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Winds of change in Africa: Unprecedented opportunities for India

M. Rasgotra and H.H.S. Viswanathan
10 January 2011

The decade that began on January 1 will be Africa’s decade. Unprecedented opportunities are opening up for India-Africa cooperation in Africa’s rise in several areas, notably higher education, industrialisation and agriculture.

There is a new awakening in Africa about its place in the fast-changing world of the 21st century. There are breakthroughs in several areas – a remarkable decline in the incidence of AIDS and malaria, a tangible reduction in poverty, a substantial increase in longevity, a rise in primary school enrollment from 58 per cent in 2000 to 74 per cent in 2008, and a general decline of violence. Provision of fertiliser and new varieties of seeds by governments to poor farmers in countries like Malawi has increased agricultural yields, and surpluses of tropical crops are finding markets abroad.

In the continent as a whole, 2010 was exceptional in the number of elections. Burundi, Guinea, Ethiopia and the semi-autonomous region of Somalia had elections early in the year; Tanzania and Chad followed. The referendum in Kenya was another successful democratic exercise giving that country a new constitution, which is helping to resolve ethnic tensions. Increasingly, the voters are holding politicians accountable, and that bodes well for Africa’s future progress.

The economy of the continent has shown much strength in a period of global recession. According to an IMF report, Sub-Saharan Africa grew at more than 5 per cent during the period 2000-2009. The spike in commodity prices contributed only a quarter of the growth. Even countries without mineral resources grew at a healthy rate of more than 4 per cent.

The consumer spending of the continent, with less than 1 billion people in 2008, was $860 billion, more than that of India with a population of 1.2 billion. As many as 316 million mobile phones were added between 2000 and 2008. There are likely to be shortfalls in the achievement of Millennium Development Goals, largely because of the shortfalls in financial support promised by rich Western countries; but the broad picture is one of dynamism, hope and the promise of continuing advance in the years ahead.

At a recent discussion in Delhi, Rwanda’s young and dynamic High Commissioner, Mr Nkurunziza, spoke of a new paradigm in India-Africa partnership. India, he said, should lead the industrialisation of Africa and it should help with the human resource development in the continent by setting up model institutions like our own IIMs, IITs and universities.

In fact, the recent turn-around in Rwanda from a nation devastated by genocide to a peaceful, vibrant, electoral democracy is a great story in itself. Till the traumatic genocide of 1994, in which 1 million people were killed and 3.5 million had fled the country, Rwanda was a virtual dictatorship. The next eight years marked the transition under a multi-party, national government. A new constitution adopted in 2003 laid the foundation for a new democratic Rwanda.

In the 2003 elections, Mr Paul Kagame was elected President. Under his leadership peace was fully restored, the country gained stability and reconciliation between the Hutus and the Tutsies, the two major ethnic groups of the country. In addition to solid progress in economic and social development, constitutional processes in the fledgling democracy were strengthened. The majority party, for example, can hold only the post of Head of State; the posts of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House have to go to the Opposition.

The election in August 2010, in which Mr Kagame was re-elected President with a tally of 93.8 per cent of the votes cast, was a remarkably peaceful exercise. The turnout in the election was 95.4 per cent of the 5.1 million electorate despite the fact that voting in Rwanda is not compulsory. Both figures have been questioned by some NGOs and the media in the West. It stands to reason, though, that a nation new to democracy will demonstrate great enthusiasm for the electoral process and register a large turnout at the polling stations. We experienced this here in India in the early years of Independence. Also, in nascent democracies leadership and a leader’s charisma and record of service matter.

President Kagame, in his first term, had endeared himself to all sections of the population by not resorting to retribution for genocidal crimes. Socio-economic progress achieved under his leadership and the virtual elimination of corruption in his first term as President had increased his popularity. Women now enjoy a special status: they are in majority in Parliament, and 40 per cent of the Cabinet posts are held by women. There is near 100 per cent health care and immunisation. Enrollment in primary education is 97 per cent. Nearly all girls have access to education. The number of universities, one in 1994, increased to 16.

The World Bank recently judged Rwanda as the best governed state in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the top country for doing business in. Under a single-window scheme introduced by President Kagame, it takes just three days for a foreigner to start a business enterprise in Rwanda. The country, impoverished beyond imagination by predatory colonialism and torn by ethnic conflict for decades, has become a development model in a rising Africa.

In the success stories coming out of Africa, there are lessons to learn for the world, and a message for India in particular – Africa looks to India, not for patronage, not for roads and railways enabling exploitation and export of its vital resources, but for cooperation in activating its indigenous talent and in harnessing Africa’s resources for Africans.

Happily, some limited but impressive Indian engagement with Africa of the kind that the Africans want already exists. For example, the Pan-African e-network, an idea of Dr Abdul Kalam, is helping in e-medicine and e-education. Some of India’s better-known corporate houses – Tatas, Bajaj, OVL, Essar, Sanmar, Ranbaxy and Reliance – have their presence in Africa. The acquisition of Zain telecom by Bharti Mittal has made it the biggest telecom company in Africa.

There is good, though rather small, cooperative activity in agriculture also. Karuturi Global has taken a large acreage in Ethiopia for horticulture, and Punjabi farmers in East Africa are growing high-value crops, including pulses and maize, for local consumption and for export. The rice cultivation project in Senegal by Kirloskar is often cited as an example of South-South cooperation. NIIT has done pioneering work in IT training in countries like Nigeria.

An African leader said recently that, in Africa, China was doing more, but India was doing better. We can and should be doing more, especially by way of cooperation in higher education – in engineering, business administration and medicine – and in the development of indigenous industry. And with an improved record of performance, we can do even better than we are doing now.

Indian universities, think-tanks and the media have a great role to play in increasing awareness in our country about a new wind of change blowing across Africa. Our government, on its part, should give a much higher priority in India’s foreign policy to diplomatic relations with African countries. An African Head of State should be the chief guest on the occasion of Republic Day, 2012.

India’s engagement should move away from sporadic events to a continuous activity and engagement, and the implementation of identified projects should be carried out as scheduled.

Mr M. Rasgotra is a former Foreign Secretary and Mr Viswanathan has served as India’s Ambassador in many African countries.

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