High-Level Visits Apart, India’s Africa Push Needs Better Focus


It’s raining Indians in Africa this week, high level Indians!

Let’s begin at the very top, Ram Nath Kovind with two years under his presidential belt is off to west Africa, covering three countries: Gambia, Guinea Conakry and Benin. Then there’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh who heads for Mozambique on his first official foreign visit since moving to South Block.

Kovind’s three-country swing is of a largely ceremonial nature, given that he is the Head of State. But at a time when protectionist trends have overtaken sentiment in Europe and the U.S., rendering Indian exports stagnant, Africa offers an inviting market.

India’s exports to Benin hover around $450 million and there is a comprehensive support programme covering education and social projects. Trade with Gambia is again on the low side averaging less than $100 million but India is a key partner in that country’s development. India’s line of credit is helping improve the Banjul port, provide rural electrification and health care. Trade with Guinea crossed the $1 billion mark some years ago but these are small, resource-poor countries so Indian help is much sought after.

It’s interesting to note that President Kovind has made three official visits to the African continent since taking office in July 2017. In October that year he travelled to the strategic port city of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa where China (among others) has a naval base. India is believed to be interested in some kind of a naval and air facility in Djibouti not only to keep an eye on the Chinese but also to monitor maritime traffic flowing from the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Around 25 per cent of the world’s exports to Asia and the Mediterranean transit these waters.

Rajnath Singh’s Mozambique visit of two-day duration is focused heavily on the military. He will hand over two fast interceptor boats made in India for the Mozambique Navy and 44 SUVs. MoUs are expected to be signed on surveying that country’s exclusive economic zone, a hydrographic study of Mozambique’s waters and sharing information on white shipping. Singh is accompanied by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, which is unusual and suggests the high importance of this visit.

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So what does India want from Africa? Markets as was mentioned earlier to export its manufactured products from automobiles to pharma and electrical equipment. But India is also looking at Africa backing its aspirations for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Most of these countries appear to be on board although Africa itself has no representation on the council while Asia has China.

India’s development assistance to Africa is nowhere close to what the Chinese are doing and this is the nub of the problem. Indian diplomats candidly admit that India doesn’t have deep pockets compared to China, so any assistance has to be carefully thought through. It’s a point that Mozambique’s foreign minister made during a visit in December last year, when he said his country was free to decide who to do business with.

China is the biggest financier and builder of infrastructure in that country. It is also competing with India for investments in the oil and gas sector but China has more money to splurge although Mozambique’s rising debt has resulted in a slowdown in Chinese lending.

China held a summit with African states last year; India did it in 2015 and is scheduled to hold another next year but the Ministry of External Affairs is yet to make up its mind. This underscores another problem with India: the slow pace of decision making compared to the cracking pace the Chinese are known to set. Getting clearances for projects and the sanction for funds could take months as files wend their way up the bureaucratic chain. Implementing them on the ground is another grouse the Africans have voiced.

Then again India directly channels money to the African Union (apparently the ‘brainchild’ of an Indian diplomat now retired). The result: projects funded by India come up with the recipient country thinking the African Union has provided the money. Add to that, there is a view among some Indian diplomats who have served in Africa that aid should be carefully thought through, specific countries should be targeted and India should look for a return on its investment.

So in the future, India could slim down its Africa outreach, limiting its development assistance to a smaller number of countries and getting a return on its investment (political or economic).