Modi’s engagement with Africa is a sea-change, but we need more innovative thinking

For decades, we neglected bilateral relations, especially economic relations, with West Africa, mostly Francophone Africa, out of sheer laziness.

Written by Shiv Shankar Mukherjee | Updated: May 29, 2017 9:49 am
Modi, Africa, African Development Bank Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the annual meeting of the African Development Bank in Gandhinagar. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

The African Development Bank Group concluded its annual meeting in Ahmedabad on May 25, with both India and the Bank describing it as a milestone in Africa-India-Asia relations.

This is only the fourth time the annual meeting is being held outside Africa. The other occasions were, Valencia (2001), Shanghai (2007) and Lisbon (2011). The next summit will be held in May 2018 in Busan, South Korea.

The speeches and deliberations at the summit provided abundant evidence of the goals and priorities that Africa has set for itself and deserve careful study. On his part, Prime Minister Modi took off from the ambitious programmes and assistance announced at the India-Africa Summit in 2015, and spelt out India’s determination to continue his government’s engagement with Africa, especially in the area of development cooperation.

This merged seamlessly with the Bank’s “High-5” priorities for Africa: Light up and power Africa; Feed Africa; Industrialize Africa; Integrate Africa; Improve the quality of life for the people of Africa.

The central theme was “Transforming agriculture for wealth creation in Africa”, with the vision of not just removing hunger and providing food security, but developing agriculture as a business to attack rural poverty and generate surplus income, thereby uplifting the quality of life and providing jobs for millions of unemployed and underemployed youth.

As someone who has served in African for over a dozen years, I would like to commend the recent significant developments in our engagement with Africa, although they aren’t as visible publicly.

Here is an extract from the PM’s speech in Ahmedabad : Since 2015, I have visited six African countries…..Our President has visited three countries…..the Vice-President seven countries….I am proud to say that there is no country in Africa that has not been visited by an Indian Minister in the last three years.”

This is a sea change. Those of us who have served in Africa, as I have done from the early 1980s onward, can recall the frustrations we have felt at the lack of sustained high-level political engagement or the suspended animation in which our ministerial-level joint commission meetings were kept for years because our government and it’s ministers were not available because they were simply not interested. Meanwhile, half the Cabinet would congregate in London and the U.S. on one flimsy pretext or another!

The matchless goodwill that India enjoyed as the foremost supporter of the liberation movements in Africa could hardly keep resonating endlessly, as the new generations in independent Africa grappled with a changing and newer world. Full marks to the Modi dispensation for this. We have lost time, but with this much-needed course correction we can recover easily, given the vastly greater resources that we bring to bear on our diplomacy today.

This Ahmedabad summit was attended by three heads of state/government, from Senegal, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire. All of them were from West Africa. I hope this was by design and not accident, which would be another most welcome signal of India’s desire to engage with the whole of Africa, not just its Anglophone part.

For decades, we neglected bilateral relations, especially economic relations, with West Africa, mostly Francophone Africa, out of sheer laziness. That applied to the private sector as well. It was only in 2004 that wisdom dawned and a “Team-9” initiative was started, with eight West African countries, with proper financial and political backing.

One part of the summit was focused on public-private partnerships to be leveraged by India-Japan cooperation for Africa. Indian cooperation with third countries in Africa is not new, but very few and far between. Japan is a major donor to Africa, and wants to be a bigger one. In the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 2016, Prime Minister Abe announced investments of US$ 30 billion over three years, for electrical power, urban transport, roads and ports, with US$10 billion reserved for infrastructure.

Japan and China are rivals for Africa’s embrace, for political reasons, and though China is by far the bigger player, Japanese efficiency and quality have a high reputation throughout the continent. The advantages to us, in terms of our own competition with China for our cooperation goals in Africa, are obvious.

These not -so -noticed but important signals apart, we do have to rethink and take a reality check on certain issues to improve our relationship with Africa.

For instance, the billions of dollars that we toss around as “aid” from India are not Indian gifts; they are credits that are to be repaid. The terms are “soft”, and qualify as concessional loans under OECD and World Bank norms, but the “grant ” element is not high enough to qualify as aid. These are thus termed as export promotion measures, as indeed they are.

The truth is that there are countries where a large part of our loans are lying unutilized because the terms are not as soft as those from some other countries. Remember that Africa is awash with loans on very soft terms from donor countries and can pick and choose. We really must figure out ways of sweetening the “credit line” pill.

China mixes up it’s assistance with a cocktail of commercial level interest rates, government subsidies that reduce interest rates, demands for including Chinese goods as well as labour, and successfully demanding collateral by way of preferential access to minerals (such as oil in Angola, including exploration rights)!

We need not go that way, but some innovative thinking is needed. We certainly don’t want our billions to remain unutilized in the treasuries of several African countries, especially those classified as “developing but middle-income.” These nations are far too important for us. They allow India to develop win-win partnerships that enable a larger Indian presence across the continent. The importance of the meetings with the African Development Bank cannot be underestimated.

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee has served as high commissioner to Namibia, South Africa and the UK, as well as ambassador to Egypt and Nepal

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