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The Commonwealth and India–Africa Relations

Mr Mohanasakthivel J is a Research Analyst in the ALACUN Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • May 16, 2023

    The Commonwealth consists of 56 member countries with historical, cultural and political ties to the United Kingdom (UK). Among the 54 countries in Africa, 21 are a part of the Commonwealth. Even though obituaries for the Commonwealth have been written many times, it continues to attract new members of Lusophone and Francophone countries. Mozambique, for example, joined in 1995, Rwanda in 2009, Gabon and Togo in 2022.1 The Commonwealth could be leveraged to further India’s expanding interests in the Indian Ocean Region and Africa, the continent at the heart of Global South.

    Africa’s quest for Non-Alignment

    As a result of the Russia–Ukraine crisis, African countries took a major hit due to soaring energy prices and food shortages.2 Furthermore, with the increasing US–China competition, the African countries will be more comfortable with positioning themselves in a neutral platform. In order to protect their interests, a number of Africa countries are rediscovering the appeal of non-alignment and are looking towards multilateral groupings like BRICS3 (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). There are attempts also to revive the Non-Aligned movement.4

    Traditionally, India's Africa policy has been closely tied to its membership in the Commonwealth and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has provided a platform for engagement and collaboration with African countries. While the utility of NAM has dwindled over the course of time, the Commonwealth still has great potential to advance India’s interests, particularly in Africa. Unlike NAM, Commonwealth has a strong institutional capacity which deals with a range of issues including democracy, human rights, development cooperation and sustainable development. 

    Moreover, India's increasing engagement with Africa has largely been through bilateral channels, with limited participation in multilateral forums. India's trade volume with Africa for the year 2021–22 is significant, totalling US$ 89.5 billion. The Sub-Saharan region alone accounts for US$ 74.86 billion of this trade volume.5 Even though India has recognised the enormous potential that Africa offers in terms of expanding its engagement with countries beyond its traditional focus, there is room for further expansion in multilateral frameworks.

    Besides working within the framework of the India–African Forum Summit (IAFS), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), IBSA Dialogue Forum (comprising India, Brazil, and South Africa), and BRICS, the Commonwealth presents an optimal platform for prioritising India’s Africa policy. This is because of the substantial representation of African nations in this grouping and its ability to overcome the constraints inherent in both North–South and South–South cooperation frameworks. As such, Commonwealth is the only organisation that bridges all the identities—including North, South, East and West.

    Supporting African Democracy and Development

    A significant number of African countries are home to sizeable Indian communities. In recent years, India has placed greater emphasis on cultivating relationships with its diaspora. Political instability remains a challenge in several African countries, including those that are members of the Commonwealth. Many African nations continue to face governance issues, social unrest, and democratic deficits. These challenges have repercussions for the well-being and security of Indian diaspora residing in those countries.  In the past, India has used its position as a member of the Commonwealth to express its concerns and to build consensus against South Africa's apartheid regime.

    Moreover, the increasing sale of surveillance technologies to politically fragile African countries is a cause for concern.6   To counter these malicious acts, Commonwealth has a range of mechanisms to support the countries facing these challenges, including the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG)7 , which can act in cases of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

    India, as a member of the Commonwealth, could play an important role in promoting these values and working with other member states to address concerns around the use of surveillance technology. This could include sharing best practices and expertise in areas such as cybersecurity, human rights, and governance, as well as supporting the development of regional initiatives to promote greater transparency and accountability.

    Furthermore, South–South cooperation has always been touted an important feature of India’s Africa policy. In recent years, it has moved towards triangular framework of cooperation. In 2017, India and Japan launched Asia–Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) to promote sustainable growth and development in Africa through infrastructure development, capacity building, and people-to-people cooperation.8 However, the initiative has not gained much traction in the African region, despite Japan being one of the largest Official Development Assistance (ODA) providers to the continent. In contrast to Japan, India would benefit from forming partnerships with Commonwealth countries of the Global North, as they possess a deeper understanding of African nations.

    Finally, India’s engagement with the Commonwealth should not be treated as a subset of its relationship with the UK. India–UK bilateral ties could face divergences due to variety of domestic and structural factors. As India seeks to play a greater role in international institutions, it could encounter resistance from some quarters, including the UK. This may manifest in attempts to interfere in India's domestic politics, among other issues.9 Likely divergences, if any, on account of these and other factors within the India–UK relationship should not hinder the potential role of the Commonwealth in advancing India’s larger geo-strategic interests.

    Given the current geopolitical realities, it is imperative for India to not only form and engage with new frameworks but also strengthen old ones, which will increase its options and influence among both developing and developed countries.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.