India is making a renewed push to regain relevance in a rapidly evolving African strategic landscape. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious outreach to the continent comes soon after President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Ghana, Ivory Coast and Namibia in West Africa in June, and Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa in May. During his trip, Mr. Modi visited key states in South and East Africa: Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. This sustained and systematic outreach to all parts of Africa is a welcome move after years of only intermittent attention to a continent where some of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are located, and with which India shares old historical ties.
Not by history alone But history is no longer enough to entice Africa to take India seriously. China’s sustained overtures to the region have led it to emerge as Africa’s largest trading partner. China’s trade and investment ties with the continent are one reason why parts of Africa are growing so rapidly, though this is also a very controversial relationship. Africa today has no dearth of friends and its engagement with global powers is more pragmatic, devoid of the ideological trappings of the Cold War period. India has to find a way to raise its profile and ensure that its age-old ties with Africa get a modern imprimatur.
India hosted the third India-Africa Forum Summit last year with great fanfare. More than a thousand delegates from all 54 African countries attended the summit, with more than 40 countries represented at the level of President, Vice President, Prime Minister and Monarch. This was the largest ever gathering of African nations in India with even some controversial figures like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi also making their presence felt. With this mega event, New Delhi was signalling its readiness to step up its engagement with Africa, a relationship which is centuries old, bolstered by trade across the Indian Ocean and a million-strong diaspora across Africa.
It is heartening to see Africa continuing to get adequate attention with high-profile visits from India this year. Such engagements are the only way to allay the concerns of a continent with which India has enjoyed substantive ties since Independence, but which now no longer views India as a priority nation and often complains of indifference on the part of New Delhi.
India today has growing stakes in Africa. With some of the fastest growing nations in the world, the needs of regional states are divergent and their strengths are varied. India’s focus over the last few decades has largely been on capacity-building on the continent, providing more than $1 billion in technical assistance and training to personnel under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. India has committed $7.5 billion to African infrastructure, covering 137 projects in more than 40 countries. It has also offered duty-free market access to Africa’s least developed countries. But India’s trade with Africa at around $72 billion remains far below potential.
It is a fallacy to pit India against China in so far as their ties with Africa are concerned. With its annual trade of around $200 billion with Africa, China is a much bigger player, but India has its own strengths in its dealings with Africa. Its democratic traditions make it a much more comfortable partner for the West compared to China in cooperating on Africa-related issues. India is viewed as a more productive partner by many in Africa because Indian companies are much better integrated into African society and encourage technology transfers to their African partners. New Delhi will have to leverage its own strengths in making a lasting compact with Africa and regain its lost presence on the continent.
Mr. Modi has quite rightly offered billions of dollars in credit, and development financing, to build a “partnership for prosperity” for Africa, underscoring that India’s focus remains on human development through trade, rather than the extraction of resources. But, though India has committed considerable resources to Africa, actual delivery on the ground and implementation of projects have been far from satisfactory. That’s the area India will have to work on if it is serious about gaining the trust of its African interlocutors.
Along the Indian Ocean There was a strategic dynamic to Mr. Modi’s tour as well, with all four countries on his itinerary connected to India via the Indian Ocean. With the Indian Ocean acquiring new salience in global politics, India is keen to regain its regional strategic space. The Indian Navy has been tackling piracy to protect the sea lanes of communication in the Eastern African coast and India is ready to explore joint defence manufacturing with key African states. India’s role as a regional security provider is an important one that New Delhi is keen to leverage.
It is also pertinent to recall that recent attacks on African nationals have maligned India’s image with some in the region questioning India’s openness to outsiders. This also underscores that despite government’s efforts to build ties with Africa, this relationship has suffered because of a perception of Africa being a far-off land for ordinary Indians. Unless the larger populace and the Indian private sector decide to take Africa seriously, the Modi government’s outreach is unlikely to yield the results it is perhaps hoping for. And Indo-Africa relations will struggle to reach their full potential.
Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.