Engaging Africa as an all-weather friend

Engaging Africa as an all-weather friend

India has to work hard to remove the image of being a fair-weather friend among the nations.

Perhaps the most successful and popular Indian initiative, the brain child of the former President Dr A P J Kalam, has been the PAN Africa e-Network. The TCIL signed a MoU with around 40 African countries to connect their capitals with India through internet offering a range of services including tele-education and tele- medicine.
India has been offering ITECH Scholarships to developing countries Africa takes roughly 40 per cent of the pie.

Since the early 60s India has participated in many UN Peace Keeping Missions in Africa. Most recently, Indian women Peace Keepers in Liberia have won praise internationally.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced concessional lines of credit to African countries to the tune of $5.4 billion over a period of five years at the end of India-Africa Forum Summit last year. He had also announced an amount of $500 million for capacity building and doubling of scholarships. India has also set aside funds for assisting a number of African countries in addressing the menace of HIV and AIDs.

China, far ahead
Indian efforts, though laudable, are rather modest compared to the Chinese handouts. The road from Nairobi to the Kenyan port city of Mombasa is in extremely dilapidated condition. But it has a stretch of roughly 70 km four-lane highway of international standard called the China Road.

India-Africa Forum Summit last year attracted only half a dozen Heads of State from Africa. When China organised the China-Africa Summit, it was attended by 41 Heads of State. At the end, the Chinese government pledged to train 15,000 professionals from Africa in three years, set up 100 rural schools, offer 4,000 scholarships and set up a China-Africa Development Fund with a corpus of over $5 billion!

Some observers recommend “an active foreign service lobbying.” This would require a fundamental change in mindsets of the officers and administrative priorities set by the MEA. Many blue-eyed boys and girls avoid Africa like a leper and retire without  spending even a fortnight in Africa!

A common but valid grievance African country has been that we remember them when we need their vote/support for some UN related election/selection. Generally, we show reluctance in sending our VVIP/VIPs to African countries and invite African leaders sparingly. The last presidential visit was exchanged between India and Kenya in 1981! And  Indira Gandhi was the last Indian PM to visit Kenya in 1981!
In many small African countries India has no resident missions; our relations are looked after by one of the high commissioners on concurrent basis.

We don’t have to copy China blindly in Africa. Following measures, if taken with a sense of purpose and priority, can produce positive results:

All IFS officers must serve in Africa; eight countries should be shortlisted annually for a visit by Indian dignitaries; African leaders should be invited to visit India every year; bilateral business council meetings should be organised periodically.
We must work hard to remove the image of being a fair-weather friend. When calamity hits, we must rush aid, assistance generously and in time.

Sam Pitroda is right: India should try IT diplomacy in Africa. If in each African country, India sets up one IT centre which will attract and benefit the youth, we would be reaching out to the generation which has the potential of playing a significant role in bringing India and Africa closer.

Lastly, we have a Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for West Asia and Pakistan .Why not for Africa? This continent has the maximum members of the UN, NAM, G-77 and the Commonwealth. We have growing interest in the hydrocarbon sectors in Angola, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan. We are scouting for countries with Uranium deposits, Congo has possibly every conceivable mineral resource including gold, silver, zinc. A Special Envoy to Africa can not only mobilise support for our candidatures for international organisations and facilitate energy security arrangements; he/she can also promote and facilitate economic relations between India and Africa.
(The author is a retired secretary, ministry of external affairs)