“…Africa will be at the top of our priorities,” prime minister Narendra Modi said in his address in the Ugandan parliament on July 25, 2018. Four years into the present government’s five-year term, New Delhi is adopting a laudably determined approach to deepening the partnership.
India’s engagement with Africa, especially at a time when the partner region’s geopolitical and geoeconomic situation is changing, deserves serious consideration. Africa is increasingly being viewed as a land of opportunity and promise, not a region of conflict and poverty as before.
Every major player—China, Japan, the United States, Russia, the Association of South East Asian Nations, besides the former colonial nations—is enhancing cooperation with it. As the second-most important Asian power and the world’s fastest-growing economy, India naturally has significant stakes in Africa’s stability, security,, and development. But separately, this country’s track record as a successful democracy and development model is relevant to African nations. They, in turn, are well-positioned to offer India their markets and resources, while also building up food and energy security for both sides.
The China factor
Africa has welcomed India’s overtures in enriching cooperation, oblivious to the element of India-China competition in the region that is keeping agog sections of the western and Indian media and experts. Africa needs multiple partners and is understandably disinclined to pick one country over another.
New Delhi has always held that India’s relations with Africa—rooted in history and, therefore, unique—stand on their own: competition with other countries has no part in it though public perception may run to the contrary.
Those given to such comparisons need to remind themselves that China’s economy is about five times bigger than that of India’s today—a critical fact, bearing on the size of the two countries’ respective footprints on the African continent. (This explains why India while moving on its own steam, has also striven to craft trilateral partnerships with the US, Japan and others to leverage available opportunities.)
Some more key facts, objectively evaluated, will help us assess the impact and effectiveness of India’s Africa policy. For example:
Government-to-government ties have been strengthened since the first India-Africa forum summit was held in 2008; this process gained special momentum after the third summit in 2015. (All 54 African countries attended the third summit; 40 of them were represented by heads of state or government)
India’s president, vice president, and prime minister have made more than 25 visits to African capitals during the past four years. Reciprocal political-level visits contributed significantly to mutual understanding and cooperation.
Peacekeeping has been a vital element of the India-Africa partnership since 1960. Over 6,000 Indians currently serve in peacekeeping operations in African countries. About 70% of 163 Indians, who lost their lives while on duty, did so in Africa.
New Delhi’s decision to open 18 new diplomatic missions in Africa in the next few years, which will take the total number to 47, reflects its new Afro-centric approach.
The economic and trade pillar, however, presents a mixed picture. Bilateral trade, which peaked at $72 billion in 2014-15, declined to $52 billion in 2016-17. It showed a 21% increase, touching $62 billion in 2017-18. But the goal of hitting $100 billion is still distant.
Investment does not seem to progress well. Average annual Indian investment in Africa declined from $6 billion during 2010-13 to $1 billion during 2014-17. Africa’s cumulative investment in India stands at about $2 billion for the period 2013-18.
Project partnership, fuelled by the government’s Lines of Credit (LOCs) and managed by Exim Bank, needs to show improvement. A total of 166 projects are officially listed for the period 2002-17, involving concessional credit of $9.31 billion. The difficulty is that of this amount, contracts of the value of only $4.83 billion (51%) have been signed, and an amount of only $3.95 billion (42%) has been disbursed. The limited absorption capacity of recipients, procedural delays, and lack of interest among established Indian corporates are the main constraints.
Development cooperation, funded largely by a grant of $600 million announced at the 2015 summit, has been moving ahead well, with India committed to providing 50,000 scholarships during 2016-20 and setting up a variety of skill development institutions at bilateral and regional levels. More information on the actual utilisation needs to be placed in the public domain.
Among projects under the International Solar Alliance, a sizeable share of India’s concessional credit has been earmarked to African nations.
Finally, people-to-people links continue to develop—but in a sub-optimal way. Inadequate growth in tourism, lack of direct flights by Indian carriers, underutilisation of public diplomacy as a tool, particularly by the African side, and below-par engagement with civil society, strategic, and academic communities, constrain the growth of dynamism and substance in exchanges between Indian and African Third Spaces (beyond the government and business sectors).
The way forward
The Indian prime minister spelt out recently the “10 principles” that will continue to guide India’s engagement with Africa. Mutual benefit should sustain these efforts. The main facets of India’s Africa strategy should be to: a) motivate and enable India Inc to step up its trade and investment exchanges; b) impress upon stakeholders the need to make project management speedier and more effective, and c) develop an ambitious plan to strengthen the people-to-people connect.
Only then will the India-Africa partnership start moving towards harnessing its full potential.