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India and the new division of Africa : the assertion of an emerging power.

Lettre du Centre Asie 23, April 2008

By organizing the first India-Africa Forum summit from 8 to 9 April 2008, New Delhi wanted to send a strong signal to the International Community : to show that India has the means, and especially the desire, to become an economic and major trading actor in Sub-saharan Africa.

The Indian ambition is based on the convergence of interests of both parties. New Delhi’s diplomatic offensive in Africa aims to ensure access to raw materials (mainly oil and mineral resources) which are absolutely necessary to support its strong economic growth. It also claims to mobilize African States behind the India’s application to get a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

In addition, African governments may consider India’s increased involvement in the region as beneficial. A stronger Indian presence would diversify and create the opportunity to renegotiate relationships established with their traditional partners. For a long time, Sub-Saharan Africa has been seen as the preserve of former colonial powers but in recent years it has welcomed emerging powers such as China or India. Asian countries combined have become the third largest trading partner on the African continent (27%), behind Europe (32%) and the USA (29%) [1].

Eastern Africa has an obvious strategic dimension for New Delhi. This region is part of its "near abroad", where India must invest in order to stay ahead of its Chinese rival which is already actively involved. In this context, New Delhi may rely on the old and common History which has tied the two shores of the Indian Ocean.

A complex and secular relationship : the Indian Diaspora in Africa

Trade between India and the Eastern coast of Africa are centuries old, but you had to wait until British rule over this region in the nineteenth century, to observe an important Indian Diaspora, often originating in Gujarat or Punjab, moving in Eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, etc.), and Southern Africa. In South Africa , where there are more than one million citizens of Indian origins, Mahatma Gandhi spent two decades (1893-1914) which were crucial for the development of its political struggle.

However, this Indian Diaspora has never seemed to be fully integrated in decolonized African countries. Through its endogamy, its intermediary position in the former colonial hierarchy and its favored role in trade and banking, it continues to be perceived as foreign communities in new African states.

Therefore, the presence of these Diaspora is handled with great caution by New Delhi. India can obviously benefit from their trade and financial networks, but also seeks to differentiate itself from them in certain circumstances. This was the case in Uganda in 1972 when General Idi Amin Dada expelled tens of thousands of Indians. Far from its role as "Bharat Mata" ("motherland") defending its exiled children, New Delhi continued to maintain cordial relations with Uganda.

A favorable international economic situation : African emancipation and South-South cooperation

As one of the main actors in the non-aligned nations movement during the Cold War, India has expressed its support to the African national liberation movements, but failed to impose a decisive influence in Sub-saharan Africa.

However, the early 1990’s, marked by the fall of USSR and its satellites, in addition to the gradual loss of influence of Western powers, new opportunities arose in which emerging powers, such as India, are trying to benefit from. The US fiasco in Somalia in 1993 or the French mismanagement of the Rwandese civil war in 1994 are symptomatic of the crisis of partnership models between the West and African states, such as the long decline of the "Françafrique".

In addition, interference from former colonial powers in Africa are increasingly misjudged. To escape Western pressures on human rights or corruption, African governments are seeking new partners who are less interested on these issues. This is particularly the case of Zimbabwe and Sudan, two countries ostracized by the West, which are now tiding up links with new emerging powers (China, Gulf states…).

India’s engagement in Africa also benefits from a theoretical legitimacy provided by the United Nations : the South-South cooperation [2]. According to its partisans, this form of partnership between countries from the same hemisphere would, by nature, be more fair and balanced than North-South cooperation inherited from colonization. For example, the India-Brazil-South Africa initiative (IBAS) supported by the UN Development Program (UNDP) is often mentioned. This rapprochement is happening between three emerging powers seeking international recognition, proved by their shared ambition to obtain a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council . Encouraged by the concept of South-South cooperation and on the relative African emancipation, India develops its ambitions over Sub-saharan Africa.

Africa, a rivalry issue with China ?

The holding of the India-Africa Forum summit exposes New Delhi to a natural comparison with Beijing, given the massive growth of the Chinese presence on the continent since the late 1990s. Have these two Asian giants considered Africa as a new ground to gauge and challenge themselves ? This assumption has been officially rejected by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the April summit [3].

However, the question can not be ignored. The first India-Africa Forum summit was clearly a response to the 2006 China-Africa one, even if the latter was already in its third occurrence. But if there is a comparison to make, it is not in favor of New Delhi : if trade with Africa is rising sharply from one billion dollars in 1991 to 30 billion in 2007, this figure remains far below the 55 billion dollars accumulated during the same year by Sino-African trade.

The gap persists also in terms of number of attendees at the summit : while New Delhi has attracted only 14 African Heads of state, in 2006 Beijing received more than fifty African Heads of State and Government [4]. Compared with China, which has become the third largest trading partner in Africa after the USA and France, the Indian influence on the continent still seems very limited.

This disparity can be explained by India’s different approach towards Africa. New Delhi would like to develop a co-operation mostly driven by its private sector and less controlled by the state. Its strategy would focus on capacity building, human resources, transfer of intermediate technologies, and assistance to the agricultural sector and related industries in African countries. This would enable Africa to ultimately become a competitive supplier of goods and services for the Indian market. So, New Delhi would propose its own model of co-operation different from the Chinese one, more sustainable and respectful of Africa's development specificities and expectations.

Yet, despite New Delhi’s efforts to distinguish itself from the Chinese model, the two strategies can be targeted with similar criticism.

The Indian dilemma: Discreet idealism or asserted Realpolitik

China’s success in Africa is indeed accompanied by different issues. Under the cover of non-interference in African States internal affairs, Beijing combines its partnership with the principle of non-compliance, both politically and economically. The first international protests against the organization of 2008 Olympics had been over the issue of Darfur - Beijing using its veto at the UN Security Council to protect its Sudanese ally. Other problems are also mentioned, such as the increasing number of Chinese workers in the construction industry in Africa or the lack of corruption control mechanisms, and the risks of environmental disasters linked to the exploitation of local resources. For all these reasons, Beijing is increasingly seen as a new colonial power in Africa.

Is India developing a sort of neo-imperialism in Africa ? For the World Bank former president, Paul Wolfowitz, the answer is yes. In October 2006, he accused India, along with China, of co-operating with corrupt and dictatorial regimes in Africa. His intervention compared the current attitude of New Delhi towards some African dictatorships to the support and complacency of Western capitals towards the former Mobutu regime in Zaire. Such a critique implies India, a country which cites itself as the "largest democracy in the world" - heir to Gandhi and the decolonization struggle - ,as a predator and opportunistic State.

The case of Sudan is, without doubt, the most revealing of the new Indian Realpolitik. Trade agreements and cooperation between the two governments have increased since Khartoum was ostracized by the West. In exchange for its oil, Sudan obtained help from New Delhi in infrastructure, agriculture, electricity and telecommunications [5]. Bilateral trade is booming as well, from 63 million dollars in 1998 to almost 600 million in 2006. India makes the most of this privileged position : In 2007, it even beats Beijing by becoming the first Asian country to open a General Consulate in Juba, the capital of autonomous southern Sudan. New Delhi seeks to penetrate deeply into a country that China would like to consider as an exclusive partner.

In this context, one may wonder if India will be the subject of criticism from the West, as it is already the case for China because of its partnership with African ‘rogue’ States. It is clear that for the moment, Beijing - direct competitor of USA and France in Africa - serves as a kind of lightning rod that protects India from Washington, London or Paris’ attention. Thus, absence of senior Sudanese officials at the New Delhi summit is perhaps a result of wanting to stay discreet.

However, if India manages to meet the challenge of being viewed as a key partner for Africa, it will have to fully assume its pragmatism on the international scene and abandon its traditional image of idealistic and discreet power. It would then likely face the paradox, already faced by major Western powers for a long time, of assuming the pragmatic alliance between a democracy and authoritarian regimes.


Raphaël Gutmann is a Research Assistant in the India and South Asia Program.


[1] See Harry G. Broadman, Africa's Silk Road: China and India's New Economic Frontier, Washington DC, The World Bank, 2007.

[2] The agency responsible for this issue is the Special Unit for South-South Cooperation Programme United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

[3] Manmohan Singh, "Joint Press Conference following the conclusion of first India-Africa Forum Summit," 9th April 2008, New Delhi, /http://meaindia.nic.in/

[4] New Delhi justifies the limited number of African participants by the fact that the summit was only bringing together presidents of African regional organizations : African Union, Economic Community of the States of West Africa, East African Community, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and so on.

[5] www.indembsdn.com/eng/india_sdn_partners.html


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