Event ReportsPublished on Nov 27, 2008
An international conference on "Engaging with a resurgent Africa" was organised in New Delhi on 20th and 21st of November. It was organised jointly by Observer Research Foundation and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung of Germany.
Engaging with a Resurgent Africa

An international conference on “Engaging with a resurgent Africa” was organised in New Delhi on 20th and 21st of November. It was organised jointly by Observer Research Foundation and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung of Germany.

The Minister of State for External Affairs, Mr. Anand Sharma, delivered the inaugural address. The Minister said India and Africa needed to “work resolutely to meet global challenges.” He said though India has elevated the relationship with Africa to partnership level, a lot is still needed to be done. He said the Government is working with Africa to strengthen cooperation especially in the areas of information technology, infrastructure, agriculture, education, etc.

The Minister dwelt at length India’s development-centric approach to Africa that revolves around capacity building, human resource development, scholarships to students and lines of credit to spur infrastructural development in African countries that sets it apart from the profit and commerce-driven approach of other players.

Iconic African thinker and author, Dr. Ali Mazrui, delivered the keynote address. He provided an imaginative multi-pronged plan for Africa’s resurgence and renewal that included the strategy of indigenization, the strategy of domestication, or adapting alien concepts and institutions like universities to make it more germane and effective in the African context ,and the strategy of diversification of engagement with the outside world.

The two-day conference was divided into five sessions: 1) The Mosaic of Africa II) Paradigms of External Engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa III) Principal Strategic, Political and Economic Concerns and Interests of the EU and India in Sub-Saharan Africa IV) Opportunities for constructing win-win situations by reconciling business profitability with broader social objectives in external engagement. V) Conflict management and governance in Africa

There were four or five master-themes that ran like the leitmotif throughout the two-day discussions. First, the resurgence or renewal of Africa is inextricably linked with the idea of Africa, how Africa is imaged, seen and defined by its suitors and partners and what it does for Africa’s quest for self-reliance, development and a bigger voice in international fora which have long been the preserve of Western powers.

Secondly, how “resurgence,” is defined and who defines it impinges on the kind of Africa that will emerge in the 21st century.

Thirdly, the choice of partners that Africa makes could be central to the continent’s destiny in a globalised 21st century world. Just like a bad marriage and a dysfunctional relationship could be traumatic for partners concerned, in international affairs too a misconceived partnership or a flawed assessment of partners’ values and intentions could spell disaster. Africa today is faced with a choice of familiar European powers, some of whom colonized African countries, and emerging powers and economies like India, China, Brazil and others. The choice of multiple partners could be liberating, as Dr Mazrui said in his keynote address, but that will depend on how these multiple relationships are harnessed to achieve national objectives of individual African countries.

The fourth theme focused on a cluster of negative factors that could inhibit Africa’s onward march: these included chronic conflicts and civil wars, mis-governance and megalomaniac dictators and self-serving elites, the lack of democracy and transparency that constrains the flow of foreign investment and an unconstrained engagement with a neo-liberal world driven by free commerce in goods, services and ideas.

Iconic African academic, intellectual and author Ali Mazrui set the tone for the seminar in his keynote address. Mazrui focused on the role of religion, technology, economy and empire as the key drivers of world history. He spoke incisively about India and China competing with the West with their different approaches to engaging with Africa. He also spoke about the strategy of horizonatal inter-penetration that included a more robust engagement of Africa with the Third World and Asia. Most important, he advocated a strategy of vertical penetration – India and Africa should join hands to penetrate the citadels of power in the developed world to compel more attention to the South and developing countries.

Mazrui also flagged an important theme that recurred again and again in the discussions: the differences in the nature of India’s engagement with Africa and that of China’s.. India is more of a cultural force in Africa than China . There is no Chinese equivalent to Bollywood music which has a much wider imitation in , for example,Swahili music. There may be more Chinese restaurants in the world than Indian but Chinese influence has been less of an influence on cuisines of other countries. .

Is India in competition with China, or are they rivals or can they cooperate with each other in Africa – these questions figured again in subsequent sessions, most prominently in the second session dealing with paradigms of external engagement with sub-Saharan Africa .

The third session on principal strategic, political and economic concerns and interests of the EU and India in Sub-Saharan Africa. tried to explore the possibilities of convergence and prospects of cooperation between India and Europe in different sectors in the continent. Can Europe and India, with their different histories of engagement, cooperate in partnering Africa? There were diverse opinions. Prof Osita Eze from Nigeria said it will be difficult for India and Europe to cooperate in Africa as they are perceived differently in the continent largely due to the history of colonialism that marks Europe’s encounter with Africa. He also hoped that India will not be seduced into the trap of focusing only on resource extraction in Africa and would concentrate on mutually beneficial empowerment. He said that although barely 13 km separate Europe and Africa through the Straits of Gibraltar, and India is thousands of miles away, Africa feels a greater closeness of mind and spirit with India. It’s not geography, but the nature of the relationship that matters, he underlined. Ruchita Beri expanded on the theme of convergence or divergence of interests of India and EU in Africa.

Prof Yash Tandon came out with some radical ideas for transforming the nature of Africa’s engagement with the outside world. He suggested that Africa decouple itself from the pernicious process of globalisation dictated by Western capitalist powers and institutions created by them and argued strongly for ending aid dependency that has become a bigger and more deadly virus than HIV, eating into the vital organs of African society and system. “We are on the road to self-reliance and it’s time we stopped accepting definitions from outside”, he said. Dr Helmut Markov, Head, International Relations, at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation said: “Africa is a continent with great, great possibilities and at the same time faces great, great difficulties.”

Prof K. Mathews spoke insightfully about the challenges of governance and conflict management in the continent. He argued that the existing mechanisms for dealing with wars, conflicts and crises are inadequate. For all the rhetoric about African solutions for African problems, the African Union peace and security structure is dependent on funding from outside which enables outsiders to shape Africa’s security and governance agenda. Although conflicts have been reduced in absolute numbers, the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Darfur are all-too-real and can affect Africa’s resurgence. The costs of the conflict are huge: some $250-300 billion have been sunk in these conflicts which is probably more than half of total GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa.

It was generally felt that Africa was on the cusp of an exciting moment of transformation and renewal that promises to break away from past patterns of exploitation and systematic stereotyping. On the plus side, there are many factors spurring the African resurgence: economic reforms initiated by some sub-Saharan countries and a conscious effort to improve the quality of governance and leadership in African countries. There are more democracies than before and there is a peer review mechanism to call to account deviants. Investments in infrastructure, education and health are going up. African countries today have more choice of partners which gives them freedom to engage with those countries which suit their interests best among the established former colonial partners who continue to be heavily engaged with Africa and major emerging economies like India, China and Brazil who are scaling up engagement with Africa.

Africa has also set an example in regional integration. The regional economic communities and the African Union are tangible steps in this direction.

On the minus side, there are enormous problems holding back the promise of an African renaissance: pervasive poverty ,continuing civil wars, ethnic fratricide and violence with huge economic and human costs that go with them. The perils of the increasing rich-poor divide can’t be exaggerated. Dictatorial leaders and self-serving elites have further accentuated this rich-poor divide. Another constraining factor is the lack of the development of a black middle class and a black capitalist class. Corruption is endemic . Most important perhaps,is the persisting problem of aid dependence that makes African countries vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation from outside and impossible demands like structural adjustment programmes that have proved ruinous for many African economies. Both Prof Yash Tandon and James Sikhwati spoke insightfully on this subject. Oil, which has sparked a new great power game with leading countries competing for Africa’s hydrocarbons, has been a mixed blessing. Some have even called it the oil curse or resource curse. But, as Cyril Obi elucidated in his paper, there is no point blaming oil for sparking new conflicts and competition in Africa. Oil wealth can be harnessed creatively for fulfilling developmental aspirations of people and can become an integral part of the Africa resurgence story.

There is also the need for a cultural flowering or renaissance in Africa that involves a return to one’s roots and the reclamation of Africa’s multi-layered heritage. This process of cultural recovery would in turn entail a return to the foundational texts of African culture and society. It is this lack of focus on primary sources in understanding and interpreting African culture and society that has created a knowledge gap or epistemological distortions about Africa. “What do people see when they see Africa? Minerals, timber, but not people,” asked Shikhwati provocatively. Yash Tandon pointed out that most of our analysis and commentary about Africa is based on Western sources and statistics by Western institutions like the IMF and World Bank. It’s important at this moment to pause and examine whose narrative we are describing here: Africa’s or the way we construct and imagine Africa to be. This is also the point Prof Girjesh Pant made when he said that Africa is not a fixed concept but is constantly evolving.. How does one find one’s way to the real Africa that is not “a dark toy in the carnival of others”? The answer to this question will determine what kind of renaissance and resurgence Africa will witness in the days to come. It’s been indeed a long journey from the time when Africa was famously dubbed by The Economist magazine as “Hopeless Continent” and the way it is seen now as “Continent of Hope.”

Linked up with the idea of identity is freedom. When Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade came to New Delhi for the India-Africa Forum Summit, he said: “Political independence, like an incomplete symphony, will still remain an incomplete undertaking if economic sovereignty is not achieved.” Although colonialism and apartheid are now history, there is the real, all-too-real danger of Africa’s partners slipping into the trap of neo-colonialism in their engagement. If Africa’s partners really have Africa’s interests at their heart, they ought to be encouraging the continent’s quest for economic independence and freedom to script its own destiny. “Africa must exercise freedom to exercise choice,” as Dr Mazrui said memorably.

The conference was brought to an appropriate close by a magisterial valedictory address of Shri Lalit Mansingh, former Foreign Secretary, who traced the evolution of India foreign policy towards Africa since Indian independence, a recurring theme of which was the lack of adequate human and financial resources and focus, which is now beginning to be corrected.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.