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Why Africa?

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  • January 13, 2016

    To answer the question, Why Africa?, one should have lived in Africa. Like the vibrancy one could feel and absorb in China of the late eighties and nineties of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, Africa today is definitely a ‘happening continent’. All major powers across the globe have recognized this significant positive change across most of sub-Saharan Africa, once the 'basket case' and a 'dark continent', which, according to global pundits, was beyond salvation, ravaged by mindless poverty, disease and conflict. Africa has made a turnaround from those depths that it had reached in the last century, and is today on the mend. Africa is home to over half a dozen of the fastest growing countries of this decade. Despite a few lingering ethnic and religious conflicts and governance issues in some countries, the people of this vast region are demanding and getting better governance, democracy, the rule of law and transparency like never before. Globalization has incorporated this formerly neglected part of the earth in its march forward. Most of Africa is experiencing moderate to healthy economic growth rates, which is fuelling the growth of its middle class and demand for more goods and services. Poverty rates are also on the decline.

    Historically, Africa is the cradle of humanity and the Indian land mass was once joined at the hip with Africa till the two geographic entities drifted apart due to tectonic shifts. Apart from this millennial old connection to the continent, Indians have been there since the first sailing ships – perhaps manned by Arabian sailors who discovered the monsoon wind trails across the Indian Ocean – criss-crossed this vast water body whose waves link rather than separate us. In that sense Africa is a neighbour. Nowhere is this more evident than in the significant number of people of Indian origin who have, over two centuries of outward migration, made large parts of southern and eastern Africa their home.

    Like with any friendly neighbour, once India embarked on unshackling itself from its colonial embrace in the middle of the last century, it rapidly built up its political ties with the newly independent countries and freedom movements in sub-Saharan Africa as well as with the countries in northern Africa. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, apart from strong political and brotherly bonds, India was itself too heavily engrossed in salvaging its own colonial battered socio-economic status battling poverty, disease and hunger, to be a major partner in Africa's rebuilding and rejuvenation programmes, following the phase wise independence gained by countries on the continent. However, even in those days of resource-crunch, India did share with Africa whatever it could spare, particularly teachers and educational experts, doctors and medical staff and experts in varied fields like agriculture, water management, bank management, etc.

    India's ties with Africa have been stepped up in the last two decades both bilaterally and with the regional economic communities, initially with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Team-9 and continentally through the African Union (AU). Structured engagement with Africa took shape in 2008 with the First India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-I) held in New Delhi in April that year. IAFS-II was held in Addis Ababa in May 2011. Both these events were, however, limited to engagement with a few African leaders under the AU's Banjul format. New Delhi hosted the Third India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-III) in October 2015 – a landmark event with delegations representing all the 54 African countries. In addition, a few other countries and international organizations were also represented on the occasion.

    IAFS-III has been a 'great leap forward' compared to our limited approach earlier. Why has India taken this major step, which requires huge deployment of human and financial resources? Is it simply following the herd? In the following paragraphs, I have attempted to list some important reasons behind India's decision to substantially step up its engagement with Africa.

    A Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) study on 'The Rising Africa'' notes that “Nowhere in the world is the impact of economic growth and development as visible as in Africa.” Real GDP (5.2 per cent per annum in Africa and 5.7 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa) in the past decade has grown by more than twice the rate in 1980s and '90s. This growth, which is widespread through Sub-Saharan Africa, is expected to continue till 2020. The study notes that this growth is a result of improved macroeconomic policies coupled with rapid expansion in sectors like tourism, banking, telecommunications, manufacturing and agriculture. Africa's collective GDP is expected to touch USD 3.6 trillion in 2020 up from 2.1 trillion in 2011. Africa's growing middle class, already expected to be bigger than India's, continues to boost consumption, construction and private investment. Combined consumer spending in Africa, which was USD 860 billion in 2008, is expected to touch 1.4 trillion in 2020. Africa is the home base of 20 domestic companies with revenues of at least USD 3.0 billion each and of over 100 companies with revenues exceeding 1.0 billion each.

    In the economic and commercial sphere, Africa is obviously a region that India cannot afford to take lightly. India is Africa's fourth largest trading partner (about USD 72 billion in 2014-15) after China, the United Kingdom and France. Our exposure in terms of investments is also considerable and is estimated to be about USD 30 billion cumulatively till date. Even if we ignore all other reasons, bilateral trade and investment compels us to pay attention to the African market. Moreover, the basket of goods imported from Africa is dominated by commodities, particularly crude oil, gas, pulses and lentils, leather, gold and other metals, all of which we lack in sufficient quantities back home and the diverse sources in Africa provide some protection against the vulnerability of depending on just one or two regions for their supply. Indian exports to Africa of manufactured products like medicines, automobiles, two-wheelers, iron and steel products, plastics, machinery and engineering processes, etc. as well as refined petroleum products are quite substantial and growing. Africa provides an alternate destination to such manufactures from India whose exports to traditional destinations in Europe and North America are on the decline, and helps to prop up the 'Make in India' campaign.

    Multilateral and cross border global issues such as terrorism, UN reforms, public health, peace keeping and security issues, climate change and the international trading regime (WTO) all require Africa's active participation. African countries tend to take a unified stand on such multilateral issues after discussions and deliberations at the AU. This is amply evident on the question of UN reforms and India's bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat. While some African nations have individually supported India's position, both publicly and in private, this has not translated into substantial African support for G-4 initiatives at the UN or enthusiasm for text-based negotiations, which is considered crucial in initiating such reforms. This is also the African reaction to climate change issues, where the majority seems to be backing the western agenda that all major polluters, including China and India, must commit to take mitigation measures along with the western industrialized countries. On tackling terror, which is not subject to national or regional boundaries, there is not much sensitivity in Africa that what happens on the continent has repercussions on our part of the world also. India's decision to postpone the IAFS-III, originally scheduled for end-2014, on the issue of Ebola was misunderstood particularly in those African capitals far removed from the scene of the pandemic in West Africa. Peacekeeping under UN aegis is one area where India's role has been appreciated in Africa and we need to step up our role in consultation with our African partners. India needs to engage much more forcefully with Africa on all these issues.

    What does Africa expect from India?

    While Indian policy makers are fairly clear about what the country expects from the continent – the need to project and retain India's traditional political ties and influence in the region, protection of its core interests including that of the 2.7 million diaspora, and access to Africa's natural resources and markets – it is not clear if they have an understanding of what Africa expects from India. It is also not certain if African governments and civil society can answer this question with any degree of clarity. In the lead up to and after IAFS-III, only a few pointers are visible. India's development partnership with Africa, primarily through capacity building programmes, appropriate technology and access to soft credit for infrastructure projects, should be dovetailed to Africa's developmental vision as outlined in Agenda 2063, a document adopted by AU members at its 2015 summit. The Delhi Declaration issued at the IAFS-III has accepted this linkage. A reading of the country statements made at the Summit and bilateral talks held by the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister with the African leaders in Delhi reveals Africa's desire to move up the global value chain at a time when India's role in the global trade and investment chain is growing. Similarly, Africa’s expectation from India in the field of public health goes beyond just the supply of affordable medicine to cover assistance in developing the continent’s public health services capacities. While acknowledging India's substantial role in assisting Africa's developmental process particularly through ITEC and other training and educational programmes, and through Lines of Credit (LOCs) for specific projects in Africa, African leaders advised India to close the gap between promises made and results achieved. This aspect has been substantially addressed by India in the strategic framework document issued at the end of the Summit.

    Delhi Declaration 2015

    The ‘Delhi Declaration 2015-Partners in Progress: Towards a Dynamic and Transformative Development Agenda’ was adopted at the conclusion of IAFS-III. Formulated by India and Africa against the backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the UN and the 50th anniversary of the OAU/AU, the document was drawn up keeping in mind Africa’s visionary Agenda 2063 programme, adoption of sustainable development goals (SDGs) at the UN and issues likely to crop up at the COP 21 meeting on climate change in Paris and the WTO Ministerial meeting in Nairobi. It recognizes and acknowledges the historical and current context of relations between India and Africa and the effect of cross- cutting multilateral issues such as human rights, reform of the UN, terrorism and violent extremism, transnational organized crime, emerging regional and global economic architectures, public health, digital connectivity, peace and security, etc. This political document is different from similar statements made at the previous two IAFSs in that it agrees to establish a formal monitoring mechanism to review implementation of the agenda set out in a second document issued at the end of IAFS-III, viz., ‘India-Africa Framework for Strategic Cooperation’ and a consequent Plan of Action to be drawn up jointly by India and the AU in the next three months. The Delhi Declaration also announced that the next India Africa Forum Summit will be held in 2020.

    In the Framework document, among other issues, India notes Africa’s request to further expand its Duty Free Tariff Preference (DFTP) scheme for LDCs for greater coverage. It notes that USD 9 billion of concessional credit in the form of LOCs was approved by India for Africa in the last decade covering 140 projects in over 40 countries, of which 60 projects are complete. Since IAFS-II in 2011, over 24,000 scholarships across 300 training programmes in 60 institutions have been utilized by African nationals in diverse fields. India has promised to fast track implementation of those capacity building institutions that have been found feasible for continuation in IAFS-III. Significantly, due to lack of significant progress in the establishment of such institutions in Africa as envisaged at the previous two summits, it was decided not to commit to any new projects this time, but to complete those already in the pipeline. The Third India-Africa Forum Summit was Prime Minister Modi’s first exclusive platform to meet and engage with a broad spectrum of African leaders. He is yet to visit Africa. In his concluding remarks at the IAFS-III, Modi committed India to:

    1. Restructuring of LOCs;
    2. Additional concessional credit (LOCs) of USD 10 billion over five years, in addition to ongoing credit commitments;
    3. Grant assistance of USD 600 million, including an India-Africa Development Fund of USD 100 million and a India-Africa Health Fund of USD 10 million; and
    4. 50,000 scholarships in India over the next five years, continuation of Indian support for, and expansion of, the Pan African e-Network project, and institutions of skilling, training and learning across Africa.


    For long, India’s relations with Africa have hinged on the common struggle against colonialism, apartheid, poverty, disease, illiteracy and hunger. Policy, strategy and implementation have changed. Nowhere is this reflected more succinctly than in the two outcome documents of IAFS-III, the Delhi Declaration 2015 and the India-Africa Framework for Strategic Cooperation. African leaders who gathered in India in October 2015 were also there to gauge New Delhi’s seriousness in its relations with Africa. The coming months and years will indicate to what extent India’s leadership has been successful in assuaging this concern in Africa. It is also important to continue to project to Africa that it is a priority in India’s foreign policy. Perhaps, it is time to set India’s Africa policy in stone, in the form of a white paper on Africa.

    Debnath Shaw is a former Indian Ambassador to Tanzania. He also served as a consultant for the third edition of the India-Africa Forum Summit held in New Delhi in October 2015.

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