Monday, 30 April 2012

Rediscovering the Dark Continent: Indo- African Relations

India’s engagement with Africa dates back to the first millennium which started with trade relations between Kingdom of Aksum (now Ethiopia) and Ancient India. The Monsoon winds helped the merchants who traded cotton, glass beads and other goods in exchange for gold and soft-carved ivory. In the light of history, the recent upsurge in Indo-African ties isn’t a revelation it’s a rediscovery of a dormant and potential relationship. In this context our relations with African continent are rather peculiar; the political ties between India and Africa emerged in the Nehruvian era in the wake of the cold war era when many African countries joined the Non-Aligned movement pioneered by Egypt, India and Former Yugoslavia. But after the reign of Nehru ended, the Indo-African relations entered into a phase of hibernation with only nominal trade ties which had once kept alive the once robust relationship.

In the last decade or so Africa, often referred to as the "Dark Continent", underwent a significant change. From an impoverished land fraught with ethnic strife it has become an important partner in the economic and strategic calculus of the rest of the world. Sitting on a treasure of natural resources, abundant human capital and growing economic momentum, Africa has compelled the world to take it seriously. The remarkable resilience of the African economies after the financial crises of 2008 has further strengthened the investor confidence to invest in the emerging economies of African continent. According to a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute by 2020 Africa’s total GDP is estimated to reach $2.6 trillion, its consumer spending would be around $1.4 trillion and Africa would have 60% of the world’s total amount of uncultivated, arable land.

Many countries have noted the rise of the African Giant and the crucial part that it is destined to play in the future; and have revised their stance towards African countries especially in terms of Foreign Policy. The continent which was once slave to its western masters is seeing them return albeit in an entirely different form, not as brutal exploiters but as seekers of a mutually beneficial relationship. India was late to recognize the rise of Africa; when India was getting up from its slumber, China was already bent on its back fostering crucial economic and political ties with African countries. India’s engagement with Africa intensified after India-Africa Forum Summit of 2008 which established the basic framework of South-South cooperation. North block’s South-South policy has trade and diplomacy as two major policy tools for engaging in Africa. On the trade front, the Ministry of commerce has launched Focus African programme in 2003 in order to boost the Indo-Africa trade. This programme has been quite a success with trade increasing from 5 billion USD in 2002-03 to about 42 billion USD in 2010-11.

Why is Africa important for India? There are a plethora of reasons. Firstly, our history of mutual cooperation has had a lasting bearing on Indo-African relations. India is an emerging economy which  is  dependent on partner countries for resources which it lacks, and the African continent happens to be the richest in natural resources. Many robust economies of Africa are also emerging economies, with realities similar to India; the complimentary competitiveness can be harnessed for the benefit of both India and Africa. Also, the presence of large Indian Diaspora in African countries strengthens the bond between India and its African counterparts.

Indo-African partnership is of strategic importance. India shares the developmental agenda with many other African nations and is also seeking a permanent seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC). This reformation of the UNSC, to reflect the changed scenario of the global order, is a difficult reform to take place. India to be a permanent member of UNSC will require support of member states of UN, and one cannot forget the inertia exerted by 53 African nations in the UN of whose support must be harnessed. India’s induction as the only new UNSC permanent member is unlikely, there are other nations seeking, and worthy of, the permanent seat of UNSC, the foremost in the foray are Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Germany and Turkey. Thus, it is in India’s own interests to capitalize on the synergies of this group.

Another dimension of this strategic calculus is Oil. India is dependent on imports for its Oil related needs; these imports are skewed towards Middle East countries unduly increasing our dependence on this politically unstable region. There is an impending need to diversify our oil imports, for which Africa is a promising prospect. India already has considerable oil trade with Nigeria and is fostering partnerships with other nations.

It is interesting to dwell on how India and China differ in their approaches towards Africa. Broadly speaking, China's approach is acquisitive whereas India’s approach is participative. As Dr. Shashi Tharoor puts it, “India’s engagement with Africa is agenda-free”. Though India’s relation with Africa is more ancient, but China’s engagement with Africa had been more intense than India’s in the recent past. China has adopted a resource focused acquisitive approach. It tries to acquire key natural resources in various African nations by the way of “Cheque-book diplomacy”. Large amount of funds are given to African countries by China, generally to politically unstable states like Sudan (with strategic natural resources) etc. There are also instances of arms sale by China to certain African nations. On the other hand, India’s approach to Africa is largely participative targeted towards mutually beneficial socio-economic gain. India is actively involved in Africa in building infrastructure, generating employment and being a partner in African transformation while intensifying trade and economic partnership with Africa at the same time.

Though Chinese model of engagement with Africa will reap higher benefits in short-run, but it will also leave Africa and Africans with a sense of being exploited similar to their historic western colonizers. India’s participative model will slowly but steadily build a strong bond between India and African nations on the foundation of mutual trust and benefit. India will prevail.

Sudhanshu Sharma

@SSharma2217 on Twitter

The Writer is pursuing a Masters Degree in International Business and will be joining Standard and Poor's this Summer.

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