By Narayani Basu*
When it comes to making economic and geopolitical inroads in Africa, India never comes to mind first — China holds that position quite indisputably. Although India began its existence as an independent nation as a key partner of African nations in the 1950s and 1960s, its influence in the region has waned considerably. There has been, statistically and logistically, no way that New Delhi has been able to keep up with Beijing.
India has, however, been making steady inroads into the Saharan subcontinent over the years, developing a carefully calibrated strategy to appeal to African countries in vital sectors such as healthcare, education, investment and trade. This effort has gained momentum since October 2015, with the tri-annual India-Africa Forum Summit.
That summit brought together 54 countries, and concluded with the sanctioning of USD 600 million in grants from India to African nations, and USD 50,000 in scholarships. Financial commitments also – crucially – included USD 10 billion in new concessional credit, USD 100 million to a development fund for Africa and USD 10 million to an India-Africa health fund. In keeping with these outcomes, it was during this summit, too, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised African leaders that India would maintain a continuous flow of interaction with the subcontinent.
Taking off from the summit, Indian leaders – notably Prime Minister Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee – travelled to 12 African countries over the course of 2016. In February 2017, following in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s footsteps, Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari travelled to Rwanda and Uganda. His trip covered notably fewer countries than Wang’s blinding six-day tour of five countries in January – Ansari travelled only to Rwanda and Uganda – but the significance of the visit cannot be underestimated. He is the first Indian leader to visit Rwanda – to Kigali, and thence to Kampala. In fact, the previous bilateral visit to Kampala was in 1997 – by then Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral.
In today’s context, Rwanda and Uganda are potential key contributors to precisely the same sectors in which India is looking to expand bilateral economic ties – pharmaceuticals, automobiles, mechanical appliances and machinery sectors. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was one of the more than 40 African heads of state who attended the India-Africa Summit in 2015.
Official commentary has always politely played down any hint at blatant Indian attempts to counter Chinese influence in the region, but the present Indian government’s standpoint is a little more forceful. China’s presence in Africa is not only noticed, but acknowledged – and though the word ‘competition’ is never openly used – it is clear that India is looking to reorient its African policy, based on facts and figures, rather than on the comfortably familiar rhetoric of an “old friend”. That India is, indeed, an old friend is a fact that is beyond dispute – the BJP government is now looking to build upon this foundation of friendship.
Though India is still decades away from overtaking or equaling China’s trade presence in Africa, a definite geopolitical opportunity exists for New Delhi, especially with the swearing-in of the Trump administration in the United States.
Donald Trump – throughout his campaign and till date – has never openly articulated what his policy toward Africa might be – nor, for that matter, did Hillary Clinton ever do so during her campaign. On the other hand, President Barack Obama’s visits to Africa across 2015 and 2016 reflected a new and heavy tilt towards economics, and away from the usual line of assistance and aid.
During those visits, Obama held numerous meetings with leaders in banking and finance across Africa, and juggled trips to power plants in Tanzania with roundtables with African CEOs. However, that approach has neither been followed up on, nor has it been allowed to crystallize into something more concrete by the Trump administration.
This provides India with a chance that is too good to miss. A stronger African partnership provides indubitably great benefits. It is certainly true that China has the edge as far as credits and investment is concerned. It is also true that India does not have the vast financial resources at its disposal that China provides.
However, what could work in India’s favour is its strong diasporic presence, its capacity to provide educational, technical and developmental skills to African manpower, as well as its natural geographic proximity to the African continent. This appears to be precisely what the current government is in the process of doing.
Making India into a global brand is one of the priorities on Narendra Modi’s geopolitical agenda.
In this spirit, the 12th edition of the CII-EXIM Bank Conclave was held in New Delhi between March 9 and 10, 2017. Though this is an annual event, the Conclave’s importance in promoting bilateral cooperation between entrepreneurs and decision-makers was officially recognized in the India-Africa Framework for Strategic Cooperation, issued at the end of the third India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015.
A total of 33 ministers and 400 delegates from across 37 African countries attended this year’s CII-EXIM Bank Conclave. The Guests of Honour were Mswati III, the King of Swaziland, and Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the Prime Minister of Uganda.
The sessions covered various sectors such as trade and investment, agriculture, rural electrification, healthcare, skill development, irrigation and railways – among others. Official figures put the total value of the 472 projects discussed at the Conclave at USD 70 billion. This will unquestionably help in building on the trade figures for the fiscal year of 2015-2016, which stood at USD 57 billion, and only underlines the complementarity between what Africa needs and what India can bring to the table, and vice versa.
The introduction of a more protectionist economic stance by President Trump also provides India with leverage. A case in point is the enforcement of tougher rules and higher tariff barriers for outsiders in the American healthcare sector. This may well force many to find more fruitful avenues elsewhere. Since India alone supplies nearly a third of the medicines sold in the United States (which is, incidentally, the world’s largest healthcare market), the potential tipping of the risk-reward ratio can be a mutually beneficial moment for India and Africa.
There are major advantages that can accrue also in the security sphere. Maritime security, for instance, is a key area of concern for many African countries. Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea (near the coast of Nigeria) are hotbeds for piracy.
While the Indian Navy has escorted as many as 3,000 ships in the Gulf of Aden alone, India has not made any attempts – institutionally or technologically – to involve itself in the anti-piracy efforts off the coast of West Africa. This is a rather eye-opening lacuna in its Africa policy: West Africa, Nigeria and Angola contribute to nearly one-fifth of India’s total oil imports. It is in India’s clear interest to establish itself as a partner in aiding Africa’s anti-piracy endeavours, in terms of surveillance, technology transfers and personnel training.
With the kick-off for what President Mukherjee has termed as the “India-Africa Century”, there is no better time than now for India to expand its footprint particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Long-term investments and opportunities to build on sustainable and inclusive development are – and should be – the place to start.
*Narayani Basu is an independent author and freelance journalist. Narayani Basu specializes in Chinese foreign policy, East Asian regional security and resource diplomacy in Africa and Antarctica, and has authored a book: The United States and China: Competing Regional Discourses in East Asia.