Originally Published 2019-08-09 06:25:36 Published on Aug 09, 2019
President’s visit provides a fillip to India-Africa engagement

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi enunciated the ten guiding principles for India Africa engagement during his address to the Ugandan parliament in July last year, it gave India a concrete framework to follow, a sort of a vision document, while pursuing its engagement with African countries. The very first principle placed emphasis on increasing our diplomatic and political outreach to the continent, which is reflected in the increasing number of high-level visits from both sides. Such sustained and regular visits continues to define our partnership as PM Modi’s administration embarks on its second term.

President Ram Nath Kovind’s special affinity for Africa is well-known. In 2017 and 2018, he visited four countries – Djibouti, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mauritius. Even in this term, his Africa sojourn continued with visits to three resource-rich Francophone West African countries – Benin, Gambia and Guinea. For decades, engagement with West African countries did not figure high on Indian agenda, as opposed with English-speaking Anglophone countries in east and southern Africa. While initiatives like the 2004 Techno-Economic Approach for Africa-India Movement (TEAM-9) comprising eight West African countries were operational, Indian engagement with the West African region remained largely limited.

However, the dynamics are now changing. Africa’s two largest crude oil exporter, Nigeria and Angola respectively, lies in the region. As we are aware, India has high demand for oil, both crude and petroleum, and natural resources. Consequently,India’s energy requirements and imperatives has pushed us to forge closer partnerships with West African countries, who have emerged as important export markets and import sources for India.

India does recognise the African continent’s diversity. Certainly, a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not a viable method of engaging with the different regions. The dynamics in all the regions, be it East, West, North, or Southern Africa are completely different. Therefore, India has started to engage with African countries by hosting Regional Economic Conclaves. In October 2018, the first-ever Regional Conclave on India-West Africa Project Partnership was hosted in Abuja, Nigeria by Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) with support from MEA, Export-Import Bank (EXIM Bank of India) and Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission. Such regional conclaves are also proposed in Uganda in East Africa and in Zambia in Southern Africa. It is in this backdrop that President Kovind’s visit to West African countries assumes significance.

Benin was President Kovind’s first stop. After three decades of peace and prosperity, the tiny West African nation of Benin has been a beacon of West African model of democracy and has been held in high esteem by the world’s democracy watchers.The visit is an historic visit, since it marks the very first to Benin at the level of Head of State/Government. India extended soft Line of Credit of USD 100 million for the government’s flagship project – Revealing Benin: Government Action Programme2016-2021. India also agreed to host special Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) course in English proficiency and special professional course for diplomats of Benin, to be hosted by Foreign Service Institute under MEA. Benin is also a beneficiary of India’s e-visa regime. Four MoUs/agreement were signed on; cultural exchange programme;e-vidhyabharti and e-arogyabharti (e-VBAB) network on tele-education and tele-medicine; mutual exemption from visa requirements for holders of diplomatic or official passports; and cooperation on the field on export credit and investment insurance. New Delhi also agreed to host the second session of India Benin Joint Commission at the ministerial level in the coming months. With India being Benin’s largest trading partner, President Kovind’s visit has added further momentum to our bilateral partnership.

The next destination in President’s itinerary was The Gambia. Often described as the ‘Smiling Coast’ of Africa. India and Gambia have traditionally enjoyed warm and cordial relations. India is among the top trading partners of Gambia – our bilateral trade in 2018-19 crossed USD 200 million. A special session of the Gambian National Assembly was convened which was addressed by President Kovind. The Gambian President   shares a special affinity for India and Mahatma Gandhi who according to him, “remains a relevant inter-generational icon for liberation”. President Kovind’s address was even more special since the National Assembly Building Complex in Banjul is built with Indian assistance under our concessional financing agreement. India also extended an assistance of USD 500,000 in support of the government’s skill development programmes and cottage industry projects. India has also established a Vocational Training Center at the Gambian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an incubation center at the Gambian Technical Training Institute. Recognising our potential in the field of Ayurveda and traditional system of medicine and homeopathy, both countries signed a MoU on the subject. India is also going to install 300 solar home system and 20 solar water pumps in selective Gambian villages.

The last leg of President’s three-nation tour concluded with a stop to Guinea where India is planning to open its resident mission before 2021. Back in March this year, Guinea Prime Minister Ibrahima Kassory Fofana visited New Delhi to participate at the 14th CII-EXIM Bank Conclave. India is one of Guinea’s top trading partners. Our bilateral trade in 2017-18 reached almost USD 900 million. India’s major import items from Guinea include pearls/stones/jewellery, mineral fuels and bitumen, cashew, scrap metals etc. During the visit, India extended USD 170 million LOC for water supply project of Metropolitan city of Conakry and signed 3 MoUs on; homeopathy and traditional system of medicine; participation in the e-VBAV network project; and in the field of renewable energy. Currently, India is constructing two regional hospitals under Indian LOC to the tune of USD 35 million, and is investing USD 14.4 million on a solar project for supply of electricity and drinking water in seven public universities, and USD 5.82 million for electrification and refrigeration across 200 health infrastructures in Guinea.

Mozambique – pearl of the Indian Ocean:

Indian Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh’s three-day trip to Mozambique was very productive and encouraging in the context of our defence and security partnership. Rajnath Singh’s visit comes in the backdrop of two high-level visits over the past three years which underlines New Delhi and Maputo’s re-engagement – then Chief of Naval Staff Sunil Lanba’s visit in July 2017, and then MoS for External affairs Gen (Dr.) V K Singh’s visit in February 2018. Both these visits helped set the tone for our growing maritime and military cooperation. Also, when PM Modi embarked on a four-nation African tour back in 2016, Mozambique was his first stop.

Mozambique occupies a strategic position in the Western Indian Ocean with a coastline of 2500 kilometers. It overlooks the Mozambique Channel, a critical waterway and chokepoint in the Indian Ocean. Much of Indian trade passes through this region. Consequently, safe and unhindered passage of Indian ships transiting this route is of primary national interest as it directly impacts our economy. In the past, the Indian Navy has regularly patrolled Mozambique Channel and has provided security during two summits – African Union summit in 2003 and World Economic Forum meeting in 2004 in Maputo.

India has both energy and security interests in the region. Three Indian companies – Bharat Petroleum Corporation, ONGC Videsh Limited, and Oil India Limited – is investing total USD 6 billion on the Rovuma Offshore Area 1 consortium (Area-1) for the two train Golfinho/Atum Mozambique LNG project. Apart from this, various Indian companies like Jindal Steel and Power, the Essar Group, Coal India, and Tata Steel have invested in coal, iron ore and other minerals.

Therefore, in order to keep Indian trade and energy shipping routes safe, during Rajnath Singh’s visit, India signed two MoUs– agreement on sharing White Shipping Information, and cooperation in the field of Hydrography. India also handed over 44 SUVs to the Mozambican Police force and two Indian-made Fast Interceptor Boats (FIB) to Mozambican Navy which will be used for conducting coastal surveillance operations. Undoubtedly, from an Indian perspective, as important as securing the east, is its western maritime security, where the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea meets, which has gained prominence in recent years. In this regard, Maputo has emerged as a valuable partner for New Delhi in the Indian Ocean. Rajnath Singh’s visit to Mozambique has been timely and has provided a fillip to our bilateral partnership.

Speaking at Raisina Dialogue 2019 in January, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale opined that, India has moved on from its non-alinged past. India is today an aligned state – but based on issues and interests. Given India’s rise as an emerging global player and growing ‘Afro-optimism’, it is these interests which has prompted India to engage and forge closer partnerships with African countries’ for shared growth, common security, and mutual benefit.

This commentary originally appeared in The Economics Times.

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Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA). His research focuses on India and China’s engagement ...

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