OPINION

India-Africa summit: beyond the event

The India-Africa Forum Summit was, no doubt, a feather in the cap of the government and in particular for the Ministry of External Affairs that pulled out all the stops for it. Like a well-managed wedding, the venue was beautifully arranged, the guests were well taken care of, and dignitaries got a taste of Indian cuisine, culture and hospitality. There were the traditional squabbles within some of the family members of the African Union, and a few sulking relatives, like the Congress party that stayed away from the Prime Ministerial and Presidential banquets, but the events were executed to near-perfection. Yet like all good weddings, it is the success of the marriage, not of the pomp and splendour of the ceremonies, that will eventually count for India-Africa ties, and one must look beyond the optics to judge the summit.

To begin with, much has been made of the fact that a record 41 of the 54 leaders of the African Union (AU) came together in Delhi, compared with the previous participation of just 15 leaders or less in 2008 and 2011. This is misleading, as previously, the India-Africa summit followed what was called the ‘Banjul formula’, that the AU would be represented by 15 leaders chosen from the five founders of the New Africa Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) — South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Senegal, eight RECS (or Regional Economic Coordinators), the current and incoming AU Chairperson, and the AU Commission Chair. As a result, there was some consternation when India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now wanted to invite all 54 African Heads of State or Heads of Government, even though this was by far a more democratic format, followed by China and the U.S. Officials from Nigeria and South Africa in particular, two countries which together account for nearly half of the India-Africa trade, wondered if they were being equated with countries which have no relations with India at all. Significantly, after the IAFS this year, African countries have insisted the next conference be held after five years, not three years, a possible fallout.

Territorial dispute

The attendance of all led to an additional problem, as the dispute between the AU and Morocco over the Western Sahara state called SADR (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) erupted. Morocco claims the SADR, while the AU recognises it as a full state, which led Morocco to walk out of the AU in 1984. India recognised the SADR in 1985, but then withdrew recognition in 2000. For the Summit, India said it had invited ‘all’ African Union countries, although in reality had invited only 53, and then added Morocco. This didn’t go down well with several African countries, especially since the King of Morocco chose to arrive first in Delhi with the largest contingent, seen as ‘grandstanding’. A full debate erupted at the summit, when Algeria and others tried to insert a clause on ‘colonialism’ in the draft declaration, clearly aimed at Morocco, but which could also be read as ‘anti-Western’, which India, given its good relations with the U.S. and Europe, wished to avoid. Eventually, to the credit of senior MEA officials, the situation was smoothed out, but not before significantly delaying the declaration and the subsequent presidential banquet.

The other disappointment was on the language in the IAFS declaration on a Security Council seat, which mirrored the ambiguous language used by countries like China. “Africa takes note of India’s position and its aspirations to become a permanent member with full rights in an expanded UN Security Council,” it read. Given that both Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj publicly pitched for support to India’s case at the summit, this would have been a blow indeed, but one that can be fixed at a more bilateral level.

Focus diverted

On other issues, the declaration has much to commend it. Unfortunately, official comments and headlines sought to portray this as a ‘donor conference’, more about India’s announcements of $10 billion fund, 50,000 scholarships and infrastructure projects than about shared projects. In truth, each of India’s Line-of-Credit projects benefit India as much as they do Africa, giving a toehold in a continent where China and the U.S. already have a greater presence. For most countries there, India doesn’t represent just a ‘white knight’ or trading partner; it represents a country with similar problems, tropical climate, and challenges of poverty and disease, but has overcome many of these challenges through low-cost innovations. As a result, India’s rural healthcare, water conservation techniques, scientific expertise, educational facilities and programmes for women mean much more than the amount of aid would. In the IAFS declaration, the clauses on cooperation on food security, solar power technology, satellite weather research and the ‘blue’, or maritime, economy will probably go the longest way on the India-Africa partnership.India and Africa are a country and a whole continent, and can’t really be compared as equals. The meeting ground is one of ideas. For years, the common thread was the freedom struggle, with Mahatma Gandhi as a common inspirational link. Going forward, it is still important to unite against new attempts at exploitation, so they are not bullied into adopting unsustainable standards on issues like poverty alleviation or patents for generic drugs that India produces for Africa. It is this futuristic course that draws closer the ties between the African continent and the Indian subcontinent, described once by Nelson Mandela as ‘the golden thread woven in the common struggles against injustice and oppression’.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in



For most African countries, India doesn’t represent just a trading partner but a country with similar challenges of poverty and disease that it has overcome through low-cost innovations