In one of the biggest diplomatic jamborees of this year, India will be hosting the third India-Africa Summit next week. True to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s style, it is likely to be a highly visible event with much fanfare. With more than 1,000 delegates from all 54 countries of the continent in attendance, India is signalling its readiness to step up its engagement with Africa. More than 40 African countries will be represented at the level of president, vice president, prime minister, and king. This will be the largest ever gathering of African nations in India, with even some controversial figures like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi also making their presence felt.
Every three years since 2008 India has held summit-level meetings with the African states. The previous two summits, with participation from 15 states, were modest by comparison and the results were underwhelming to say the least. It has been a failure of Indian diplomacy that a continent with which India has enjoyed substantive ties ever since independence now no longer views India as a priority nation and often complains of indifference on the part of New Delhi.
India today has growing stakes in Africa. With some of the fastest growing nations in the world, Africa of today is not the ‘dark continent’ of yore. The needs of regional states are divergent and their strengths are varied. India’s focus over the last few decades has largely been on capacity building on the continent, providing more than $1 billion in technical assistance and training to personnel under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program. India has committed $7.5 billion to African infrastructure, covering 137 projects in more than 40 countries. India has also offered duty-free market access to Africa’s least developed countries. But India’s trade with Africa at $70 billion remains far below potential.
India wants a “developmental partnership” with Africa to be the cornerstone of its economic ties with the region. This also allows India to differentiate itself from the principles on which countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the traditional donors of foreign aid, have based their relations with the recipient nations. While the Indian private sector, including big names like Tata, Bajaj, Mahindra and Airtel, has made significant investments in Africa, it needs to be bolder and more imaginative in seizing the initiative on the continent.
Furthermore, India’s oil imports from Africa are increasing and there is an urgent need to diversify the nation’s energy supplies. Where China’s response toward the region has been well-coordinated across various government agencies, India has failed to project a united front. The Indian government will have to support its companies more proactively if it hopes to close the gap with China in terms of its economic profile on the continent.
There are other strategic convergences between India and various major African states. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the growing footprint of the Islamic State, terrorism and Islamist extremism is threatening Africa like never before. India and African states can jointly address this common challenge. India is already working with the littoral states in the Indian Ocean region to ensure the security of the sea lanes of communication there. The Modi government is also seriously investing in India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and Africa’s 54 states will be key in supporting that endeavor.
India has committed considerable resources to Africa in recent years, but its actual delivery on the ground and implementation of projects has been far from satisfactory. Contrary to China, India has refrained from viewing Africa through mercantilist eyes. Yet many in India feel that New Delhi’s core interests on the continent have received short shrift. A case in point was New Delhi’s failure to secure the backing of African nations for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council in 2006. China nudged the African Union into taking a position that demanded not only permanent representation on the Security Council but also veto power. This led to the collapse of nascent attempts to expand the Security Council.
Today all major powers including the United States, China, Japan, and the European states are wooing Africa with investments and trade linkages at a time when Africa is beginning to engage the world on its own terms. India will have to ensure that it remains relevant to Africa’s rapidly changing needs. A mega India-Africa Summit will be worth the investment if the follow-up is as meticulous as the planning for the summit itself.