At the last India-Africa summit in Ethiopia, about 10 leaders showed. This time it was full house, rivalling the US-Africa and China-Africa meets.
Just months ago, India’s Africa summit could very well have been a curtain raiser for Beijing’s similar but more high profile Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which takes place in South Africa in December.
But recent developments in the Chinese economy have dented its aura of economic miracle maker in Africa, opening the door just a bit wider for other players.
In May 2011, when Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh strode into the old African Union meeting hall in Addis Ababa, he had only 10 African leaders attending the second of the triennial event—the first time it had been held on African soil, although in fairness the meeting followed the AU’s “on-behalf of others” Banjul format.
The two sides eventually shook hands on a three-year $5 billion development loans deal, the headline item of a package of trinkets that came accompanied by plenty of the “initiative” ribbons ( co-operation, training institutions, scholarships) that so categorise India’s so-called “soft power” approach.
The current edition of the Indo-African summit was scheduled for last year, but was postponed on concerns of Ebola as India’s foreign minister cited “logistical difficulties”, but then said the decision had been taken in consultation with the African Union.
Meanwhile, the first-ever US-Africa Leaders summit went on last year, with the UN General Assembly in New York hot on its heels. At about the same time a delegation of Indian Members of Parliament bailed out on a high-level trip to South Africa where they would have met president Jacob Zuma, again citing fears of the Ebola virus.
New Delhi likes to play up its “historical friendship” with Africa, a relationship that spans centuries and which has been traced to the anonymously-authored Periplus of the Erythaean Sea writings, but such diplomatic missteps can give off the whiff of a fair-weather friend.
But despite this, nearly all African countries were this week in New Delhi for the retooled summit which ended Thursday, the majority represented by their leaders.
Clearly, something has changed—and it takes the ever-looming shape of China. Beijing, despite having little by way of history with Africa to call on (ship), has vaulted past India in its dealings with Africa.
On Thursday, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said bilateral trade with Africa, with which it has a comparable population with, had doubled to $70 billion in about a decade. In the four years to 2014, China traded more than double that amount with Africa.
Given this trade level has remained static for nearly three years, projections of $100 billion in bilateral trade by this year have been quietly scaled down by India, and talk of $500 billion by 2050 then looks ambitious. Most of India’s bilateral trade with Africa grew only in the first decade of this century, a fact that still rankles with New Delhi diplomats, many who refer wistfully to the “lost decade” of the 1990s, when China was only a speck in the rearview mirror.
India’s summit remains part of an effort to claw back some of that ground. The dinners have been lavish, the dances, keen to show cultural ties, near magical, the rhetoric even more high-sounding.
“India and Africa must rise together,” Modi said, but it is hard to spot any real difference this time around: his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, speaking as the Chinese put up the AU’s new gleaming headquarters next door, termed the resulting Addis Ababa agreement indicative of a “genuine two-way” friendship, a thinly veiled reference to its rival’s approach, accused to be resource-oriented.
India appears as keen on seeking its energy interests in Africa—from which it currently imports almost all of its oil. It is also not lost on many observers that New Delhi has also been particularly keen on securing African backing for its push for a seat at any reformed UN Security Council.
But the figures are more indicative of India’s generally still limited clout. Modi doubled his nation’s development aid to Africa to $10 billion in concessional loans, spread out over the next five years, and an additional $600 million into the more strait-jacketed grants, focusing on the usual areas of scholarships and healthcare.
China in its 2012 summit offered $20 billion in additional aid to top up previous arrangements, a number that will be closely watched in coming weeks.
India has since the first triennial summit pledged $8.6 billion in aid and loans, but the slow speed of the rollout of projects has been criticised—the joint plan of action following that 2008 meeting for example took all of two years to craft.
In addition to a project for a pan-Africa “e-network” that would link 48 African countries with India, Modi also identified terrorism, maritime security and climate change for new partnerships. The latter will have fallen on receptive ears, ahead of a key environment meeting in France.
“No one has done less to contribute to global warming than India and Africa—no one can be more conscious of climate change than Indians and Africans,” Modi said as reported by Bloomberg news agency, as he invited African nations to join a global solar alliance he plans to launch in Paris on November 30 to compel rich nations to provide money and cheap technology to developing countries.
But playing a bigger security role especially in the Indian Ocean rim remains a tougher challenge. Despite the rhetoric and the importance to its vital trade interests, New Delhi simply little clout: it was largely absent in the post-colonial years, and while it has since the turn of the century tried to belatedly stir to life, it has routinely starved military co-operations projects with Africa of funding, with its weak intellectual and institutional ability in this space is often internally questioned.
In matters counter-terrorism, which now increasingly pre-occupy Africa, a benign India might as well be the fly on the wall.
It is thus safe to say that the main reason that the New Delhi summit was so well-attended is because, with China’s economic shift throwing both commodity exporters and agricultural majors into turmoil, Africa needs all the friends it can get.
It also leaves the continent even more keenly aware that it must seek to grow its domestic resources if it is to free itself from outside power “competition” narratives, and also withstand ever unreliable global markets, which despite still-weak linkages leave it nursing a major cold whenever world powers sneeze.