Vice President M. Hamid Ansari’s tour of West Africa in end September, his second in five months, took him to Nigeria and Mali. His previous tour of North Africa covered Morocco and Tunisia. The latest tour may not have excited the national media, but it is imbued with significance for three reasons.
First, it marked the end of over a year – from March 2015 to September 2016 – that saw unprecedented political outreach by India to African nations. It included a high-profile conference in |India– the successful India-Africa Forum Summit-III– and five tours covering 13 countries by India’s top trio – president, vice president and prime minister. India now stands ahead of all its competitors in the domain of high political visibility in Africa.
To the extent that this reflects a strong political will to connect with African nations, it is laudable.
Second, the inclusion of Mali in Ansari’s itinerary indicated New Delhi’s determination to move beyond the states on Africa’s periphery and extend its footprint to the heartland.
Thirdly, it demonstrated that the Modi government is adept at using its top leadership for conducting a high-level dialogue with African leaders. Earlier, President Pranab Mukherjee had visited Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Namibia, while Prime Minister Modi had travelled, in one go, to four countries – Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. Thus, the visibility deficit of Indian leaders on the African continent is now a thing of the past.
Vice President Ansari addressed Mali’s national assembly, projecting India’s Africa policy in clear-cut terms. “Ours is no transactional partnership,” he asserted. He pointed out that India’s cooperation had contributed to Africa’s empowerment, capacity building, human resource development, access to the Indian market, and support for Indian investments in Africa. India had achieved this by aligning its assistance programmes with “the requirements and priorities of our friends in Africa”. India’s relationship with Africa was “unique”, he said, and, therefore, did not “need any point of reference” – referring implicitly to China’s multi-dimensional and extensive relationship with the African continent.
This key message was meant for the whole continent and beyond, not just Mali. The vice president emphasised this in Nigeria, where he addressed the Nigeria-India Business Forum, adding that there was a need for a greater synergy in the areas of economy and business.
India and Nigeria certainly enjoy substantive and long-standing relations of a cordial nature, being each other’s significant trade partners — India as Nigeria’s largest trade partner globally, and Nigeria as India’s largest trade partner in Africa. Bilateral trade has grown to $16 billion in 2014-15, with energy comprising a large chunk of it. About 12% of India’s crude oil comes from Nigeria.
But there are other diverse investments in areas, such as communications, power, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and the automotive sector. Over 100 Indian companies use Nigeria as their base for Africa, with over $10 billion invested so far and another $5 billion pledged. Indian companies employ the largest number of Nigerians, after the Nigerian government.
Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo observed that India-Nigeria ties had been very stable; he called for strengthening of cooperation in regional and international affairs. He added that Nigeria looked up to India in various ways as it had shown leadership in technology, agriculture and information technology.
The vice president discussed India’s core interests of security and terrorism–concerns that Nigeria shares– at the National Defence College in Abuja. India and Nigeria are committed to extending cooperation in the sharing of intelligence, securing cyber space, and minimising the use of internet and social media for terrorist activities.
When it came to Mali, India focused on cultural cooperation, most significantly in helping to restore the city of Timbuktu whose heritage sites had been destroyed by the extremists.
But these positive strides should be maintained and increased to a fast and steady bilateral clip. This will only fructify if there is:
- sustained focus on timely completion of the projects started and implementation of the agreements reached, and
- a fulfillment of assurances by the government to carry out a contact programme with African communities living in various Indian metro cities.
The objective is to strengthen their security and improve the communication between immigrants and local communities. The Minister of State for External Affairs and senior officials have been charged with the responsibility of carrying these out.
As endeavours to craft the next steps in burgeoning India-Africa cooperation are planned, it is important not to lose the momentum. Stakeholders, the business sector, and civil society should be continuously motivated and assisted to contribute more to the bridge-building between India and Africa.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former high commissioner to Kenya, South Africa and Lesotho. He comments regularly on African affairs.
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