Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme
The dramatic expansion of this week's forum shows how strategically important Africa is to India's global ambitions, and how choosy African countries can be about their partners.
A vendor stands in front of the Indira Gandhi stadium ahead of the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi. Photo by Getty Images.A vendor stands in front of the Indira Gandhi stadium ahead of the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi. Photo by Getty Images.

The third India-Africa Forum Summit gets underway in New Delhi today. It is the most ambitious to date. All 54 African countries were invited and at least 40 will participate at the level of president, vice president, prime minister or king. For the first two summits, only 15 countries were invited and were chosen by the African Union based on the Banjul formula; 14 countries participated in 2008 and 11 in 2011. But this time some 2,000 delegates are expected at the refurbished Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. Why New Delhi’s upgrade now?

Summits with Africa have increasingly become international beauty contests, with hopeful international partners lining up to parade their partnership offers and trade deals, in the hope of winning the big prizes – access to Africa’s resources and markets. The US, Turkey and the EU held Africa summits last year, China will hold its sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation  in Johannesburg this December and Japan and South Korea have their Africa summits planned for 2016. Indian policy makers have been pushed to compete by their business and military leaders, keen to capitalize on a slowing Chinese economy and the desire of African states to diversify their international partnerships. The result has been a broadening of the invitation list, and a more relaxed approach to human rights concerns than Brussels or Washington – allowing invitations to be extended to controversial figures such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

There has been some momentum built already. Over the last decade trade between India and Africa has expanded by 14 times to more than $70 billion. India has also given concessional credit to the tune of $7.4 billion, of which $3.5 billion has been disbursed. These credit lines have helped create 137 projects in 41 countries. An Indian-managed Pan-African e-Network for education and health is functional in 48 countries. Since 2008, India has extended 40,000 scholarships, and there are some 22,000 African students in India. Medical tourism from Africa has also become big business.

India has an urgent need to diversify energy supplies. It imported $125 billion worth of crude oil and products in FY15, and has oil investments in Mozambique, Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt and Libya. India has become the prime importer of crude oil from Nigeria and the second-largest from Angola. Low oil prices could open up new opportunities for India, including for private investors.

India’s ocean

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s only Africa visits during his premiership have been to the Seychelles and Mauritius in March as part of a focus on the Indian Ocean. The 'blue economy' remains a key theme of the forthcoming summit, aimed at building links with African states on the ocean’s littoral. Indian anti-piracy efforts, naval visits and defence partnerships, commerce, fisheries, offshore oil and gas, and hydrographical science all fit into this. Countries like Mozambique are now the centre of multi-faceted Indian engagement — investment, trade, military training and development aid. President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique conducted a state visit to India in August.

There are also bigger geo-political dynamics at play. During his Seychelles visit, Modi signed agreements aimed at expanding India’s surveillance capacity, strengthening its footprint on Assumption Island, which it leases from the Seychelles. A similar surveillance agreement was signed with Mauritius for Agalega Island and was already in place with Madagascar. The goals are to enhance maritime security and to monitor expanding Chinese naval activity in the region − India fears a ‘string of pearls’ of Chinese-supported security placements across the Indian Ocean, and has followed-up agreements with sales of naval technology, including a 1,200 tonne vessel for the Mauritian coast guard.

India’s long-term international ambitions will also need African support – fulfilling hopes to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council will mean engaging with all 54 African countries. New Delhi also wants a stronger partnership with Africa on climate change ahead of the COP21 in Paris.

India’s pitch

So the summit will be on an impressive scale. The challenge for India will be to follow it with measurable progress in investment and partnerships, while at the same time advocating effectively for India’s private sector. Indian companies, such as IOC and ONGC Videsh, have not been particularly successful in Africa to date − research by Chatham House has shown that China’s response has been better coordinated. India failed to win key oil concessions in Nigeria and Angola. ONGC Videsh, Oil India and Bharat PetroResources are facing delays on the issue of exploration and production concession contracts for the giant Rovuma Area 1 off-shore gas field in Mozambique. Indian coal investments have also run into problems. The Indian government will need to support its companies better, including through its 48 embassies in Africa.

African states are very much the judges in the investment beauty contest, not the contestants, and the onus will be on India to up its offer. Prime Minister Modi has promised that this summit will ‘set substantially higher targets for our development partnership’. In an era when African leaders are being courted by all of the world’s big economies, and get promised much at such summits, delivery is key. India needs to prove that this summit is not just about international rivalries, particularly with China, or a vehicle for hectoring African governments on expediting individual deals.  Otherwise the next summit will not attract such African attention; those who deliver on their promises may see their African partnerships deepen further.

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