Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s current outreach to Africa, including his participation in the 10th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, is, perhaps, the right juncture to take a close look at India-Africa relations since he assumed office in 2014.
The Sixth BRICS Summit in Brazil was Modi’s first multilateral outing he became Prime Minister, and the 10th Summit is the last in his five-year term. Being part of BRICS did not in any particular way help or hinder India’s relations with China – which saw more downs than ups in the last four years – for the simple reason that Sino-Indian ties have a dynamic all their own. Similarly, India being a part of BRICS has not been cause for any added boost or momentum to India’s relations with South Africa or the African continent since the BJP-led government took office in 2014.
India-Africa relations -- often in the limelight these last four years, though not always for good reasons -- is again in focus now with Modi’s visit to Rwanda and Uganda before South Africa for the BRICS Summit.
Equally in focus is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit also to Rwanda besides Senegal and Mauritius, before reaching Johannesburg for the BRICS Summit. Xi’s visit has received more attention worldwide, especially in the US and Europe, which are Africa’s biggest investors and trading partners, because China is emerging as a potential trade and investment rival to the West, and also gaining ground as a popular development partner in the “Dark Continent”.
Contrary to the perception of China and India being in a race to expand their respective footprints in Africa, in reality, China is way ahead of India. Besides trade and investment, there are a number of economic cooperation tracks, including infrastructure development, through which China has reinforced a strong and sustainable partnership with Africa.
Both the Asian giants have a long history of trade and investment with Africa. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term India raised the size and flow of investments. Not one to lag behind, China also scaled up its investments. According to the World Investment Report 2016, China was the fourth largest investor in Africa in 2014, whereas India was eighth. In the years since then, China’s investment in Africa – from both its state enterprises and private sector -- have grown by leaps and bounds; certainly at a faster pace and on a bigger scale than Indian investment flows.
India is not in the same league as China when it comes to investments in Africa. Indian investments may be even less than is widely believed and actually put out, because over 90 per cent of Indian “investments in Africa” find their way to the tax haven of Mauritius -- and it is no secret that most of this money comes back, in various forms, to India. So, for a credible picture of Indian investments in Africa, ‘investments’ that go the Mauritius route should be excluded. Even when that is included, India’s investments are less than a third – or, fifth, some would claim – of China’s.
Ahead of the BRICS Summit, both India and China led by Modi and Xi respectively were on an investment spree and loan splurge in Africa. In Rwanda, for example, which both Modi and Xi were visiting for the first time, India announced a line of credit of $200 million. China announced a loan of $126 million and implied promise of more to come including under its Belt and Road Initiative. While India committed to a total of $ 400 million in aid to Rwanda and Uganda, Xi pledged $14.7 billion to South Africa.
Although both Modi and Xi showed their deep pockets, it is clear that India and China are not in the same bracket, as China’s footprints are wider and it has dug in deeper. The presence of Chinese enterprises is much more widespread than that of Indian companies. India’s record of project delivery on the ground is reportedly poor, whereas Chinese projects are invariably completed in time. India’s inability, at times, to meet contract obligations is also said to be an issue. Thus, although many Chinese projects have been criticised for low wages, bad working conditions and not creating enough jobs, India has not been able to take advantage of this to steal a march over Chinese business. Reports are that China is doing vastly more than India to tap resource-rich Africa and unleash its potential.
For all that, India-Africa relations are growing. India put its best forward in October 2015, when New Delhi hosted the India-Africa Forum Summit – with over 40 heads of governments among the 54 countries that were represented -- to convey its resolve for a sustainable long-term relationship. It was a splendid effort by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to frame India’s ties with Africa in the context of the common colonial legacy, followed by the tide of anti-colonialism and the anti-apartheid movement -- both of which owed much to the inspiring leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and the solidarity founded on his policies. Successive governments stuck to the course until things began to fall apart in the late 1990s. Even then, in spite of ties losing this content, India’s political leadership stuck to form if only for the sake of sustaining relations with African nations.
Unfortunately, Modi did not so much as mention Nehru or other political leaders who are held in high esteem in Africa as champions of Afro-Asian solidarity for their role in the struggles against colonialism, apartheid and imperialism. This graceless omission stripped the Summit of its sheen and caused displeasure to many of the visiting dignitaries. It was a case of politics damaging diplomacy. But for the fallout of this omission, the Summit -- which the MEA had worked on for several months – would have been an unqualified success. It certainly did nothing to give India a higher stature than China in the eyes of the African political leaders who were visiting New Delhi.
In the time since the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, there have been many prominent bilateral exchanges and high-level visits. However, what quite a few Africans recall are the incidents of racist violence and Afro-phobia, and the Indian authorities not acting effectively in the circumstances. In short, the low points overshadow the highlights.
In 2016, when the BJP was in full celebratory flow over its electoral victory in Assam and completion of two years in office, 54 African countries decided to boycott the ‘Africa Day’ (May 25) celebrations to condemn the rising Afro-phobia in India. This unprecedented international rebuff by the African envoys in New Delhi was delivered on the eve Nehru’s death anniversary and around the time when two US senators raised the issue of bigotry and intolerance in India. Only weeks earlier, in the heat of electioneering, in a crude attempt to berate Kerala, Modi had referred to the southern state as “Somalia”.
The envoys of 54 African countries cited the “racism and Afro-phobia” prevalent in India as the reason for wanting the Africa Day event to be put off. In a scathing statement, Eritrean Ambassador and dean of the group, Alem Tsehage Woldemariam said: “Given the pervading climate of fear and insecurity in Delhi, the African Heads of Mission are left with little option than to consider recommending to their governments not to send new students to India, unless and until their safety can be guaranteed.”
Saying that the African Community in India were mourning, the letter exhorted the government to take urgent steps to guarantee the safety of Africans in India, including appropriate programmes of public awareness that would address the problems of racism and Afro-phobia in India.
The trigger for the boycott and such a statement was the murder of a Congolese national M T Olivia on May 21 in Delhi. This brutality jolted the diplomats into action because of the rising number and frequency of such incidents, and not only in Delhi. The envoys, as much as other Africans especially in Delhi, have faced racist taunts, discrimination and insulting treatment including at the hands of officials.
(Earlier, in 2014, AAP MLA Somnath Bharti had led vigilantes who abused and beat up Nigerian women in New Delhi based on wild allegations linking them to a drug and sex racket).
The government had fielded External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Minister of State VK Singh to assure the envoys of its commitment to ensuring the safety and security of African nationals; and, swift investigation and action whenever an offence was reported. This persuaded the African diplomats to relent and accept participation in the postponed event.
However, it needs to be stressed that racism and Afro-phobia did not appear first under this government. The fact is that in recent years it has become more ugly and virulent. (This is akin to the mounting racist attacks and discrimination against people from the Northeast, especially in Delhi).
The indifference of the authorities, especially policemen on the spot, to violence against Africans has been a matter of increasing public concern even before Modi assumed office. However, under this government, the climate is perceived to be more conducive for targeting people who may be excluded as the “enemy other” based on religious, racial, linguistic and pigment prejudices. Such incidents have been on the rise while the government is in proactive mode to win over African nations and woo them with investments and loans.
There was yet another outbreak of violence last year in Greater Noida, on the outskirts of New Delhi, which revived the war of words between African diplomats and the MEA. In this incident the mob targets were Nigerians, whom the assailants suspected of “drug-dealing” and “cannibalism”. Rarely before has such racism and xenophobia been witnessed here.
Although the MEA was quick to condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms, the government appeared reluctant to admit racism. Observers attribute this reluctance to the larger diplomatic fallout of acknowledging “racial” attacks at a time when African envoys are explicit about it. In sticking to denial mode on racism, Modi sarkar is doing exactly what its predecessors have done.
For the second time, ambassadors of African countries in New Delhi expressed anger and disappointment at the government’s inability to protect their citizens. In a statement, the envoys “concluded that no known, sufficient, and visible deterring measures were taken by the Government of India”. These are strong words—the strongest ever— by the association of African ambassadors representing 54 missions in Delhi, provoked by the attacks against Nigerians after a local youth died allegedly of drug overdose.
Unlike in 2016, this time, the MEA responded more swiftly. The swiftness, however, did not mitigate the deep and cumulative impact on India-Africa relations. It was a blow to India’s diplomatic and political outreach to Africa, which under Modi had begun with the landmark Summit in October 2015 and set the ground for revival of ties in a big way.
India’s ambition to overtake China in Africa has a basis and can be chased from a position of strength. To set out on that path, India needs to address the political, diplomatic and economic issues, which have a bearing on the relationship. Afro-phobia and racism at home can jeopardise political and diplomatic relations and scuttle the prospects of economic cooperation negotiated during high-level visits. And, high-level visits may not take India far in Africa unless project execution and delivery on the ground exceed China’s record.
It is not difficult for India’s political leadership to accomplish these and win over Africa. India and Africa have so much in common – colonial history, a legacy of solidarity and anti-colonial struggles, the post-colonial development experience and, above all, the English language. Add to these: India’s place in the Anglo-American axis, the fact that the US and Europe would back India against China, India’s non-interference as a development partner, its non-prescriptive approach and the absence of any workforce militia tied to investments. It is then clear that India has formidable advantages over China for winning over Africa as a long-term friend and partner.
The author is an independent journalist writing on political and foreign affairs