Increasing Importance of African States

Ashok Ogra
When one thinks of Africa of 21st century, the most iconic official FIFA World Cup 2010 Song sung by Shakira comes to one’s mind:
“People are raising their expectations
Go on and feed them, this is your moment
No hesitations…
This time for Africa
This time for Africa…”
Yes, from being dismissed as a Dark Continent till recently, Africa is now viewed as the final frontier of the fourth industrial revolution. That explains the renewed interests of major economies of the world in Africa in the last two decades or so. China is certainly leading the charge; already the Sino-Africa trade has reached 200 billion $ a year. That is indeed creditable considering that the majority of African states refused to recognize the Communist Party of China when it seized power in 1949. In contrast, India has enjoyed trading with Africa for centuries; bilateral trade stood at US$63 billion in 2017-18, and cumulative investments in Africa have amounted to US$54 billion – making India the fourth largest investor in Africa.
Against this backdrop the recent publication of Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) – INDIA AND AFRICA: ROAD AHEAD – is a welcome addition that will help us to strategize our future partnerships with Africa.
The book contains papers presented by leading experts at a conference on India-Africa relations held Delhi in 2019.In his foreword, Director General of ICWA Dr.T.C.A.Raghavan hopes the edited volume will enhance reader’s understanding of the country and the region concerned and will act as an impetus for further study and research.
Edited by noted scholar Dr.Nivedita Ray who in her brilliant essay ‘Strengthening India-Africa Ties: Initiatives, Approaches and Emerging Prospects,’ provides an interesting perspective on Indo- Africa trade, and defence and security issues. She writes: ‘India has reached out to littoral countries of Africa and has developed maritime relationships with Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius, through offers of military aid, capacity-building and training assistance.’
The recent attacks on African students, Nivedita laments, in some cities of India – though of stray nature- frustrate India’s efforts at strengthening people to people contact.
India has been trading with Africa since ancient times but the trade was limited because of the low speed of ships. This changed after the arrival of steamships in 1780. The volume of transporting goods showed a sudden spike: compared to barely twenty ships a year before the discovery of steam engines, now a merchant ship leaves African ports for India almost every day carrying tin, wine, coral glass, and gold and silver coins.
However, in 21st century, India faces vastly different challenges in its dealings with Africa. True, India has an advantage – enjoying greater trust among the people- but with China’s rise as an economic super power coupled with its aggressive trade and investment strategy in Africa – sometimes not to the liking of the locals- the dynamics have changed substantially .That is why this book assumes significance as it touches on some of the key areas that need to be studied, addressed and carried forward to seize the opportunity that the continent offers.
T.S.Tirumurti of the MEA makes an important observation that most of India’s assistance goes towards empowering the people of Africa whether it is capacity building and training assistance of the sectors to which our development assistance is channeled.
Prof. Shaji makes a somewhat bold assertion that the new trends of democratization and political reforms taking place in African states are essentially due to the increase in Asian investment. One may ask the scholar whether it matters to China whether the country where it invests is democratic or not? Aren’t there other factors that weigh heavily on investors? Also, isn’t it too early to conclude that the process of democratization is taking deep roots in Africa?
The increasing presence of UN backed peacekeepers is proof that all is still not well with a number of African countries- with tribe and race conflicts continuing with impunity. In his well-researched paper, Chander Prakash Wadhwa examines the nature and challenge of UN Peacekeeping in Africa and argues that these are not isolated events but take place on a continuum, these are transformative and fluid.
He makes a valid point: ‘The complex security environment demands that efforts should be made to enhance existing capacities and develop new abilities to meet emerging realities.’
We all know that various terror groups based in a few African countries have a presence in India. Therefore, the detailed essay by Arvind Kumar on ‘Deconstructing Terrorism in India & Africa’ will interest the security agencies. ‘Africa to a greater extent has formed an Arc of instability – from Nigeria in West Africa, Mali in Sahel, Libya in North Africa and Somalia in East Africa. In Sahel, there is a resurgence of Al-Qaeda. The four terrorist groups that continue to wreak havoc in the regions are- AQIM, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Mourabitoun, Ansar dine and Macina Liberation Front. All these four have recently merged into a single group called Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimen.’
Arvind calls for devising a comprehensive anti-terror strategy but takes readers’ leave without elaborating on what those elements should be.
Oil economy too figures prominently: Sanjay Kumar Pradhan informs that the African oil and natural gas is both good and marginally cheap. However, one would have liked to see the author examine the logistics and associated costs involved in transporting the same to India. Also, how China has been able to negotiate major deals.
In an essay on Bollywood’s appeal among Indian diaspora, Nandini Sen examines with clinical precision how popular culture (read Bollywood) goes on to influence and connect people from far and wide, identifying and bringing them under the large rubric of Indianness. Initially, mainstream Bollywood did not interest the people; however, when movies such as Dil Walale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai…. were screened, the diaspora population relished these films – making them the bestselling export item.
We all know that People to People contact delivers effective results. ‘Too often in the past, public diplomacy efforts have been unidirectional – understanding a country with a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all programme… we should think in terms of diverse cultures and the perceptions and needs of these cultures in Africa,’ argues Sanjukta Banerjee Bhattacharya.
Incidentally, not many may know that there have been African settlements across the Indian coastal belt for centuries, and nowadays there are about 30,000 mostly in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. And these Africans have continued to maintain their indigenous customs and traditions despite settling in India for several centuries.
One got glimpse of it in the Bollywood film RAZIA SULTAN, directed by Kamal Amrohi: Hema Malini (Razia Sultan) – Indian empress of Turkish origin and Dharmendra (Yakut) playing the role of the Abyssinian black slave/ warrior, and Razia’s lover.
Other scholars who have contributed to this volume are Pranav Kumar who adequately addresses the questions relating to the global trade governance and its impact on India -Africa trade; both Rajneesh Kumar Gupta and Paokholal Haokip present useful analysis on the role of Indian diaspora in Anglophone Africa and India- Francophone Africa relations respectively; Priyanka Pandit painstakingly examines how India and Africa can exert pressure to bring in urgently needed reforms in the world financial institutions.
Published by KW Publishers, this professionally edited book will be of immense use to policy makers and research scholars, and also businesses houses interested in tapping into potential the continent offers.
However, the continent presents a picture of great diversity. As per World Bank Report 2020 in sub-Saharan Africa, Niger at US 565 has the lowest GDP per capita as compared to US 7143 in Equatorial Guinea; it is even higher in the case of Mauritius and Seychelles. Surprisingly, despite the end of apartheid in 1990, the Cape Town offers a contrasting picture with one side of the township where 83% whites live in large farm houses with swimming pools and the other side – cramped and crowded – where 93 % Africans stay. This diversity is beautifully expressed by an African writer: “You are not a country, Africa. You are not a concept, Africa. You are a glimpse of the infinite.”
That being the case, studying ever changing dynamics of 54 sovereign African states, therefore, must become an ongoing project for Indian scholars. Interestingly, Nigeria’s NOLLYWOOD and India’s BOLLYWOOD have joined hands to produce a movie titled ‘Namaste Wahala’ about an inter-cultural love story.
(The author is a noted management & media educator)