The India-Africa Partnership Idea: Third Time Lucky?

By: Shankkar Aiyar*

The idea of India-Africa partnership is riveting in its promise. The view on Africa has been tainted by politics and prejudice—true assessment has been blinded by political conflicts, cinematic depiction of savagery and frequently coloured by imagery of a dark continent inhabited by huddled masses.

The truth is 21 countries in Africa have a higher per capita income than India—citizens in eight countries enjoy incomes four times that of Indians. Between 2008 and 2013, nine countries grew faster than India. With a population of a billion-plus, Africa is a market of tremendous consequence. It is home to 30 per cent of all minerals found in the world. The US Geological Survey estimates over 14 billion barrels of gas and 250 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in coastal Africa—more than that in UAE and Venezuela. India—a net importer of fuel and consumer of rare minerals—can scarcely afford to ignore the alternate view of the continent.

Partnership with Africa is an idea that visited India in the past and escaped success. India’s engagement with Africa was anchored more in political rhetoric and less in strategic realism—its history is littered with notions of civilisational connections, acronyms like NAM, phraseology of south-south cooperation. It is true that India’s presence in Africa pre-dates most others—whether it is trade, setting up of power plants or laying of railway networks. But the early mover advantage was squandered.

In the post-globalisation era, India renewed its effort to reconnect with the idea. It set up an institutional mechanism to propel the partnership—the India Africa Forum Summit. The first summit held in Delhi in 2008 had loads of win-win rituals but little action. The follow-up, arguably, was washed out in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. The second summit was held in Addis Ababa in 2011. As earlier the intent was left unfuelled for lift off, perhaps because India’s economy was mired in its biggest crisis since 1991. The question, therefore, is will India be third time lucky?

This week India is hosting the third India Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi. Typically, the Modi Sarkar has gone all out and persuaded participation of all 54 African countries of which 40 are at the level of head of state or head of government. The effort to repair the mistakes of the past though will require more than just participation.

Like it or not, India’s efforts to engage with Africa will be compared with the two existing hyphenations—the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit and Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

Strategy is as much about what not to do as it must be about what should be done. The Chinese have built power projects in Zambia, airport in Mozambique, railways in Nigeria and the African Union building in Addis Ababa. It is estimated that China’s Export Import Bank has lent more money in a decade than the World Bank. India lacks the resources to practice cheque-book diplomacy. It also cannot afford the epithets of coloniser or a reputation for coercive commercial deals. Sure, Africans know Ni Hao means hello but they are also seething at the use of the pejorative Hei Ren (black people) by the Chinese workers.

The US, on the other hand, is deploying a model of coalitions—a kind of multi-nation, multi-institution partnership. Take power. Over 650 million Africans do not have access to power and the Obama administration identified this as one focus area. It created Power Africa—a coalition of World Bank, African Development Bank, the EU, the UN, 12 US government agencies and over 100 companies. Now that is a playbook a super power can organise.

India needs to author a template that is sustainable and based on equity. The primary approach must be about sharing capability and capacity to create partnerships to deliver solutions.For instance, India needs fertilisers. Morocco has phosphate reserves, Gabon has gas. Why not set up a fertiliser plant in Africa for India? If Make in India is to succeed, India will need to carve a share of Africa’s consumption story. This requires expansion and setting up overseas facilities—by auto-makers, pharma giants, and consumer goods makers.

India has much to share. It is emerging as a major centre for renewables. Africa needs power—renewables and off-grid solutions—and India has the expertise. With a land mass of over 30 million sq km, Africa could well be the food basket of the future. India could help with yield improvement and dairy development. It could also site farms for strategic reserves of perennial imports like oils and pulses. Between now and 2050, the highest growth in working age population will be in India and Africa. Can India help with human resources and skills development? Governments and corporates in Africa need IT solutions. India can set up and train manpower.

Yes, India will be hard put to find resources to fund the initiatives. It must leverage its membership of the BRICS Bank. It must seek partnerships with Japan and the US. It is also an opportunity to create a sovereign fund. More importantly, it needs a dedicated cadre to promote economic diplomacy.

The narrative about India among the countries in Africa is rife with unmet expectations and failed opportunities. A 2008 proposal for a power project was delayed till 2011 for clearances and the promised credit-line to fund the project. Without exception most complaints are about the “slow administrative process” that stalls potential.

Identity and credibility is established on delivery, not promises. The perception of no-show or one of poor show must be erased. Success in geo-politics demands India must invest in the culture of outcomes. 

*Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change. This piece was also published in the New Indian Express.