NOT SO DARK, NOT ANYMORE

The prime minister's imaginative Africa initiative might create a new non-aligned discourse in economic and social relations, which can decisively break clichéd colonial stereotypes 
Sanjay Kapoor Dar-es-Salaam/Addis Ababa

For just a brief moment it seemed like a diplomatic gaffe when the articulate Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete mentioned, in the presence of visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that the Chinese had offered a 200-bed hospital to his country. Before he could be misconstrued, Kikwete quickly qualified his statement by telling the audience in his stately German-built President House, "Indians have helped to train the people who will work in these Chinese built hospitals."

The felicity with which Kikwete put to the media how his country perceived the relative attributes of the two Asian superpowers, made it amply clear that the Africans do not see the two as each other's rivals. Instead, they are seen as complementary economic powers that are providing critical help to African countries to scramble out of years of misery, poverty and darkness.

Dressed up as the mythical Kurukshetra of the future conflict between India and China by western media and think-tanks, Africa is searching for new development paradigms after being ravaged by years of colonial exploitation. Many of these countries are 'new democracies' that are looking at ways in which they can get the best out of both the Asian countries. They have begun to realise the worth of their natural resources, and can see that until there is capital and skills to exploit them, they may continue to languish in unfathomed depths. Wizened by their past experience of getting a raw deal from exploitative western countries and their companies, they are looking at ways to leverage the rise of the Asian powers to their advantage.

For India, working with Africa comes easy. From ancient times, sailors of western India had mastered the winds of the Indian Ocean to reach out to the ports of Africa and trade their goods. Subsequently, the British incorporation of India and vast swathes of Africa allowed many communities to settle down in different parts of what was condemned with typical colonial prejudice as the 'Dark Continent'.

It was Africa that transformed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into a Mahatma and gave a new meaning to India's anti-colonial struggle. Many African nationalist leaders like Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyeyere were inspired by India's freedom struggle. After India won independence, it championed the cause of Africa. 

In the 1950s and '60s, both India and China were together in this enterprise, and had organised an Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had then thundered that Africa was effectively our "next door neighbour", and "in historical perspective, Indian interests are likely to be bound more and more with Africa".

Despite differences with China, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) became the vehicle for India to engage with African countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NAM too began to lose relevance in its present form. Right till 2005, the Indian government showed diplomatic neglect of Africa - a neglect that proved later to have hurt its national interests. During this period, China had been quietly enlarging its African presence.

It was only in 2008 that India woke up to its responsibility towards its African neighbourhood, and the first India-Africa Summit was organised in Delhi. Fourteen countries chosen by the African Union participated. This summit became the foundation for greater South-South cooperation between India and the African countries. The second summit was held in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in the last week of May 2011.

Despite India's attempt to tone down its show of rivalry with China during this African foray, it was impossible to ignore its looming presence. Just opposite the existing African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, the venue of the India-Africa Summit, another conference centre funded by the Chinese is rapidly coming up. "The next summit meeting may take place in this new Chinese-built building," cheekily claimed an Indian diplomat.

Although Indians are behind the Chinese in their exposure to Africa, the Indian government seems more and more confident of enlarging its presence in a continent where it has enjoyed traditional goodwill.

During the summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unveiled the government's Africa initiative that includes not only a whopping credit line of $5.7 billion dollars, but schemes for building the capacities of the people and imparting them skills. These schemes are based on the understanding that a skilled population can transform a developing society. Africans are used to Indian teachers in their schools, and they want more of them. In Ethiopia, in fact, Indians were synonymous with teachers.

Besides capacity-building, the Indian initiative is based on private sector participation in various sectors of the African economy - quite distinct from the strategy adopted by the Chinese, where the relationship is between the two States. Indeed, it seems Indian businesses, in some ways, are driving the country's foreign policy in Africa. 

In only a few years, India's trade with Africa has jumped to $40 billion. Unlike in the past, South-South cooperation today is being motored by private enterprise. Bharti Airtel brought in the highest FDI to the continent when it bought Zain Telecom, with a footprint in 15 countries, for a stunning $10.7 billion, and it is now commonplace to see Bharti Airtel billboards in the busy thoroughfares of Dar-es-Salaam. Tatas, Apollo and Cipla too have a big presence in Africa. 

Moreover, there are hundreds of less-known companies doing flourishing business in the continent. Karuturi Global Trading Co. is a Bangalore-based company which is in the business of selling cut roses. Taking advantage of the business-friendly environment in Kenya and Ethiopia, Karuturi has emerged as the world's biggest exporter of cut roses, with a market share of about 14 per cent. The company has got 3,00,000 lakh hectares of farmland, on a 99-year-lease, to grow maize and other foodgrains in Ethiopia.

In the grand palace of Addis Ababa - Emperor Haile Selasse had spent his last days here, and it is now the official residence of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi - the two countries signed number of bilateral agreements. In a joint press conference, Zenawi was more than forthcoming in inviting Indian businessmen and agriculturalists to come to Ethiopia and till its fallow land. He said his country has 3 million hectares of arable land, but only a fraction of it was being used. Contrary to the dominant view, Ethiopia has a moderate climate and plentiful rainfall.

Prime Minister Singh got a rousing reception in Tanzania also. Singh had an old association with Tanzania as the secretary general of the South Commission, which was chaired by Julius Nyerere. South Commission had suggested greater cooperation among Third World countries, but it seemed overtaken by events when they began to abandon the socialist path for national development. But now the world seemed to have come full circle. 

Now again, Tanzania sought Indian investments in various sectors and programmes for upgrading skills. An MoU with Apollo Hospitals was signed by the Tanzanian health ministry, to set up a specialty hospital in Dar-es-Salaam. Also, India gave a $180 million credit line to Tanzania. More projects are being planned in the coming days.

Manmohan Singh's trip revealed a new narrative where African countries are actively seeking India's help to kick-start their growth. The Indian government is trying to pursue a policy distinct from that of the Chinese - it expects the African governments to 'request' for what they want, rather than itself impose anything from the top. It is also robustly using its public diplomacy in sensitising Africans to its 'soft power'. Indian films, folk art and cultural exchanges are some of the means by which it is reaching out.

India's Africa policy is underpinned by a new interpretation of non-alignment and South-South cooperation. As the prime minister explained in his interaction with the media onboard, globalisation has become unavoidable, and hence, NAM should play a role in influencing its style and content so that it helps all the players. He wanted to use the collective weight of the NAM countries to ensure that the processes of global growth are made equitable and sustainable. His new interpretation of NAM is not only contemporary, but also very democratic.

The success of India's African initiative depends on the speed at which Indian businesses embrace the opportunities being thrown up by a facilitating environment as well as the juicy credit lines. This policy, however, could meet greater success if there is also a coherent and imaginative articulation of how it is helping the African and Indian masses and not just private Indian business.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011