By Ambassador Anil Trigunayat
Despite having an umbilical connection with Africa, as far as geological landscape is concerned, the Indo-African relationship can always boast of something happening for the first time. This is an indication of the lackadaisical approach in the past to the focused priority being attached to it under the current dispensation. The Visit of Hon'ble Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu to Comoros and Sierra Leone from October 10-14 was also the first one that reinforced the foundations of bilateral relations with these countries in the overall Africa Focused policies of the present government. During his visit to Uganda, while addressing the Parliament there Prime Minister Modi had laid out the contours through the "Ten Guiding Principles" for India's unique engagement with Africa. In the past, the Indian side has been frugal in its high-level visits and leadership connects to the continent much to their disappointment and chagrin as for decades no leader visited a large number of the African countries. They have been important for our energy and maritime security at least. Fortunately, this has been changed as not only PM Modi but the President and Vice President of India have crisscrossed more than 3/4th of the African countries engaging and assuring them at the highest level while the focus has been laid on honing and sharpening up the delivery mechanisms. Of course, the Mantra is ensuring "Africa for and by the Africans". It is in this context that the two visits need to be seen.
The "Vanilla Islands" officially known as Union of Comoros are not only rich in flora, fauna and marine life and tourism potential but are strategically located in the Indian Ocean and lay on the important trading route. They are also part of the IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) as well as the founding member of the ISA (International Solar Alliance ) which have been conceived and driven by India. However, visit of the Vice President is the first high level one from India. But closeness persists as India has been providing capacity building and other humanitarian assistance to the island and a small Indian community flies the Indian flag. No wonder President Assuming and his Cabinet colleagues, in a special gesture, received VP on arrival and even conferred upon him the highest honour "Commander of Order of the Green Crescent of Comoros". Close bonds across the Indian ocean exist and the "Ocean of Friendship" follows according to the two leaders. Several MoUs including defence cooperation, Arts and Culture CEP(Cultural exchange Programme, E-VBAB tele-education and telemedicine- an extension of Pan-Africa e-network project ; Health cooperation and institutionalising regular foreign office consultations etc. India also extended US$41,6mn for an 18 MW power plant in capital Moroni and grant for setting up of a Vocational Training Centre. Medicines and food aid and transport vehicles of US$1mn each were announced. Although India is Comoros second-largest trading partner with around $ 52 mn in bilateral trade Indian business and industry were advised to enhance investments in the country including in the solar power and renewables.
India recognises the strategic importance of the island nation and offered a grant of $2mn for interceptor boats and $20mn Line of Credit for procurement of high-speed interceptor boats to counter-piracy. Closer cooperation in security and defence could ensue further. Fight against terrorism was underscored as a major area of cooperation in this OIC member country. They also support India in the expanded UNSC.
Sierra Leone has been on India's radar of cooperation for a while especially in the domain of security and stability since Indian forces under the aegis of the UN had helped achieve peace in turbulent times with its 4000 strong military contingents in UNASMIL. Although cooperation in agriculture, food processing, information technology, infrastructure development and capacity building were underscored as key areas it was decided to establish a Joint Commission to provide the boost and direction to the stated objectives. India had extended US$217.5 mn in Lines of Credit for various projects. Fresh LoCs of $30 mn for irrigation development for self-sufficiency in rice cultivation apart from a food aid of 1000 Mts of rice. Another one of $15 mn for potable water project was announced. India also agreed to construct a Presidential office complex in Freetown as a citadel of bilateral goodwill and collaboration. Sierra Leone also signed the MoU for cooperation under the E-Vidya Bharti and E-Arogya Bharti and for the establishment of an IT Centre of Excellence and camp for the iconic " Jaipur Foot" for the needy.
India -Africa Partnership has acquired a strategic dimension and must be pursued as such, even if late in the day, with the terrain becoming somewhat crowded yet again. Most recently we had China-Africa, UK-Africa, Japan-Africa and Russia -Africa Summits to name a few. Countries like Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel are also moving apace in that direction. The USA has laid out a new Africa policy. India- Africa Forum Summit -IV is due and could be held this or next year. India has also moved into a trilateral format of cooperation in Africa as several major players have expressed their desire to collaborate with India in Africa given the tremendous bonhomie, goodwill and diaspora presence that India has enjoyed. Asia-Africa Growth Corridor with Japan has become an institutionalised cooperation even if some major projects are yet to see the light of the day. Japan is the biggest ODA (Official Development Assistance) donor to Africa and has its own USP and outreach but understands the limitations of that too and hence combining its strengths with the Indian advantage will overcome the crevices for which certain cultural differentials need to be ironed out. Likewise, India and US have trained some of the African forces in countering terrorism. With France, various possibilities are being explored. India obviously is maintaining its unique approach of 'Share and Care" as Africans themselves are focussing on " Trade not Aid" and strengthening their intra-African connectivity through the AfCFTA ( African Continental Free Trade Agreement ).
This is a real opportunity to engage with the Continent to enhance our bilateral trade beyond the unreal $65 bn or so. We need to remember that Africa is slated to be the biggest market with the largest youngest population in next 2-3 decades that is endowed by immense natural resources that will make them the integral part of the Afro-Asian century in the second half. If the two sides evolve a mutually beneficial developmental matrix of cooperation with efficient delivery mechanisms, the India-Africa strategic collaboration has limitless potential.
(The author is Distinguished Fellow, VIF. Views expressed are personal.)