September 7, 2010

India’s Engagement With A Resurgent Africa: Amb. H.H.S.Viswanathan


Lecture at Central University of Jharkhand
By Amb. H.H.S.Viswanathan
7 September, 2010

Historical links
India and the African continent have been linked for centuries through trade, commerce and travel across the Indian Ocean. There are historical evidences of well-established Indian settlements in the coastal regions of Africa and some Indian connections even in the hinterland. Many Indian plants are of African origin, millet being the prime example of a crop which travelled all the way from West Africa to India. The great Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama took the help of two Indian sailors in his first and subsequent voyages to navigate him from East Africa to Calicut.

With the advent of Colonialism, the traditional trade was disrupted. However, contacts continued to flourish through other ways. Indians were taken in large numbers to the new colonies to work on the plantations, for the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway and as subordinate staff in the colonial administration. Today there is a very large Indian diaspora in Africa of about 24 million ie. more than 2million. Some Indian enterprises have been there for a very long time, like the Chellarams in Nigeria started their business in 1923.


India was in the forefront in supporting the freedom movements of the African countries. Anti-Apartheid struggle was another great cause in which India led from the front. Gandhiji’s own fight against oppression and injustice started in South Africa. He is supposed to have remarked once that he may have been born in India, but he was made in South Africa. Gandhiji’s principles of non-violent non- cooperation became the most effective weapon for many African nations in their fight for independence.

When India and later most of the African nations attained independence the world was in the throes of a Cold War. The Super- Powers, US and USSR wanted the newly independent nations to align themselves with them with no regard for their autonomous decision making. It was in that context that the idea of Non-alignment proposed by Pandit Nehru and which became a successful Movement proved a viable alternative to the newly independent weak states to have autonomy of decision making and a political space in the international arena. As a group, the non-aligned countries could lessen the adverse effects of the Cold War. The movement also provided ample opportunities to have political interactions between India and the African Countries.

On the economic front also India tried to contribute to the development of the African continent, despite our own problems of lack of resources. We concentrated on our strength, namely training and capacity building. India- Africa connection through education is a long standing one. Thousands of African students have benefitted from ITEC and ICCR scholarships. Most of them acknowledge that the training they received in India has helped them build successful careers. Indian teachers have also gone to countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria and contributed in a very significant way to the education of young African minds. This is being appreciated to this day. During the historic visit of PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh to Nigeria in 2007, President Yar Adu’a remarked that he was taught mathematics in school by an Indian teacher named Singh and enquired if he was related to him. The African students who have studied in India have become a strong link to carry forward our friendship and cooperation.

Defence Cooperation has been another major field in our relations with African countries. India has helped build the defence forces of many of them. The National Defence Academy of Nigeria was established with Indian collaboration. Many defence officers from African countries receive training in our defence establishments. The former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo is such an officer.

India also participated in many peace keeping operations in the African continent, the prominent among them being Congo, Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Need for a new momentum in our engagement
The changes in Africa and India in the last decade have opened tremendous new possibilities for taking our traditional relations to a higher plane. From both sides, the timing seems to be perfect for a qualitative and quantitative leap in our cooperation. India is today considered to be one of the two fastest growing economies. We are a leader in IT and knowledge based technologies. We are also a leading player in the field of Pharmaceuticals and to a certain extent in Bio-technology. Many countries in Africa want to emulate the success we have achieved in the Services sector. Our corporate sector is becoming global with many new mergers and acquisitions. Our public and private sector enterprises are looking for new investment opportunities. Politically, India today has a certain standing which enables it to engage the African countries in constructive dialogues on many global issues of concern to all. India has no political problems with any of the African countries. Therefore, we can concentrate on intensifying our economic and commercial interactions to the benefit of both in a win- win situation.

On the African side, the continent is poised for a paradigm shift both politically and economically. The days of violent conflicts are coming to an end. Peace and stability are being established in erstwhile areas of tension and civil wars. Military coups and counter-coups are becoming a thing of the past. Multi-party democracy has started to take firm roots in the Continent. Today more than 80 per cent of all African countries have embraced multi-party democracy. Regular elections have become a common feature in the Continent. Governance and transparency issues as well those of corruption are being addressed in a serious manner. Two other major factors are also very relevant in the context of a resurgent Africa: sub-regional and regional integration and the enhanced role that Africa is playing in international fora. For the smaller countries in Africa, regional integration is vital for development since a larger market is needed to exploit the economies of scale. Further, large scale projects in the power, water and transport sectors need regional solutions. On the question of international fora, it has to be noted that more and more issues are taking a global dimension and it is in the international fora that these issues are addressed. Examples are: Reforming the UN, expansion of the Security Council , talks on Climate change and the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations. It has become imperative for the African countries to articulate on these issues so that their interests are not marginalized. India’s engagement with them is necessary to coordinate our positions on these subjects. It is true that on some issues there are differences in the approaches, but on a whole range of subjects we have identical or similar views. On the question of the UNSC expansion, Africa will have a very crucial role.

Let us now look at the timing of the new engagement from the point of view of the African economies. According to an IMF report, Sub-Saharan Africa has been growing at an average of more than 5% per year during this decade. Some countries like Chad, Angola and Sudan have been registering spectacularly higher rates. Africa is only one of the two regions—the other being Asia—where the collective economy rose through the global recession of 2009 by 1.4%. A step rise in commodity prices helped many economies but Countries with no mineral resources have also shown a healthy growth rate. A recent McKinsey report says that the consumer spending of the Continent in 2008 was $860 billion, more than that of India. This is projected to grow to $ 1.4 trillion by 2020. The number of new mobile phone subscribers signed up since 2000 is 316 million, and there is still a huge market to tap. It is estimated that that there will be 1.1 billion Africans in the working age by 2040 which could influence shifting of manufacturing hubs to that Continent. The agricultural potential of the Continent is yet to be tapped. Today Africa’s share of the world’s total amount of uncultivated, arable land is 60%.

The political and economic factors that I have pointed out would suffice to convince even a skeptic to realize that the time has arrived to look at Africa in a serious way. In a few years’ time, engagement with Africa will not only be desirable, but would be vital for any country desiring economic growth.

India’s engagement with Africa has been at three levels—bilateral, regional and continental. Bilaterally, we have promoted trade and economic cooperation, offered scholarships and training for capacity building and participated in some developmental activities. On a regional basis we work closely with the regional organizations like ECOWAS, SADC, EAC etc. Many developmental projects need a regional approach because of geography and the small size of many countries. There are, for example, 20 countries with a population of less than 5 million. Another 20-plus countries have a GDP less than $ 5 billion. There are 60 international river basins shared by many countries. Any large project in the power or transport sector will have to be done through the regional organizations. Finally there is the Continental level. Africa has its own Development bank—the African development Bank which has all the African countries as regional members. The Bank also has non –regional members and India is one of them. In that capacity, India has undertaken many projects funded by the Bank. India is also regularly invited to the AU Summits every year which gives a wonderful opportunity to interact with the African leaders.

Let us have a brief glance at some our recent engagements and success stories in Africa. The first, of course, would be the Africa Forum Summit held in New Delhi in April 2008. This very successful Summit attended by about 30 African leaders identified cooperation in many areas: economics, politics, science, research and technology, social development and capacity building, tourism infra-structure, energy and environment, media and communications. The Summit also resolved to strengthen Africa’s regional integration and to work for a Joint Action Plan at a Continental level. India offered to unilaterally provide preferential market access for exports from 50 Least Developed Countries (LDCs), 34 of which are in Africa. This will benefit exports of commodities like aluminium ores, copper ores, cashew nuts, cane sugar, ready made garments and non- industrial diamonds. India also announced additional Lines of Credit amounting to $5.4 billion for the next five years (2008 to 2013). The number of ITEC slots were to be increased from 1000 to 1600 every year. India also doubled the number of long term scholarships for graduate and post-graduate courses.

India’s trade with Africa has grown impressively in the current decade. The trade which was $ 7.3 billion in 2000 grew to $ 31 billion in 2008.

One of the major success stories in our engagement with Africa is the Pan- African e- Network Project. This was the idea of our former President, Dr. Abdul Kalam. He made an announcement to this effect during a State visit to South Africa. Under this project, India is helping all the African countries in the setting up of a fiber optic network which will help in e-medicine and e-education. The idea is also to link hospitals and universities in Africa electronically with their counterparts in India. The first phase of this project covering 11 countries was inaugurated in February, 2009. The second phase covering all the countries was inaugurated by the Indian External Affairs Minister on August 16, 2010. The project was also given the “Hermes Prize for Innovation 2010”.

Our corporate sector, both public and private, have become very active in Africa. ONGC through its external arm OVL has acquired many oil blocks in Nigeria, Sudan, Angola and the DRC. The acquisition of Zain telecom by Bharthi Mittal making the new entity the biggest telecom company in Africa was a major business move taking Indian presence in Africa to a new level. The agricultural company Karuturi Global has taken large areas of land in Ethiopia to tap its agricultural potential. The Rice cultivation project in Senegal by the Kirloskars(started with a line of credit by the GOI) is going to make that country self- sufficient in grains. This project has often been quoted as an ideal example of South-South Cooperation.

The National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT) has done pioneering work in training 1000’s of young boys and girls in countries like Nigeria in the use of Computers. This initiative has been a big success and more and more African Governments are requesting for the introduction of this form of cooperation in their countries. This programme has led to the formation of a new young population of computer savvy individuals in many countries.
Another major initiative was taken by the Government of India in the late 90’s to focus on the Franco-phone countries of West Africa. Traditionally, the bulk of our cooperation activities have been in the Anglo- phone countries because of the language factor and the Commonwealth links. We realized in, due course, that the huge potential in the Franco-phone countries were being overlooked. It was this realization that led GOI to form a Team-9 (India with 8 small West African nations) which identified specific projects. These were in the sectors of agriculture, small and medium industries and those areas necessary for job creation. Team-9 has been meeting regularly to monitor the projects and to identify new ones. This initiative has proved to be a significant opening to Franco-phone Africa.

Ways to take the engagement forward

The natural question that arises is whether India is doing enough or is there scope for a more intensive interaction. Here the answer is very clear: we should be doing much more. Africa is bound to become a very important player on the international scene in the coming years and India should leverage its historical and traditional relations with a renewed strategy of partnership. I could suggest some broad ideas. These, in fact, have been said by many experts who follow India- Africa relations.

• First and foremost, Africa and relations with that continent should be given a higher priority in our Foreign Policy than is being done now. Sporadic activities like Summits and Conferences alone will not be sufficient. There should be a mechanism to have a well thought out plan of action and sustained interaction. Our corporate sector should also become more pro-active. It is time to shift from conventional trade to more creative ways of economic cooperation like shifting some of the manufacturing to the African countries which could cut transport costs and more importantly provide employment to the Africans. Some pharmaceutical companies like Ranbaxy have already started this trend but we need more of these. The motto of the Corporate sector has to be low mark-up and high volumes.

• With a growing population in the working age (will be 1.1 billion by 2040) Africa is bound to gradually become the manufacturing hub of the world in the coming decades and India would do well to be one of the first arrivals.

• Increased FDI from India into promising economies of Africa should be a business strategy.

• The role of Academics and Universities in this reorientation of our priorities is vital. They are ideally placed to increase general awareness about Africa. In this context, I must thank profusely the University authorities for choosing Africa as the theme for today’s lecture. We need to have seminars and conferences to increase the level of knowledge about Africa in India.

• The Media has a great role to play in increasing the general awareness about Africa in India. Let us face the stark truth—how many articles do we see in the newspapers about Africa? During a talk on the recent landmark elections in his country at the ORF last week, the Rwandan High Commissioner remarked about the total absence of coverage of African issues in the Indian media. He wondered which was worse—the bad coverage by the Western media or the total absence of coverage by the Indian media.

• GOI should ensure speedy implementation of the projects identified. Due to our long winded procedures we have seen to be tardy in this respect. GOI has to look at this aspect very seriously and create a new mechanism, if necessary, to expedite and monitor projects.

• Agriculture is a promising area which needs a new focus and sustained action. No less a person than Dr. M.S. Swaminathan has repeatedly suggested that the Indian experience, marked by a strong national research capability and a multifaceted strategy suitable to the ecology and culture, holds promise for Africa. Closely related to agriculture is agro-processing industry. The potential is huge and if the Indian Corporate giants in this field can take the initiative it would be a win-win situation for all concerned. The Indian companies would have an assured return on their investments and the African nations would benefit from the revenues as well as the employment generated by these activities.
• Many African leaders feel that India is ideally placed to take its engagement with Africa to a much higher level, thanks to two factors—the traditional good relations that India has with the whole continent and the significant Indian Diaspora in many of the African countries. According to these leaders India should concentrate on two activities: it should lead the new industrialization in Africa and it should lead the human resources development for capacity building. This could be done both by training programs in India and by opening such institutions in Africa.

• The next Africa Forum Summit to be held in 2011 will provide an ideal occasion to assess our engagement with Africa and take measures to elevate it to higher levels. It may be a good idea for GOI to constitute Strategic Policy Group for Africa bringing in all the stake-holders so as to have a cross sectoral and a holistic approach to our renewed engagement with a resurgent Africa.

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