Guest test for Delhi

African invitees to summit carry diplomatic baggage

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 6.09.15
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New Delhi, Sept. 5: He is criticised at home for his frequent overseas travels; he was ostracised by the West for years after 2002; and some call his iron grip on his country dictatorial.

Robert Mugabe

Now Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is preparing for his first visit to India in 21 years - as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's guest.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler since it gained independence 35 years ago, has been among the first leaders to confirm attendance at the third India-Africa summit in October, the biggest gathering of world leaders this country will be witnessing in 32 years.

The 91-year-old confirmed his plans to fly to New Delhi when junior information and broadcasting minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore visited him in Harare with Modi's invite on August 28, senior officials here said.

Modi has sent Rathore, transport minister Nitin Gadkari and other cabinet colleagues across Africa with invitations to the heads of state and government of all the 54 countries on the continent.

Like Mugabe, many of the invitees carry a baggage of tense relations with either some of India's closest western friends like America, or with African nations that are among New Delhi's biggest trading partners in the region.

The invitations to them represent a diplomatic minefield that New Delhi has been treading in the run-up to the summit, where Modi is expected to unveil his vision for a deeper Indian strategic footprint in Africa, home to some of the world's fastest-growing economies.

"There's not one country in Africa that India has problems with, but we've got to be sensitive about their relations with our key partners on that continent and elsewhere," said Suresh Kumar, African studies expert at Delhi University, who wrote then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's address to the last India-Africa summit in Addis Ababa in 2011.

"You've got to have a vision beyond just holding a gathering of leaders - if we've got that, we will be fine."

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir faces an arrest warrant on charges of human rights abuse in Darfur from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which pressured South Africa to arrest the leader during a visit by him in June.

South Africa's Parliament later contemplated impeachment proceedings against the country's own President, Jacob Zuma, for allowing Bashir to escape. It eventually dropped the proposal.

Unlike South Africa, India is not a member of the ICC and so is under no pressure to hand Bashir over to the Hague-based court if he comes to the New Delhi summit.

But India does have strong ties with America - where Bashir is persona non grata -and has swiftly tried to build ties with South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, which broke away from Sudan in 2011.

South Sudan is home to some of the region's biggest oilfields but is locked in bitter tensions with Bashir's government.

Hosting both Bashir and South Sudan President Salva Kiir simultaneously won't be the only diplomatic triumph, if India can pull it off.

India is inviting Eritrea President Isais Afwerki, also blacklisted in the US and much of Europe, and the move risks upsetting Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Ethiopia, home to the African Union headquarters, is among the most influential nations on the continent. It has been locked in serial skirmishes and a war with Eritrea, its neighbour and colony till 1993.

Djibouti too has strained relations with Eritrea - the two nations fought a bitter war in 2008, and clashes across their border remain a regular phenomena.

Eritrea has repeatedly requested India to invite its President to New Delhi, but the requests have been rebuffed till now precisely because of worries that a visit may upset the strategically much more important Ethiopia.

Although both the European Union and the US have slowly eased some of the toughest sanctions they had imposed on Mugabe's regime, others - including travel restrictions - remain. The sanctions were clamped after a controversial 2002 election, marked by violence and rigging allegations, which Mugabe claims he won fairly.

Those sanctions haven't stopped Mugabe, who needs his wife Grace's help to walk, from globe-trotting despite a crippled Zimbabwean economy, attracting domestic criticism not dissimilar to some that Modi has faced for his unprecedented flurry of overseas trips.

This calendar year, Mugabe has already travelled to South Africa, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Ethiopia, Botswana, Algeria, Tanzania, Nigeria, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea apart from visiting New York for a UN conference on combating Ebola.

Leaders with US travel restrictions against them can visit New York if invited by the UN, headquartered there.

Modi has already visited 18 countries this year, three more than Mugabe.

Unlike the West, India has slowly increased its investments in countries led by blacklisted leaders.

Tata Motors has tied up with a Zimbabwean firm, Blackwood Hodge, to supply trucks and spare automobile parts to that country. Business conglomerate Shapoorji Pallonji has a presence in Zimbabwe through one of its subsidiaries, Sterling and Wilson. Last year, Harare invited New Delhi to invest in Zimbabwe's agriculture sector.

In Eritrea, India is hunting for potash mines; and ONGC Videsh Limited is exploring the possibility of searching for oil in South Sudan.

Till now, though, India hasn't had to worry about fitting combating leaders from the continent into a single photo frame. At the October summit, it will have to.