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2 December 2021, Hindustan Times

India-Africa through a new lens

The new Omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused concern across the globe, especially in Africa. India has shown solidarity with the continent, extending supplies of Made in India vaccines, drugs and medical equipment. Despite some setbacks, there is vast potential for Indo-African collaboration based on strategic advantages and mutual goals.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Our COVID-19 vocabulary expanded as the World Health Organization (WHO) named the latest mutant detected in South Africa, Omicron, terming it “a variant of concern”. With this discovery sending waves of anxiety around the world, Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, delivered a sober address on November 28. He pointed to the dangers ahead, but stressed that his country and the world had the necessary tools to overcome them. He also expressed deep disappointment over the imposition of travel restrictions against South Africa, in violation of the understandings reached at the recent G20 summit.

The emergence of a potentially dangerous variant has highlighted vaccine inequality. While people in the United Kingdom (UK) and Japan received 168 and 156 doses respectively per 100 persons, those in Mozambique and Nigeria received only 30 and 4.5 doses respectively per 100 persons. Developed countries have even begun administering booster shots to those fully vaccinated, at a time when the vast population of Africa still awaits its first dose. Namibia’s president, Hage G Geingob, decried it as “vaccine apartheid”.

The alarm bells set off by Omicron have been heard loud and clear in India. The government decided on a calibrated set of measures to regulate international air travel, resisting the demand for an outright ban. India voiced its readiness “to support” African countries in dealing with the new variant with supplies of Made in India vaccines, drugs and medical equipment. So far, India has supplied over 25 million doses of vaccines to 41 countries in Africa.

But there is a need to do much more. India has high stakes in Africa. It is a continent with which our nation has long enjoyed a rich and multifaceted relationship. Recognising the gathering trends in Africa that favoured democracy, good governance, regional integration and economic growth, India began to put more resources into this relationship since 2008.

The Narendra Modi years have witnessed a significant transformation of ties at the continental level, especially with eastern and southern Africa. The impact of COVID-19, the border conflict with China and setbacks to the Indian economy have, however, caused some reduction of attention to Africa. That this should be addressed effectively is a key argument I make in an upcoming book, India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons.

This is because of Africa’s growing role in world affairs. The continent’s share of the global population will rise from 17% to nearly 25% by 2050. The bulk of its population will be young, urban and hungry for opportunities. African countries need jobs, goods and services, technology, skills, innovation and connectivity. The potential of the African market is immense, particularly as governments strive to implement the agreement to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area. The principal responsibility of achieving Africa’s goals rests with its leadership and people. But international partners have a role.

The African field is not empty — in fact, it is quite crowded. India faces stiff competition not only from China but also from the continent’s traditional partners – the United States (U.S), the European Union (EU), and Japan – and new partners ranging from Brazil to Turkey to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Australia.

As for China, the situation is complex. It was partly Beijing’s strategy, crafted during the 1990s, to cultivate close ties with Africa that caused international attention to grow in recent years. China has had its share of triumphs and setbacks as well as advocates and critics. The overall refrain from Africa is still favourable to China because it succeeded in creating a multiplicity of options for African nations.

The India-Africa partnership can be examined at three crucial levels — continental, regional and bilateral. Continentally, the India-Africa Forum Summits, held in 2008, 2011 and 2015, produced good dividends. It is now time to consider convening the fourth summit. If the COVID-19 situation does not permit it, New Delhi should leverage technology to arrange five regional summits in a virtual format.

Regionally, prioritising the eight Regional Economic Communities and revitalising economic ties with some of them, such as the EAS and ECOWAS, is important.

Above all, the approach towards bilateral relations needs a critical appraisal. All 54 African countries are important, but not in equal measure. I believe that the substance of ties with 15 select countries needs to be enhanced sharply, subject to ample reciprocity being available.

India’s interests demand a few institutional reforms relating to the management of relations with Africa and the allocation of greater financial resources by New Delhi. It also requires a more enthusiastic and dedicated engagement with Africa by business, media, universities, think-tanks and civil society. These components, along with the Indian diaspora in Africa and the African diaspora in India, ought to play a bigger role in taking the relationship to the next stage of consolidation and maturity.

This engagement is not just about historical bonds and shared struggles. It is also “an aspect of strategy”, according to external affairs minister S Jaishankar, “as the rise of Africa will add to the multipolarity of the world”. The wake-up call by Omicron deserves a sustained and long-term response by India for diversifying and deepening relations with Africa.

This article was first published in Hindustan Times.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former High Commissioner to South Africa, Kenya and Lesotho.