India and Francophone Africa: Challenges and Opportunities

senegal-riceIndia’s historical and traditional ties with Africa go back centuries. Due to geographical realities and historical reasons, these ties were confined to the East African seaboard from the Horn of Africa to South Africa. Traditionally, West Africa had remained a relatively neglected area in India’s foreign policy in the initial years of independence largely due to lack of historical contacts. In relative terms, there was a higher degree of engagement with Anglophone countries in West Africa through the Commonwealth linkage.

India & Francophone countries

Francophone Africa, in contrast, had become a sort of “blind spot “in India’s African policy, in the words of analyst C. Raja Mohan, in the initial years of independence due to language barrier and lack of traditional contacts. The dynamics of India-Francophone Africa relations has now changed due to several contributing factors. Responding to the new realities of the post Cold War world and the challenge of globalization and consequent rising aspirations of their people both India and the nations of Africa, including the Francophone countries, had to forge and widen a new kind of engagement.  There was a fortuitous confluence of developments that made new engagement possible based on mutually beneficial economic relations. Free from super power machinations, the new leadership in Africa was determined to remove the tag of the ‘Hopeless Continent’ and to put the continent on the path of sustainable growth and development by adopting the NEPAD (New Economic Partnership for African Development). There was also an accompanying visible trend towards democratization with multiparty elections in many countries. Simultaneously Africa was also emerging as an important source for energy and minerals.

At the same time, after economic liberalization of 1990s, India was also rapidly transforming and turning into an emerging powerhouse which needed new markets for its raw materials and burgeoning energy needs and its industrial and consumer products. Besides, India had built up considerable expertise over the years in technology and management and also the capability to share its experience with other developing countries in a wide sector and human resource development ranging from agriculture, small- and medium-scale industry to information technology. Thus, the conditions were propitious for a mutually beneficial engagement between India and Africa.

In the early 1990s the Government of India stressed its determination to create and consolidate strong bonds with African countries based on economic, technological and educational cooperation  and it needs to be stressed that India’s objectives has remained consistent over the years. Indeed, the scope of engagement is growing exponentially and the inclusion of India as a dialogue partner of the AU is indicative of the recognition by African nations of the role India plays in the economic development of the continent.

A new impetus was provided to this transformation of engagement between India and African nations by the First India-Africa Forum Summit held in New Delhi in April 2009. With its objective to redefine India’s relations with Africa by charting a structured engagement with the African continent, particularly in the economic sector, the Summit reflected a rare congruence of political will, an intense aspiration for mutually beneficial economic engagement and a shared vision of forging a more equitable world order. The Summit concluded with two all embracing documents- The Delhi Declaration and Framework for India-Africa Cooperation- that laid down the blueprint for a more intense and diversified programme of engagement between India and Africa.

New Engagement

The new engagement with Africa has, of course, provided a new dynamism to India’s relations with Francophone Africa.

There has been enhanced political understanding between India and Francophone countries as both share common views on most international issues and have commitment to strengthen their relationship in the spirit of South-South cooperation. The steady exchange of visits at political level reflects the growing process of consultations. The growing presence of missions from Francophone countries in New Delhi is another indication of this.

India has made conscious efforts to strengthen economic cooperation with Francophone countries. To provide a special focus for enhancing economic engagement with Francophone countries the Indian Government had put in place the Techno-Economic Approach for Africa-India Movement (Team-9 initiative) for special cooperation between India and eight west African nations, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Senegal. Niger joined later. The initiative involves providing education and training in crucial sectors, transfer of critical energies at competitive rates, undertaking specific projects for region-wide beneficial impact in sectors for employment and growth, such as agriculture, small-scale industries, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, IT, telecommunications, transport and energy. The initiative was launched in March 2004 and as of now, much of US$ 500 million LoC extended by India has been utilized with at least one project for each country. The LOCs worth $160 million has been pledged by India for West African countries and most of them have been operationalised in a host of diverse areas, including capacity building, human resource development, training and agriculture.

It may be mentioned here that Indian cooperation is indeed built on the principle of “binomial demand-driven, response-oriented “, which gives voice to the beneficiary countries in the definition of aid programs. These are determined by the request of recipient countries and oriented to meet their needs. In this context capacity-building has remained the core of its multi-faceted engagement with Francophone Africa. Given India’s expertise in the human development sector, there has been an enhancement of capacity building programmes through the Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme with the countries of Francophone Africa to help build up indigenous capacities and promote self-reliance. Similarly, India has created capacity-building institutions which are providing regional benefits. The Entrepreneurship Development and Training Centre in Senegal is a prime example of this.

Another growing segment in India and Francophone Africa economic cooperation is consultancy and project assistance involving preparation of feasibility studies, project reports, setting up of pilot projects and research centres in agricultural, pharmaceuticals, textiles, IT, infrastructure building and energy.

Lines of credit are the major new features of the new Indian economic foreign policy based on the concept of the Aid for Trade. Generally India attaches to them the only conditionality that 85% of goods and services used in the execution of a project funded by a line of credit from Exim Bank, are provided by an Indian company. LoCs are concessional loans available for sectors as diverse as agriculture with equipment and irrigation projects, road and rail transport, rural electrification, health, fishing etc.. The opening of the Exim Bank office in Dakar is indicative of the new thrust by India to promote economic cooperation with Francophone countries.

Even private sector is not lagging behind in this and several joint ventures have been set up such as the one between Tata and Senbus and between Kirloskar and TSE in Senegal.

Senegalese Exception

In the story of India-Francophone relations, Senegal has been the exception in the sense that India-Senegal engagement predated India’s new thrust in Francophone Africa. This was largely due to President Leopold Senghor who was a great admirer of Indian culture, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and India’s democratic experiment. India and Senegal established diplomatic relations in 1962 and President Senghor was the first Francophone President to pay a state visit to India in 1974. He was also the recipient of the prestigious  Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.

Need for Broader Engagement

It is apparent that the there is great potential for elevating engagement between India and Francophone Africa to new higher levels. At the same time there are some lacunae to be made good before the India-Francophone Africa partnership can achieve full potential.

First and foremost, there is a yawning knowledge deficit on both sides and general popular perceptions of each other are still to a large extent based on colonial stereotypes.

Despite the growing engagement at political and economical level, people-to-people contacts as well as the civil society and academic level have hardly increased in proportionate terms. The awareness of Francophone Africa in India and India in Francophone Africa needs to be raised by widening the agenda of mutual interaction among diverse segments of the societies and institutions, including educational institutions, non-governmental organizations and the arts and culture. There is need to set up well-oiled Track II mechanisms at regional levels. Governments on both sides should encourage and facilitate courses and studies on India in African universities and those on Africa in India.

Notwithstanding this, the 60-year engagement of independent India with Francophone Africa has demonstrated both continuity and change and its unwavering support and solidarity for the people of Francophone Africa. The nuanced change has always been in response to new challenges and underlines the imperative to take the relationship to a new higher level.

(Niranjan Desai is a former diplomat and served as India’s ambassador to various African countries, including Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. He is currently president of Osian’s – Connoiseurs of India Private Limited).

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