This article lays emphasis on the importance of African nations in the current geopolitical situation. With the United States, China, and Japan having stakes in the African region and making increased efforts for deeper cooperation in the region, this article attempts to analyze how different challenges can be tackled while utilizing the opportunities at hand. This article also aims to explore some strategic mistakes and opportunities each nation or actor had made in the region in the past and why these nations are both strategically and principally inclined to engage with the African region.
India and the African nations have a long history together. From geologically being a part of Africa 200 million years ago to cooperation during the decolonization struggle, India has had both a large presence and influence in the African continent. When we examine African nations through the lens of diplomacy and geopolitical advantage, it is also important to understand the synergy that exists amongst the nations and why they are important to be considered in the status quo.
Trade relations between India and Africa can be traced back to the 1st century when the Aksum Empire was established in modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea. The expansion of our foreign policy approach to Africa started with Jawaharlal Nehru, who proactively stressed on Afro-Asian solidarity. Supporting democratic reforms and decolonization was seen as a common element in increasing solidarity. The most visible example was the Asian-African Conference at Bandung in 1955, which also contributed to many people being involved in the Non-Aligned movement, thereby marking African participation in the initiative. Few years later, a series of events that marked the independence of 17 African nations began to be addressed as ‘The Year of Africa’, highlighting the growing Pan-African sentiments within the region. India also actively supported Tunisia and Algeria in their independence struggle and was actively praised across the continent for its vision on decolonization during that time. Not just that, India, on behalf of several colonies in Africa, played a significant role in the peacekeeping missions of the UN by deploying Military expertise through officials in the region. For example: Belgian Congo (1960–64) and The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO (2005)). This long history of shared interest, commonality in economic and principled concerns, and geographical richness in resources, helped African Nations and India to intersect on various fronts.
Failure of the African Union
Before understanding the impact that Africa would have in future geopolitical scenarios, it is important to understand why Africa has often been overlooked for quite a long time in the mainstream geo-political debates and media coverage. Africa is often perceived as a monolith, rather than a continent with various countries. An average reader identifies Africa to be associated with only problems, such as poverty or hunger. However, considering their potential and innovation capacity, it is unfair to base an understanding of the continent on mere assertions. The oversimplification of complex issues by western media outlets has been a major reason for Africa being overlooked for a long time. This could be understood in how various media houses often present the viewpoint of countries in the developed world. Specificity on issues does not exist either and there is a lack of recognition of other political players within the region and a lack of individual country view coverage. So, we infer that our understanding of Africa stems from a western lens, which is often not very informed about ground realities or is biased. Although Africa’s colonial past exists but media and people are not able to look beyond the colonial history. The history preceding the colonial past is richer and more interesting than colonial resistance itself, and when nations look at only a specific part of history to engage with African nations on a diplomatic level, they tend to overlook other aspects quite integral and important for soft diplomacy such as the indigenous people struggles and the African intangible historic lineage. This could have been a source of commonality between nations but because of how Africa is oversimplified by western media, it does not generate enough attention towards itself. Complexity of the continent also feeds into a lack of attention by other nations. Africa constitutes many nations with complex political structures and regular geopolitical crises. For example, Morocco and Western Sahara, as these two nations have been in the middle of conflict because Morocco controls the region, and the Polisario Front (an independence movement opposing Moroccan control of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory that Morocco annexed in stages beginning in 1976), which believes that the Western Sahara should be an independent state. Since 1975, the conflict has sparked numerous battles between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan military. This example is important to understand the nature of the many geopolitical divides within the nations of the African continent. Therefore, all these divides make it difficult for diplomatic relations because if one nation is dominant over the other then important policies will not succeed. This creates a vicious cycle of crisis, as one crisis feeds another one. To solve this issue, the African Union was created. The African Union replaced the Organization of African Unity (an intergovernmental organization with the aim to encourage political and economic integration among member states, and to eradicate colonialism and neo-colonialism from the African continent) in 2002, as it failed to bring the decolonized nations together on a shared goal to eradicate poverty. The African Union consists of 55 member states, including Western Sahara (which tried to separate from Morocco), and is responsible for making most decisions, setting out policies, and allocating the budget for the Union. The Union usually plans action that should be based on reports from other bodies and monitors implementation of the policies. The vision of the founder of the Union was to establish a single African state or united front, (overlooking the complexities and sectarian violence within the continent. Proponents of the subject believe that it was in efforts to create a replica of the European Union). The question then is, why was the African Union unable to create a suitable environment for increased diplomatic ties and dialogue. The answer is its lack of proper implementation. The African Union would primarily not take any sides or a hardline stance to make members abide by their peacekeeping principles. The union was often criticized for not taking non-diplomatic or more interventionist actions, which was much needed in a politically and ethically tense environment between different nations in Africa. They have a standing military with capacity to take action, but the issues of ‘who takes charge?’ and ‘who would fund it?’ still remained. The African Union’s Covid-19 response was also criticized as a smoke screen measure because most countries were left on their own to explore their options and relief measures. These institutional issues along with no active first track diplomacy initiatives, makes it extremely difficult for the African Union to bring benefits through the diplomatic process. The African Union requires systematic investment for smooth functioning and improving its implementation processes. At this point, we see China coming into the picture and providing a significant amount of funds, especially in the Eastern African region. It is important to understand the optics of China in Africa and whether it affects the current and future geopolitical situation for Africa.
China and US presence in Africa
The recent geopolitical debates and critiques on the subject suggest China’s growing presence as a potential threat to India's relations with African nations and a loss of opportunity for strategic economic gain from their untapped resources. On a closer look, is China’s presence really a threat to the dynamics of the geopolitical world, or is it merely an increase in cooperation with African nations to give a slight push to its own Belt and Road Initiative? The Belt and Road initiative is itself, one answer to this question, simply because of the incentives that are present for China in the African region. For China, the continent is a way of reaching out to the European markets and creating a replica of its so-called, ‘Ancient Silk Route’. However, the Chinese are only concerned with the Suez Canal routes, which means there is little to no role played by other African nations in this equation. It can be understood from an angle of ‘strategic depth’ and how China is expanding its support base on an international platform by tapping into these underdeveloped African Nations.
This also brings the US into this equation, allowing us to explore the strategic mistakes made by the US, while handling the African region through its policies. In 2018, the idea of ‘Strategic Competition’ gained momentum in the US with a simple aim of tackling Chinese and Russian presence through its policies in the global order. This, however, made things difficult for the US to manage due to its unclear planning and lack of vision for an end goal. They compromised on various fronts including providing food security, resources, etc., for several African nations, just to ‘win’ in a supposed strategic competition with China and Russia. The original intent of the strategic competition with which it began, proved to be quite futile due to these strategic mistakes. However, China is banking on these nations’ anti-western sentiments and potentially countering the ‘Western hegemony’ ideology, by increasing cultural ties, tracing historic legacy, and spurring nationalist sentiments in the region. African support acts as a major factor for China in getting the global influence it desires, and also the ‘strategic depth’ in the global order. In 1999, China was able to join the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with 54 African countries who had a vote in the UN and was also able to put aside Taiwan. Being a part of various UN bodies, which majorly work in the African region (for food, health, and shelter) shows how China plays a huge role in getting support on the international level. China is a revisionist power, threatening the hegemony of the United States, and trying to increase African dependence on itself by using its strategy of instrument of forward purchase of essential commodities, or trying to get its strategic depth.
Understanding China’s motivations are important to gauge the consequences and impact on other nations, particularly India and the US; however, this should ideally push India and the US to have a prompt and more direct approach to the African nations in coming years. China has paved a concrete path for cooperation and economic relations even with some hints of its political agenda. The investment and economic cooperation might seem small right now, however the partnerships through various sub-units, trading units, etc., indicate that it is bigger than we are able to anticipate. This is seen in the case of economic relations with countries rich in raw material, such as Angola for its oil, Zambia for its copper, DRC for its cobalt, or any other country having the assets that China considers crucial for its development projects that are ambitiously pursued and reinforced in its attempt for close political relations with these nations.
In recent years, India’s trade and investment in the region has lost momentum due to the non-tariff barriers, red tape, insufficient infrastructure, and unstable political conditions. These tariff barriers remain high outside areas covered by the agreements, but it is evident how important the African continent can be for India on various fronts. India’s growing need for African commodities and African nations’ need for development, can open opportunities for mutual benefit. This is the time when India has an increased incentive to go ahead and ambitiously pursue deeper relations with the African nations. For example, Egypt is one such lucrative target where India can work on enhancing relations because of its ties with the Middle East (For example: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)), which makes it an important ally in the Middle East region. With India now trying to broaden its vision in the Middle East (evident with the recent Israel visit), Egypt can act as a catalyst in this process and also open up doors to other North-African countries. Many countries have bilateral relations with these African nations (also considering China in the picture) but what can set India apart, in its engagement with these African Nations in the status-quo? The answer to this lies in our capacity building programs. India had committed $7.4 billion in concessional credit and $1.2 billion in grants since its first India-Africa Summit in 2008 and created over 100 capacity building institutions, and developed infrastructure, public transport, clean energy, and agriculture. These are some crucial resources that are available at India’s disposal, which provides it an edge in terms of cooperation. As the traditional donors, who belong to OECD and other multilateral institutions, have significantly lost their relevance as an appealing donor because of how the structure became quite complex for Nations, so it will be easier for India to act as an alternative. India also offered several soft loans worth $5 Billion and $500 million in grants and training fellowships to natives at the second India-Africa Summit (2011). It was remarkable to see the participation of a few African leaders in the summit, as the Chiefs of Regional Economic Communities (RECs), which also resulted in a surge of people-to-people contacts (especially in terms of research students, entrepreneurs, and experts). Nations like Morocco and Algeria can potentially become a gateway to other parts of Africa, for India.
Challenges and Opportunities
The security, environment, and technological challenges have largely affected the continent for quite a long time. Terrorism has been a serious concern for the continent, especially with rise in proliferation of terrorist and extremist groups (e.g., Al Qaeda in Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia). Where terrorists are located in Africa is not important, because they work majorly as transnational groups. Most terrorist groups shifted to African regions from earlier central Asian regions (majorly Afghanistan and Pakistan) and are now joining hands with the militants and separatists to advance their motives in the local areas. Burkina Faso, a former French colony that also shares history with India from the times of Narasimha Rao, spurred with Islamist terrorist groups and gradually became a hot bed for terrorist activities by Al-Qaeda and ISIS. This also had a domino effect on its neighbors like Mali, where local places and villages had been affected the most by these activities because they were landlocked poor countries where these terrorist groups could easily find a haven. ISIS and Al Qaeda have used the tactic of expanding their regional power and influence by capitalizing on natural resources and radicalizing the human capital, which is why the social landscape works for them. Egypt comes into the picture at this point, where India can potentially increase its military cooperation and intelligence sharing, given their history of conducting joint military training and producing military vehicles for Egypt. India also conducted its first maritime partnership with Algeria in 2021, which shows how India is engaging on a broad spectrum of security domains. Due to geographical proximity of Egypt with terror ridden countries, India can potentially act as a relief actor here. India has always proved itself effective in devising counterterrorism strategies, one such example also exists in the African region, namely with Egypt and Morocco, through working groups, information sharing, exchanging best practices, and increasing strategic convergence on counter terrorism challenges. Fewer engagements have been seen with the other nations, which is where India needs to work more rigorously. India is not the only nation that is trying to increase its ties with the African nations. The EU, China, Japan, and the US are also on this list. Now, it is a known fact that Africa is not as economically appealing as it used to be. Low commodity prices, rise in militancy, population growth and underutilized youth population, are all the challenges that exist in the status quo. These challenges have continued to exist in the region due to the nature of economy and social structure of different countries in Africa which makes them more complex to understand and engage with. India still has a natural advantage over China and the US, in Africa, because of its large diaspora in English-speaking African nations as both India and African nations have significant English-speaking populations, which definitely provides an edge for people-to-people interaction and strengthens cultural diplomacy. The 2017 summit meeting between Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Indian PM Narendra Modi acted as a catalyst for an Indo-Japanese cooperation in their call for the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) with the vision to increase cooperation between Asia’s largest democracies and align the interests of ‘Freedom and Prosperity’. Many believed AAGC was a response to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which to some extent is true, as it can act as a good alternative, because it focuses more on regional connectivity with a more holistic approach.
Firstly, we need to contribute and work towards greater bilateral initiatives for proper implementation of existing projects. The delivery chain should be improved and should focus on mainstream delivery of both goods and services. This would also require us to actively promote our contribution through various campaigns, such as Incredible India, with a unique integration of regional campaigns and networks. Enhancing soft power with African nations can prove to be beneficial for India in the long term. This can help India leverage its two strong assets, namely private sector expertise and its diaspora within the African nations. PM Narendra Modi expressed this vision for India in his speech in 2017,
“India’s partnership with Africa is based on a model of cooperation which is responsive to the needs of African countries. It is demand driven and free of conditions.”
Considering Japan also has experience in manufacturing and can develop world class networks, despite the low cost that Chinese offer, the Japanese are more trusted and can offer better on ground conditions to the people involved in African regions. As these projects provide considerably long-term employment to people, with both Indian and Japanese investment, garnering regional support would become much easier for people concerned with African nations. The AAGC aimed to pool together Indian and Japanese technology to build quality infrastructure with digital connectivity. It can be seen as a people-centric approach, along with sustainable practices, which involve different stakeholders including academicians, businesses, and entrepreneurs. There will be challenges in terms of implementation, differences in development level for each nation, but this still looks quite promising for all stakeholders involved and its benefits outweigh the harms. The benefits of Indian-Japanese synergy can be well applied in the African continent, which would provide a push in the existing automation level, bring investment and technology in the required fields, and help in sustenance in the long run. Thus, Africa is the future of geopolitics, which will determine the impact of policies and strategies in the global order. India should, therefore, not trade-off the resources it can utilize and integrate in these nations over something that is not viable for it both, strategically and principally.
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Audio Transcript Prime minister Narendra Modi's Speech at the Community Reception in South Africa 2017 - “India’s partnership with Africa is based on a model of cooperation which is responsive to the needs of African countries. It is demand driven and free of conditions.”