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Why India’s post-Covid Africa Policy is on a roll

Logo of the third India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) held in 2015. India may host IAFS-iV later this year

There are evident signs that there has been a marked revival in India’s Africa policy after the hiatus of the pandemic. Taken together, these factors manifest an emerging framework, which builds on the past but modernises the relationship to deal with current realities. This could well be the precursor to holding the India Africa Forum Summit IV (IAFS IV) this year itself, perhaps soon after the G-20 Summit.

As the G-20 President, India has voiced the aspirations and priorities of the Global South. In this, Africa plays a major role. The Voice of Global south virtual Summit held in January had many African countries participating. At one stroke this brought several African LDCs, landlocked countries, SIDS and debt stressed countries into a forum where, for the first time, they were heard directly by a G 20 Presidency.

India’s list of guest countries shows a preference for the Global South. Invitees from Africa include Egypt, Nigeria, Mauritius, and Comoros as the Chair of the African Union. The Chair of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is also invited. South Africa is the only African country in the G-20.

Secondly, continuing with its tradition of providing avenues for Africa to have its voice heard in the international order, India took the initiative of promoting the African Union for a full G 20 membership. PM Modi proposed this to the other leaders and discussed the issue with US President Joe Biden as well. This put an end to the whispers that India was holding up the elevation of the AU, which many countries had bilaterally supported.

Now every G-20 member must take an open position on African aspirations. India is championing the 54-member AU to emphasize that the G-20 must remain cognizant of Global South’s concerns, particularly those from Africa. The AU ambition approved at its last summit in February, is likely to be met through this Indian initiative. This will be the most visible sign of AU being included in a global forum since Africa, like India still awaits a reform of the UN and its Security Council.

Thirdly, during the G 20 presidency, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has accelerated his visits to Africa. In the last few months, he visited seven African countries. Recently, he was in Tanzania on a stand-alone basis. In April he visited Uganda, stopped over in Addis Ababa, and went on to Mozambique. In June he went to South Africa for the BRICS foreign ministers meeting at which he met several invited African foreign ministers and then visited Namibia. He accompanied the Prime Minister to Egypt in June, too. This is a rapid pace indeed, during a busy diplomatic calendar of the G- 20 presidency.

Fourthly, India has shown greater openness to expanding BRICS. India would welcome new African members but that is contingent on what South Africa feels. South Africa is likely to invite all African leaders to a BRICS outreach program but will it agree to more African countries becoming members of BRICS? Here, India could nudge for admission of Egypt or Nigeria. These countries are friends of China, but less likely to be overrun by Chinese preferences within BRICS and help restore its balance.

It is evident now that the system of lines of credit has dried up, due to debt stress, the costs of borrowing and changed preferences of countries particularly in Africa. It was a good system for 15 years and gave India benefits. It spread the Indian private sector backed by lines of credit (LOCs) into nearly 44 African countries and empowered them to become competent to bid for projects in those countries backed by other financial institutions. Several of the companies who benefited from the LOCs have undertaken transmission line projects, railway development, port construction, logistics terminals, water, and solar energy projects. These are funded by either private conglomerates or by multilateral financial institutions. Would we have ever imagined that Indian companies would thrive in CAR, DRC, and Benin on their own? Or ports like San Pedro in Ivory Coast, Owen do in Gabon and Nouakchott in Mauritania would have an Indian EPC contractor?

During bilateral visits now, no lines of credit are announced. There is greater recognition that African countries prefer FDI. Indian companies investing in Africa are now better recognized. The government is diplomatically supporting them. More can be done. India’s trade has jumped to $ 98 billion and FDI to $ 75 billion in Africa.

The human resource development-based Africa policy that India pursued for some time, has been tweaked. and pushed forward, The ITEC programme is the best-known Indian brand in Africa as per a survey in the book, The Harambee Factor on India-Africa Economic and Development Cooperation. It performed well during the pandemic when it converted itself into an e-ITEC programme holding programmes on sites in African countries and thus not losing its momentum. It introduced several programmes dealing with what is relevant in dealing with the pandemic and its consequences.

Now that the pandemic is over, the scholarship schemes are back on track. African students are coming to India again. At the same time the effort to open human resource development and capacity building institutions in Africa continues. During EAM Jaishankar’s recent visit to Tanzania, the first ever overseas IIT MoU was signed between IIT Madras and Zanzibar in Tanzania. This is the ideal formula that the IIT would provide the curricula, teaching systems and degrees whereas the Zanzibar /Tanzania governments would invest in the entire establishment and running of the IIT. Similarly, during his visit to Uganda, the EAM announced the establishment of the National Forensic Science University. It will be National Forensic Sciences University’s first off-shore campus in Jinja.

In the past this model had limited success. The India Africa Summits offered to establish campuses of the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, the University for Educational Planning and Administration and a Life Sciences University in Africa. The African Union allocated these to Uganda, Nigeria, and Burundi. After initial enthusiasm, the host arrangements did not materialise. Now it appears that Uganda and Tanzania are better prepared to fulfil their hosting obligations.

The pandemic and the Ukraine crisis created challenges for supply chains particularly relating to vaccines, petroleum products, foodgrain and fertilizers. Other than fertilizer, of which India remains a net recipient, on other three counts, India became a lead player, particularly for Africa.

India was the major supplier of vaccines to 42 African countries either through grants, commercially and through the COVAX. It needs to leverage this more to be associated with the African CDC for further development of vaccines in Africa.

Africa was short of refined petroleum products, which Indian refineries have provided them in large measure. Along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa, every country’s major import from India now is petroleum products. Where food is concerned, both rice and wheat are now exported from India helping African countries who may need cover their disrupted supply chains. Egypt is the latest to start sourcing wheat from India this year. Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Guinea remain importers of Indian rice. This could rise to 11 million tonnes from 7.3 MT two years ago. If policies remain consistent India will be an important player in the current scenario, where most of the major requirements for Africa are concerned.

Finally, the defence reengagement. In recent years New Delhi has hosted the India Africa Defence Ministers Conclave twice, the last in October 2022. This year in March the India-Africa Army Chiefs conclave was held. Efforts to boost defence exports to Africa are being seriously undertaken, The SE Coast of Africa is part of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Thus, the strategically important African countries in the Indian Ocean and its coast are seeing heightened and focussed activity.

(Gurjit Singh is India’s former ambassador to Ethiopia and the AU and author of The Harambee Factor. Views expressed are personal)