Scramble for Africa

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with (front row, from left) Chad President Idriss Deby Itno, Swaziland's King Mswati III, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, and African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and other leaders of African nations during the India-Africa Forum Summit at the Indira Gandhi sports complex in New Delhi on October 29. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

President Pranab Mukherjee with South African President Jacob Zuma, his wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli Zuma, and Mukherjee's secretary Omita Paul at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on October 29. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

A cultural show during the Plenary Session of the India-Africa Forum Summit 2015 in New Delhi on October 29. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

India follows the West’s lead in trying to dip a deep finger in the African pie, but China is still far ahead in the race for resources in the continent.

The three-day India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) held in New Delhi from October 27 to 29 was, according to Indian officials, the most important event held in the capital since the 1983 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had been preparing for more than a year to make the IAFS a grandiose event. The previous India-Africa summits, organised when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, were in contrast modest affairs with only a small group of African leaders being invited. The first IAFS was held in 2008 in New Delhi and the second one in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 2011. Only 15 African leaders were invited for the 2011 summit.

This time, 52 African countries were represented. The heads of state of leading African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt were among them. The decision to make it a humongous event that brought the nation’s capital to a virtual halt for two days was taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. The event was supposed to be held last year but got postponed at the eleventh hour owing to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A few African heads of state had in fact landed in Delhi to attend the summit last year. Others cancelled their visits at the last minute. Many African governments were unhappy at the way the situation was handled by the Indian government.

The African leaders who were in New Delhi this year for the summit would not have failed to notice the ugly side of domestic Indian politics, which was on full display. Beef, of course, was not on the menu for the visitors. The spouses of the African leaders were taken for a visit to the Akshardham temple in the capital and not to the historical monuments that Delhi is famous for. The present government’s anti-Muslim bias and attacks on multiculturalism are not good advertisements for Indian democracy and pluralism. North Africa is almost totally Muslim. So is much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Modi in his speeches at the summit conspicuously failed to mention the key role of Jawaharlal Nehru in forging relations with newly independent African countries. Nehru, and for that matter Indira Gandhi, remain iconic figures in Africa. Their contributions to anti-colonial struggles and support for liberation movements will never be forgotten on the continent. African nations also continue to value institutions like the NAM, of which Nehru was one of the key architects.

One of the aims of the NDA government in hosting the entire gamut of African leadership was to push India’s case for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. There were no firm commitments forthcoming from the African leaders, who all said that their support would be determined by the stance adopted by the African Union (A.U.). Many African countries are themselves vying for a seat in the Security Council, and there is no unanimity on the issue yet in Africa.

Holding summits with African leaders seems to have become a global trend after China hosted its first mega summit in 2005. That summit signalled China’s growing diplomatic and economic clout in the continent. Today, China is the biggest investor and development aid provider in Africa. Barring a brief hiatus, China has been active in Africa since the 1960s. A 1,800-kilometre railway line connecting Tanzania and Zambia was built by the Chinese way back in the early 1970s. Most African capitals boast football stadiums and key government buildings built gratis by the Chinese government. From the beginning of the last decade, after its own economy started booming, China went full steam ahead in investing in Africa. It offered cheap credit and development aid along with investments. Priority was given to improving the transport infrastructure, which was woefully lacking on the continent. Today, China is building roads and railway networks linking the continent from the north to the south. It is no longer solely a supplier of consumer goods but has become a major source of capital and technology for the developing world. It has so far invested more than $180 billion in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Bilateral trade between China and Africa is estimated to be worth more than $200 billion annually.

At the end of the last decade, China’s rivals tried to play catch-up on the African continent. Seven of the 10 fastest growing economies are located in Africa. Washington encouraged New Delhi to partner it on the continent to counter Beijing’s growing influence. India has considerable “soft power” in many important African countries. There are two million people of Indian origin in Africa, and Bollywood has a fan following in parts of the continent. “Democracy promotion” on the continent, which has many authoritarian governments, is an area in which Washington and New Delhi are cooperating closely. In the 2005 India-United States agreement, both countries expressed the “obligation to the global community to strengthen values, ideals and practices of freedom, pluralism and rule of law”. The two countries agreed “to develop and support through the new U.S.-India Global Initiative in countries that seek assistance, institutions and resources that strengthen the foundations that make democracy effective and credible”. The West has been using democracy promotion as a tool to destabilise governments it does not like on the continent while turning a blind eye to authoritarian regimes that are its allies.

The U.S. set up an Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. Since then, Washington has become militarily more involved in Africa and is on the lookout for permanent military bases. Africans remember America’s dubious role on the continent, starting from its support of the apartheid regime in South Africa to its disastrous intervention in Libya. Both the U.S. and India consider China their strategic rival and seem to have tacitly agreed to team up on the continent. India has been projecting its military force in the Indian Ocean region adjacent to East Africa. It has signed defence agreements with Seychelles and Mozambique. Many African countries were taken by surprise when the U.S. and India jointly announced in September that they would train troops in six African countries before they were deployed for U.N. peacekeeping duties. Neither country informed the A.U. before making the announcement. Africans do not like to be taken for granted.

India’s focus in Africa has been on “capacity building”; it has trained more than 40,000 professionals from several African nations since 2008. Bilateral trade between India and Africa stands at $70 billion annually. Indian investments stand at $30 billion. These sums are paltry in comparison with what China has achieved. The Indian government wants the pace of investments and trade to be accelerated. During the IAFS, Modi announced a concessional credit line of $10 billion for Africa to be disbursed in five years. He also announced a $600 million grant to the continent and another $10 million to an India-Africa Health Fund. India is the fifth biggest source of direct investment in Africa. India has also offered to expand its military training programmes. Military officers from Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda have been training in India for decades. The current President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, underwent training in India as a young officer.

China, on the other hand, has made “non-interference in the internal affairs” of other countries a key tenet of its foreign policy. Countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, long ostracised by the West, have had fruitful relations with China. The rapid economic growth experienced by the continent had a lot to do with the economic fillip provided by China and its “win-win economic partnership”. With commodity prices having gone down in recent years, the African growth story has started slowing down. But most experts are of the opinion that the price of commodities like oil and minerals like gold and copper are bound to go up in the near future. India and other countries that are keen on investing in Africa bank on this. The competition between India and China over Africa essentially revolves around the quest for oil, markets, minerals and influence.

It was the French who first set the trend of holding large-scale summit meetings with African nations. It is an annual affair that is attended mainly by former Francophone countries in Africa. Critics have accused the French of using their summits to push a neocolonial agenda. France continues to have military bases in many of its former colonies and plays an important role in the politics of the region. In the most recent instance of French meddling in the region, French forces intervened in Ivory Coast and Mali. France has saved many of its proteges from being overthrown in popular revolts in many parts of Africa.

President Barack Obama, too, invited African leaders over to the White House but he made it a point to exclude leaders he did not like. Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al Bashir of Sudan, two leaders ostracised by the West, were, however, in attendance at the Delhi summit. Bashir is on the wanted list of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is also facing trial at the ICC. But he, unlike Mugabe and others, is an ally of the West. Mugabe is the current Chair of the A.U. and is the last remaining hero of the liberation war still in power.

But one A.U. member was conspicuously uninvited. African leaders wanted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) to be present in Delhi. The first NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had withdrawn the recognition given to SADR under controversial circumstances. Since then, New Delhi has had the best of relations with the Kingdom of Morocco and is that country’s biggest importer of phosphates. Morocco has a serious territorial dispute with SADR.

The Moroccan ruler, King Mohammed, was the first head of state to come to the Indian capital. He was no doubt extremely pleased that New Delhi, going against the A.U. consensus, preferred the presence of Morocco. Morocco walked out of the A.U. after SADR’s entry in the organisation.

Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco. African leaders consider Western Sahara the last colony in Africa. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1974. After a war with the Polisario Front, representing the Sahrawi people, Morocco occupied most of Western Sahara, including the lucrative phosphate-producing areas. Angolan Foreign Minister Georges Chikoti told the African media in New Delhi that a commitment was given by the Indian government to the A.U. that SADR would be invited. That invitation was apparently cancelled under last-minute pressure from Morocco. “We have countries that are members of the A.U. that do not recognise the Sahara. But as the Sahara was recognised and supported by the African Union it continues to participate as a member of the African Union. And that is what should have happened in Delhi,” the Angolan Minister said.

The issue had a bearing on the joint statement issued after the summit ended. At the insistence of India and Morocco, the issue of decolonisation in the continent was soft-pedalled, much to the chagrin of many African leaders present. The majority of the African leaders, however, did not allow the host, India, to incorporate words criticising the use of “state terror” in the final communique. It was an obvious attempt to target Pakistan. Senior officials from African countries demanded “credible and irrefutable” evidence against a country if it was to be labelled as a sponsor of terror. The joint statement finally used the words “non-state actors” and “cross-border terrorism” in the final document.

The summit did not get much traction in the African or international media. Many African governments are not fully convinced that their continent is a priority for Indian foreign policy. India seems more focussed on East Asia and on building closer relations with the West.

Meanwhile, South Africa is preparing to co-host the sixth forum of the China-Africa Cooperation summit in early December. The recently released draft African National Congress (ANC) foreign policy paper that will guide the South African government has identified China as the country’s preferred partner in international relations. The document noted specifically that China was South Africa’s “most important strategic ally”. Among those who drafted it were the A.U. Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the Foreign Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. The document hailed China as a role model for development and said that China was “gradually redefining the world towards a multipolar order”. It described the U.S. as an “imperialist” and “aggressive” power.

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