India - Africa Partnership: What the future holds?

April 28, 2010

The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi held a national seminar on India-Africa Partnership: What the Future Holds on Wednesday, April 28, 2010. It was organized to discuss and evaluate the future of India’s historic ties with African countries. During the Seminar it was acknowledged that Africa is going through transformation not only in conflict resolution and peace but also in its economy. Its geopolitical significance has increased in the strategic calculus of major powers. Secondly, the traditional approach based on the emotional quotient is not going to work any more now in the prevailing scenario. India needs to look at Africa in a renewed sense and there should be a proper approach to study the same.

The participants in the seminar were from different fields. The Indian diplomatic community was represented by Ambassador Shashank, Former Foreign Secretary, Ambassador R. Rajagopalan, Mr. Gurjit Singh, JS (E&SA) MEA, Dr. Ausaf Sayeed JS (WA), MEA, and Ambassador V. B. Soni. The eminent panelists from the academia included Prof. Rajen Harshe, Vice Chancellor Allahabad University, Prof. Sanjukta Bhattacharya, Jadhavpur University, Prof. Ajay Dubey, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof. Aparajita Biswas, Mumbai University, Dr. Bijay Pratihari and Dr. Jamal M. Moosa from Jamia Milia Islamia. Panelists from IDSA included Mr. N. S. Sisodia, DG IDSA, Dr. Arvind Gupta, LBSC, Prof. P. Stobdan, Senior Fellow, Ms. Ruchita Beri, Senior Research Associate, Col. Raj Shukla and Ms. Shebonti Ray Dadwal, Research Fellows. The following issues were highlighted in the seminar:

Need to Develop Strategic Ties: The conference reiterated that India and Africa share an old civilisational link, a shared legacy of anti-colonial struggle and an emotional bonding. It was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who laid down India’s Africa policy for the first time in a positive manner. Anti-imperialism was given special emphasis in his policy. In the post Nehruvian period, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, India had a great impact on African countries. During the Cold War, India’s relation with Africa was ‘selective’, due to ongoing bloc politics. Even after the end of the Cold War, Africa was basically treated as a marginalized continent. But over the years, due to factors like democratization, introduction of multiparty election system, and rising GDP have helped many African countries to improve their image at the international level.

Over the last few years, the relationship has entered a realistic phase. India’s status as a rising power and its increasing dependence on energy resources brought about a new dimension in India-Africa relations. Mutual cooperation became important. The 2008 India-Africa Summit was a path breaking development in strengthening relations further as the summit emphasized particularly on India’s engagement in developing peace and security in the African region.

However, it was noted that there is a lack of coherence in India’s Africa policy. It was felt that most African countries give India high regard, look up to India, and appreciate it for its non-intrusive policy which is rare by any major country. However, India has not capitalized on the goodwill it enjoys in Africa because of a lack of vision in its foreign policy. India’s Africa policy had been ‘request-based’ instead of ‘initiative-based.’ The ‘request-based’ approach is more rewarding as it increases bargaining power. Now it is high time India looked at Africa from a strategic point of view and planned accordingly; otherwise it will miss the opportunity.

India has already developed strategic partnerships with African countries like Nigeria and South Africa. It has also established defence cooperation with thirteen African countries. India’s contribution towards peacekeeping operations (PKOs) in various parts of Africa since the 1960s has been highly appreciated. At present, the Indian government is basically focusing on training and capacity building in peace keeping in Africa.

Role of Major Powers: Africa has now become a central issue in great power politics. The United States (US), the European Union (EU) and China are the major powers in the context of Africa. Africa’s natural resources and the post-9/11 security scenario are two important drivers of great power competition in Africa. In recent times, US engagement with Africa has increased manifold after the American embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998. Although the United States has always used aid as a foreign policy tool in Africa in the post-World War II period, a new set of countries is receiving much higher aid in the wake of 9/11, reflecting American priorities. Africa-EU relations stabilized after the Africa-EU Lisbon Conference. However, trade balance heavily favours the EU; and Africa’s distrust of European countries continues.

China is an important power in the African context. It has dramatically increased its physical presence and visibility by sending huge numbers of Chinese workers and officials there and is cultivating rapport with African governments by using their services, whereas India lags far behind on this account. On the competition between India and China in Africa, it was felt that India can compete with China in certain sectors of economy and in certain African regions. India’s pace of engagement there is much slower than that of China. The biggest advantages for India is that African countries have never considered it as an interventionist power since, unlike China, it does not follow a policy of labour-capitalism, which means that Indian companies do not bring labourers from India. By and large they provide employment to local African people only. India should continue to send troops for Africa missions under the aegis of the United Nations. It should train African militaries and help African countries build capacity. As far as the Russian role is concerned, it is still an emerging power in Africa, though in the last five years its interest in Africa has increased.

Focus on West Africa: During the conference special mention was made of the West African region. Despite its richness in natural resources including iron ore, gold, diamond, and minerals, West Africa has faced the problem of lack of transparency in managing resources. West Africa suffers from a number of political and security concerns as well. Peace and stability is troubled by conflicting relations among major groups in the region. Most such conflicts are long drawn and involve more than one country. Tribal loyalty is another major problem. As national boundaries are not clearly defined among West African countries, the distribution of population belonging to a tribe has emerged as a big security issue. People belonging to the same tribe inhabit different countries and many times tribal loyalty supersedes statehood. Frequent coups are another security problem in West Africa. Moreover, prolonged military rule in many West African countries has led to the rise of militarism in that region. Territorial and maritime boundary disputes also pose great security concerns in West Africa.

However, the most serious security threat is that of international terrorism and the possible connection between terrorist groups and drug mafia. As far as terrorism is concerned, the example of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) is often cited. In 2005, a US government report stated that South Africa, Nigeria and the Trans-Sahara region have emerged as major hubs of international terrorism. The possibility of growing linkage between terrorist organizations and drug mafia has posed another major security threat for the West African region as well as for the international community. Although maritime security issues concerning West African region are treated seriously by the US and the EU, at present India does not consider it a major concern and has shown greater concern towards similar issues in the Indian Ocean littoral of the African continent.

Trade and Investment: In case of trade too, West Africa remains important for India. The very fact that India’s trade with West Africa constitutes the major portion of its total trade with the whole of Africa is indicative of that. It is worth noting that India’s trade with West Africa alone constitutes around US $16 billion, while the total amount of its trade with the entire African continent is around US$ 39 billion. In recent times, the Indian government has tried to deepen India’s relations with African countries through the India-Africa Forum. Over the years, it has been increasingly argued that India should focus more on large projects that can have a long term impact on India-Africa relations. In this context, cooperation in infrastructure development needs special mention. It is also suggested that India should emphasize on people-to-people contact, particularly through exchange of delegations. India should also treat Africa as an equal partner in marching towards the twin goals of peace and prosperity. India should expand its business relations with Africa, but at the same time it must be mindful of African sentiments.

Over the years, the Indian economy has become increasingly dependent on natural resources imported from Africa. 16 per cent of India’s crude oil import is from African countries, mainly Nigeria, Egypt, Liberia and Sudan. Acquiring assets, particularly in the hydrocarbon and fertilizer sector, has been emphasized by India. BHEL is currently exploring the possibility of strengthening its relations with Nigeria in the power sector. Of late, many African countries are offering agricultural land to other countries, including India. Indian private sector companies have taken special interest in the African agriculture sector.

Both India and Africa have expressed a commitment to reducing trade barriers and transferring skills to the youth, while also encouraging student scholarships and bridging the digital divide. Institutionally, business chambers in both India and Africa have important roles to play. Indian companies have made efforts to break perceptions and increase confidence among their African partners. Steps like doubling trade, adopting a regional approach to investment, helping each other develop a vibrant economy, promoting agriculture and green technologies, engaging Indian expertise in African rural electrification process, and promoting joint ventures in alternative sources of energy etc. should be adopted to improve the economic relationship. India's contribution towards capacity building in Africa stands at $10 billion. India’s size and rapid economic growth are central towards this change in policy. But also, India’s efforts to secure oil, its growing clout in international affairs, and improved relations with the West and relations with countries in its extended neighborhood have played a role in this Africa engagement. India follows an asset-acquisition policy in the energy sphere. 10 per cent of the world’s oil resource and 8 per cent of gas resources are in Africa. It has also become an important alternative source of energy after the Middle East. Yet, mutual partnerships do not mean benevolence. Instead of following a mercantilist approach, India needs to build capacity for refining and set up "down stream industries". India should aim towards Africa’s sustainable development and the Indian government should be bolder in its approach to Africa.

Conflict Resolution: Most conflicts in Africa are driven by internal factors, particularly ethnic antagonism. However, ethnicity is not the only factor. Many other factors are equally responsible for the occurrence of civil war within African countries. Ethnicity is just one of those factors which get channelled into the eruption of civil strife. Failure of state institutions in allocating national resources adequately has emerged as a serious problem. Nation building is another problem. The colonial legacy has created antagonism among African countries, which often lead to conflict and violence. In conflict resolution of Africa India could extend its help in training African military personnel, police as well as peacekeepers in resolving conflict. As democratization is the most effective tool in resolving disputes, India can be instrumental for the African states in transferring power in a peaceful manner. India’s assistance in conducting election in African states can also be of tremendous help. Active involvement on India’s part in the development process of Africa will boost India-Africa relations to a large extent.

Security Ties: If India aspires to have a long term relationship with Africa, it will certainly need to bring in a security dimension. Instead of emphasizing on the economic aspect alone, India should extend its military support particularly towards non-military activities in Africa. At present Africa is facing a number of major security challenges, including poverty, pandemics, lack of governance, and so on. Regional and international organizations are not doing much to resolve such problems. UN missions, in particular, are losing their credibility in Africa at a fast pace, simply because these missions are not robust enough to face the regional issues. While socio-economic engagement with Africa is necessary, military commitment towards non-military missions, especially humanitarian assistance, should be given much more emphasis. To have much closer relations with the African people, India needs to adopt such a policy towards Africa. This kind of ‘soft power’ approach in resolving security problems in Africa will offer India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa a unique component. Such a change is necessary in India’s approach when Africans have increasingly come to regard the United States as a runaway military power and China as a power with an exclusively mercantile interest. To bring about such a dramatic change in India’s policy toward Africa will be quite difficult, particularly because the Indian establishment is known for its risk aversion. But if India really aspires to develop a long term strategic partnership with Africa, such a step is worth taking.

Diaspora: Diaspora has been an important driver of the Indo-Africa partnership. However, one of the problems is that India has not been able to convert the two million strong diaspora into a resource. The dialpora’s experience of integrating with Africa has been very diverse, so the community cannot be treated as a monolithic entity. The countries that house sizable numbers of the Indian diaspora have a different experience from others. Indians in South Africa are higher up the ladder in education than whites. Their contribution to the apartheid struggle and freedom movement was alongside the blacks. But it remains a tiny minority and hence feels threatened. There are several issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Indian diaspora in Africa has always felt that it has been let down by India. Therefore, it does not look to India for support.
  2. They got cut from Indian society, hence not much cultural linkages exist.
  3. There is no policy in India to meet the needs of Indians in Francophone countries.
  4. Africa does not allow outside countries to use diaspora as a strategic resource.

Also, there are doubts on whether India was doing enough to engage the diaspora. Such an engagement should become a strategic necessity, and not simply a choice. The real question is whether India has the political will to take such a step.

The conference ended with acknowledgement of the various patterns of India’s engagement with Africa. It was emphasized that in future, the economic engagement of the continent will be led by the private sector with a considerable reduction in the role of the government. In recent years, China has made inroads in Africa. However, there should be a sense of caution that Africans do not view India and China as rivals who are engaged in creating their spheres of influence there. It was suggested that IDSA could generate new ideas that could further lead to cooperation and commitment between India and Africa. At the same time IDSA should interact with similar think tanks/institutions in African countries. It was recommended that with the growing strategic importance of Africa, the Indian government will have to device a coherent policy to address its interests in the continent and relate them to African needs.

Prepared by Ruchita Beri with inputs from P. K. Pradhan, Priyanka Singh, Prashant Kumar Singh, Pranamita Baruah and Mayank Bubna.

Programme and Concept Note