India hosted the third India-Africa summit, an initiative which started in 2008. The first India-Africa Forum Summit was held in New Delhi in 2008 followed by the second summit in Addis Ababa in 2011. These previous summits, with participation from 15 states, were modest by comparison and the results were underwhelming to say the least. It has been a failure of Indian diplomacy that a continent with which India has enjoyed substantive ties ever since Independence now no longer views India as a priority nation and often complains of indifference on the part of New Delhi.
The summit last week was more ambitious. True to the style of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, everything about the event was grand. More than 1,000 delegates from all 54 African countries attended the summit, with more than 40 countries represented at the level of president, vice-president, prime minister and king. This was the largest ever gathering of African nations in India with even some controversial figures like the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, also making their presence felt. The Modi government even ordered the prime minister's signature sleeveless jackets for African leaders to be worn at a dinner hosted by Modi.
With this mega event, New Delhi has signalled its readiness to step up its engagement with Africa, a relationship which is centuries old, bolstered by trade across the Indian Ocean and a million-strong diaspora across Africa. A shared colonial legacy and post-Independence development experience have framed India's relationship with Africa. India's role as a champion of anti-colonialism and anti-racism after its Independence in 1947 drew it closer to the African nations. India emerged as one of the most vocal critics of apartheid in South Africa.
In spite of being on the peripheries of global politics during the Cold War, India emerged as one of the strongest proponents of the independence of African states from colonial subjugation and a supporter of South-South cooperation in order to challenge the inequities of the global political and economic order. But India's substantive presence in Africa remained marginal as it remained focused on its own periphery through much of the Cold War period and its capabilities remained limited. Since the end of the Cold War and propelled by China's growing profile in Africa, India is reinvigorating its ties with the African continent.
India today has growing stakes in Africa. With some of the fastest growing nations in the world, the Africa of today is not the 'dark continent' of yore. The needs of regional states are divergent and their strengths are varied. India's focus over the last few decades has largely been on capacity building on the continent, providing more than $1 billion in technical assistance and training to personnel under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. India has committed $7.5 billion to African infrastructure, covering 137 projects in more than 40 countries. India has also offered duty-free market access to Africa's least developed countries. But India's trade with Africa at $70 billion remains far below potential.
India wants a "development partnership" with Africa to be the cornerstone of its economic ties with the region. Economic engagement with Africa has become central to India's new approach. This is related to India's search for energy security in which Africa is playing an increasingly important role as India looks to diversify its oil supplies away from the Middle East. Africa accounts for about 17 per cent of India's oil imports, which are likely to grow soon.
India's partnership with Africa in recent years has focused on human resources and institutional capacity building. It is building economic and commercial ties with Africa even as it is contributing to the development of African countries through cooperation and technical assistance. It is the third-largest contributor of United Nations peacekeepers to the continent. The Indian navy is also engaged in dealing with pirates off the coast of Somalia. It has been patrolling the waters of the Indian Ocean and helping countries in eastern and southern Africa in tackling piracy and in surveillance of the exclusive economic zone. India has sought cooperation of African states in the Indian Ocean littoral to establish mechanisms for cooperation in order to deal with threats to regional security including terrorism and piracy.
There are other strategic convergences between India and various major African states. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the growing footprint of the Islamic State, terrorism and Islamist extremism are threatening Africa like never before. India and African states can jointly address this common challenge. India is already working with the littoral states in the Indian Ocean region to ensure the security of the sea lanes of communication there. The Modi government is also seriously investing in India's bid to become a permanent member of the UN security council and Africa's 54 states will be key ones in supporting that endeavour.
Although India has committed considerable resources to Africa, delivery on the ground and implementation of projects have been far from satisfactory. Contrary to China, India has refrained from viewing Africa through mercantilist eyes. Yet many in India feel that India has got short shrift when it comes to New Delhi's core concerns. A case in point was New Delhi's failure to secure the backing of African nations for India's permanent membership in the UN security council in 2006. China nudged the African Union into taking a position that demanded not only a permanent representation in the security council but also veto power. This led to the collapse of the nascent attempts to expand the security council.
Yet India has its own strengths in its dealings with Africa. Its democratic traditions make it a much more comfortable partner for the West compared to China in cooperating on Africa-related issues. India is viewed as a more productive partner by many in Africa because Indian companies are much better integrated into the African society and encourage technology transfers to its African partners. New Delhi will have to leverage its own strengths in making a lasting compact with Africa and regain its lost presence on the continent.
Today all major powers including the United States of America, China, Japan, and the European states are wooing Africa with investments and trade linkages at a time when Africa is beginning to engage the world on its own terms. India will have to ensure that it remains relevant to Africa's rapidly changing needs. A mega India-Africa summit will be worth the investment if the follow-up is as meticulous as the planning for the summit itself.
The author is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King's College, London