the Indian Prime Minister to his country with a trip within six months, it sends a clear signal that something significant is under way.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s African safari in July 2016 took him to South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. He received a warm welcome everywhere, but he built an instant rapport with the Kenyan president who is committed to development, counterterrorism and peace in East Africa. In an unusual gesture, in the joint communiqué issued after the visit, Mr. Modi congratulated Mr. Kenyatta for his initiatives and achievements under his “strong and forceful leadership”. Mr. Kenyatta, in turn, acknowledged the important role Mr. Modi was playing “both nationally and internationally”.


Kenya hungry for more

At the summit-level dialogue in Delhi, the two leaders may give momentum to deepening bilateral ties, with the focus most likely to be on strengthening economic cooperation. Bilateral trade, valued at $4.23 billion in 2014-15, has the potential for rapid growth if Indian companies are willing to be active in a competitive market. Kenya, the earliest home to Indian investments, is hungry for more. Diverse sectors in Kenya, such as energy, pharmaceuticals, textiles, agriculture and financial services, will welcome greater involvement of India Inc. Some major Indian corporates, including the Tatas, Reliance, Essar, Kirloskars and Dr. Reddy’s, are flourishing in Kenya. The government must approve additional Lines of Credit in strategic areas to secure mutual interests. Education and health are other promising fields.

Strategic and economic interests coalesce as India tries to leverage the intense competition among Asian nations for Kenya’s affections. Mr. Kenyatta, following his ‘Look East’ policy, has developed close relations with China but he needs other partners too. He scored a major victory when he persuaded Japan to hold the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development Summit in August 2016 in Nairobi. This was the first TICAD summit held in Africa. Japan and India are committed, especially after Mr. Modi’s visit to Tokyo, to enhance long-term collaboration in Africa. By participating jointly in key infrastructure development projects in Kenya and the surrounding region, Indian and Japanese companies can offer an innovative model.


Future of East African Community

The East African Community (EAC), comprising Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, has emerged as one of the most successful of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. Having established a customs union, it is building a single market and wants to set up a monetary union. While progress is slow, it remains set on its path to grow as a market of 168 million consumers and a combined GDP of $161 billion. Intra-EAC trade increased from $1.85 billion in 2005 to $5.63 billion in 2014, while the flow of foreign direct investment declined from $7.8 billion in 2006 to $3.8 billion in 2012. The bulk of foreign investment now comes from China. Andrew Othieno, an expert on EAC affairs, says that despite its complex challenges, “the EAC has fared admirably well”.

The Indian government and India Inc. need to devise a trade and industrial cooperation strategy to upgrade existing links with the EAC. But India has to tread with caution as the traditional rivalry between Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, and Tanzania, the largest member-state, has been renewed. To Tanzania’s chagrin, President Kenyatta has established closer ties with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi under the umbrella of “the coalition of the willing”. However, India enjoys friendly and cooperative relations with all EAC members and is in a position to enhance its engagement with the region. The presence of Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit, has offered India an opportunity to discuss expansion of economic ties.

Africa in Trump era

As U.S. president-elect Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House , what will be Africa’s place in the international agenda? In the current debate on the likely impact of Mr. Trump’s entry on to the world’s stage, Europe and Asia are under the scanner, but there is hardly any mention of Africa. The apprehension is that Africa may be sidelined in the first two years of the new administration. This makes it imperative for India to take a keener interest in Africa if it is serious about playing a global role.

India’s Africa policy is broadly in line with Agenda 2063, promoted by the African Union. However, some recalibration in New Delhi’s approach may be needed because issues such as UN reform, counterterrorism, climate change and international solar alliance will inevitably take longer to show results. Meanwhile, India must concentrate on actions that strengthen its economic cooperation with select African countries.

Building on the path forged by its predecessor, the Modi government has already achieved much: holding the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015 and an unprecedented political outreach to Africa through visits by the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister to a dozen countries in 2016. The time is ripe to implement the agreements that have been signed.

India’s Africa experts have been disappointed with the decision to put off the next summit with Africa to 2020 instead of 2018 as was expected. South Block should consider convening a ministerial review meeting in early 2018. Nairobi, with its excellent location and conference facilities, could be an ideal choice and Mr. Kenyatta a willing partner.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and a former high commissioner to Kenya, South Africa and Lesotho.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.