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New Terrains

This time for Africa


An entire continent has opened its doors to the world and India clearly doesn't want to be left behind. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sets off for Ethiopia for the biggest India-Africa summit ever, TOI-Crest looks at the Indian presence there, its interests, and the China factor. Beijing has already made great forays, forging profitable partnerships and widening its sphere of influence by the day. As India tries to play catch-up, another modern version of the Great Game is unfolding - and it could have a bearing on New Delhi's global policies of the future.

Alfred Taban, editor of Khartoum Monitor, an newspaper, is moving to his own country, South Sudan. Juba, the tentative capital of the world's newest country, barely has a few kilometres of motorable roads. Yet, as Taban told us over Sudanese style Indian biryani in Khartoum recently, he's sure India and China will help out. India wants to. New Delhi set up a consulate in South Sudan in October 2007, largely due to the efforts of a doughty diplomat, Deepak Vohra. So did China. Both countries will have a high-level presence at the official birth of South Sudan on July 9 this year, confirming their growing stakes in Africa. South Sudan is awash in oil and potentially an agriculture dream. Both are immensely attractive to India and China. It is also a battleground of tribal politics, oil politics and intrusive international interest. At its heart is Abyei, which in Sudan is often described as "Kashmir with oil", currently in a tug-ofwar between Sudan and South Sudan.

Few Indians have heard of Abyei, but India has big interests there. In the middle of this energy goldmine is Diffra, better known as Block 4 in the Greater Nile Petroleum Company (GNPOC) where India's OVL has a 25 per cent stake, and China has 40 per cent. India's incomes are not only good, they are getting better as more blocks (such as Block 2) start producing oil. India, therefore, has a very strong interest in a peaceful resolution of the Abyei dispute between the two Sudans. It also means India should work closely with China, which is omnipresent in Sudan. For its economic interests, India should be ready to get into the political arena in a continent far removed from ours and with a troubled history.


Despite China's overwhelming presence in Sudan (check out the towering Petrodar in Khartoum that China helped build, rivalled only by Muammar Gaddafi's hotel), India has some real advantages there. These are in the areas of peace-enforcement, institution building, in agriculture, building schools, hospitals. Rajeev Shahare, joint secretary in MEA, said Indian hospitals Fortis and MIOT were looking at setting up low-cost hospitals in South Sudan.

India racked up enormous equity during the surprisingly peaceful Sudan referendum in January, largely due to the untiring efforts of its armed forces operating under a UN flag on the Sudan border. Since the Sudan civil war had a strong religious flavour, India's army, drawn from a diverse nation with its obvious multiculturalism, was acceptable to the Christians and Muslims on either sides.

Our men in uniform are a potent diplomatic tool, rarely understood in South Block. But in countries where violence is chronic and institutions are shaky, the military is often the guarantor of peace, even democracy and the economy. India's military diplomacy can throw up real benefits.

In Sudan, for instance, Lt Gen Jasbir Lidder led the UNMIS until 2009. After retirement, he's back in Sudan, this time to lead the UN presence. His experience in the Indian army gives him a sharp nose for something we understand here - proxy war. He sees it clearly in Sudan and knows he has his work cut out.

In Khartoum's foreign ministry, they understand clearly the experience India brings to the table. "Sudan is in the process of nation-building, like you were in the 1940s. We're trying not to repeat mistakes of Partition in India, " said Khalid Moussa, a government spokesperson. Sudan gives us a unique opportunity to look our own history in the face and to help another nation clear the bumps.

In Ethiopia, the Indian army is creating a modern army, secular and inclusive, writing rules and SOPs, training manuals, even "punishment rules", as Col Negash, commandant at the Holleta academy, said mischievously. "They (Indians) are sharing their knowledge, and we're adapting it to our needs. " Col Rahul Singh, an Africa veteran, leads the Indian team, and has probably done more to promote Indian interests in Ethiopia, which as he said, was of "geo-strategic importance to India".


If China is all over Sudan, India has a larger footprint in Ethiopia. Indian teachers paved the way during the Haile Selassie period. But the man transforming Ethiopia and Kenya is an unassuming man from Bangalore : Ramakrishna Karuturi. "I am the largest rosegrower in the world, " he said with simple pride. In his farms, where roses are named after his daughters, he got the Israelis to build drip-irrigation and water harvesting systems that reduce pressure on the environment. And he supplies roses by the ton to Europe and Middle East. The music in the factories is a mix of Shah Rukh Khan and local bands;the turnover is over $150 million.

Why Ethiopia? "I was in search of bigger pastures ... I didn't want to let India limit my horizons, " Karuturi said. There were several factors more attractive in Africa than in India. In India you have to compete with urbanisation, and air cargo services are bad. It's the best decision I ever made. "

Clearly, he also thinks big. Karuturi has acquired some 300, 000 acres of fertile land in Gambela, close to South Sudan. There he grows rice, wheat and sorghum for African and international markets. Around the time MEA was setting up a consulate in Juba, Karuturi too was setting up his office. "South Sudan will need food. I'm growing it, " he said.

In Ethiopia, India has put in some $4. 5 billion in investments, including a huge line of credit to build a sugar industry in the country after Ethiopia invited India to take up commercial farming there. Renuka Sugars, Uttam Sugars and other sugar players are moving in.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be in Addis Ababa next week to host the second India-Africa Summit. It's the first time India will be hosting an international event outside its shores. The government felt this would be a good way to signal India's commitment to Africa.

India's interests in Africa are not very different from China's. India wants to access precious resources the same way that China does. So oil is important and so is uranium, coal, gold and the rarer columbiumtantalum (for cellular phones and other high end industrial devices), potash, etc. India also wants access to agricultural lands as food demands rise. India's corporate sector, too, is falling in love with the Africa growth story - across sectors, Indian entrepreneurs and Indian companies are stepping into new markets. The Indian Ocean is crucial for India's power play - security of sea-lanes, combating piracy, keeping a stamp of power, all of this is important for India's geopolitical matrix. Ultimately, India wants to win friends and influence people as it works at becoming a global power - 53 votes are a potent force in international negotiations. India wants Africa on its side. The difference is in the way the two countries play the game.


Everybody says so. We got that from the editor of the Daily News in Tanzania - "China is more conspicuous in Africa than India". In an informal aside by an official in the Sudanese foreign ministry, he quipped: "You (India) have lost out to China in Africa. " There are several things that favour China. Its permanent veto-wielding seat in the UN Security Council is a huge bonus to weak countries that need protection. For years Sudan's Omar al Bashir relied on China bailing him out against UN Security Council resolutions. Only when South Sudan became a fait accompli and China's resource interests shifted did the Chinese take their blessings off Bashir who was promptly referred to the International Criminal Court.

China is also more focused in its attentions. In Africa, China shows hard power to its advantage. It is happy to erect shiny buildings almost overnight for mining concessions, oil blocks, mineral rights and what have you. They build for the elite - the buildings are shiny and neither they nor the Africans lose much sleep over whether prison labour was used to construct it. Neither does anybody care if the buildings will be standing a decade from now. A shiny new airport terminal in Dar-es-Salaam is being built by the Chinese. In Ethiopia, the Chinese are ready to finance a dam that could ignite a water war with Egypt. If you are looking for Chinese presence in Africa, it is shining into your eyes, it is big and brassy, and the Africans cannot be faulted for falling for this.


The Indian presence, meanwhile, is of a different, more subtle kind. It provides education, training, skills, medical facilities. "Capacity building", as we call it. And it is all excellent stuff. In Addis Ababa, we saw Indian professors helping computer science teachers from 11 different countries through an e-teaching network - a stupendous achievement. The e-medicine network, which could help Africans in remote villages access specialised medical treatment, is revolutionary. In Senegal, an 11-year-old child could get her brain tumour operated on with advice from the best doctors in Chennai. In Seychelles, patients with chest pain now get treated over e-network.

Ask anybody above 50 anywhere in Africa and they will wax eloquent about India's role in Africa's history. Ask Africans below 30 and they don't care. They've seen shiny development in different parts of the world and they want it in their countries too. The new generation wants the glitzy airport terminal more than the earnest engineering professor droning on from Chennai.
India is beginning to get this. So, at the India-Africa summit, India will announce a railway line between Ethiopia and Djibouti to be built by India. It will be a first step towards achieving connectivity in Africa, where countries can remain quite cut off from each other. If it goes well, the African Union wants it extended across the continent. The much-touted Indian diaspora is not always an advantage, though. Ask the Tanzanians who have lived with the Gujarati community and their Sanatan dharma temples - and the Hanuman akharas - for over a century. The Gujaratis haven't integrated with the locals, their daughters don't marry Africans;they remain outsiders. Tanzanians much prefer NRIs like Sam Elangalloor, head of Airtel, a bundle of energy, who treats them just like he treats everyone else.

India should do some hard thinking. China is increasing its flights into Africa but India is moving out, a sure sign that in our government there is no coordination on big strategy. Indian high commissioner in Tanzania KV Bhagirath rued that from operating 14 flights into Africa, India now operates zero. Air India closed its last office in Nairobi in September 2010.

India should also survey the field when giving out goodies. In Dar-es-Salaam, India has given a Param supercomputer to a technical school - which is fine, except that most students there are barely computer literate. Prof John Kondora, head of the centre, is going batty trying to find some use for this monster computer. Many African nations are lining up asking India for agriculture assistance. India happily provides them Kirloskar tractors and pumps. But most of the people have no real idea of how to farm and what to farm. It would be so much better for India to do an agri-package rather than just dump the tractors on them.


The Chinese have deep pockets, surplus labour - all state-driven. The Indian presence is private sector-led, driven by bottomlines;they use and train local labour. Ultimately, India's is a better business model.

Tanzania's biggest petrol stations are owned by GAPCO, a Reliance company, and it's a generation ahead of the CNPC stations you see all over Sudan. Airtel is painting Dar-es-Salaam red. Newly launched after taking over Zain, the Indian telecom major is fighting in the market and hoping to win. It is using all the lessons learnt while building a brand in India, forcing down prices and increasing marketshare. Sam Elangolloor, its feisty head said, "By 2015, we will be the most loved brand in Africa. " In comparison, China Unicorn, the second largest Chinese carrier, is entering the Nigerian market. Unicorn is running into serious difficulties because coming from an oligopoly system in China, they have no idea how to lower prices. Market analysts predicted they could soon drive into rough weather.

Where the Chinese are the only ones in town, they flourish. In the Sudanese oil sector, international sanctions have cleared the country of western service providers, said Pomilla Garga, country head of OVL. This has left the market open for Chinese service providers. "They take almost 80 per cent of the services, " she said. But the picture would change if sanctions are lifted and western oil companies come in.

The Indian government is missing a real opportunity here. Garga said no Indian company was willing to come to Sudan. This is the kind of facilitation New Delhi should be doing, using diplomatic clout to ease the way for Indian business. But what the Indian government may or may not be able to do, the entrepreneurial Indian does in spades. China is no longer the only one that can build big. Progressive Construction from Andhra Pradesh is an unknown quantity but inching into the sector in Tanzania.
Meet Gagan Gupta. An ambitious young man from Mainpuri, UP, he decided to go into business in Tanzania after visiting the country on a vacation. After making steel from scrap for several years, he got a break with a 300-acre SEZ and rights to mine iron from an entire mountain. He's building a steel plant, growing dal, and for CSR, teaching Tanzanian women the art of making mango pickle. Having brought along all his brothers and their wives to help in the business, Gupta has picked up a Tanzanian partner with a sapphire mine of his own.

These are India's real ambassadors - they're competing, winning and creating value. Diplomats would balk at this, but MEA's only job should be to facilitate more Gagan Guptas in Africa. Or a relatively unknown Sainik Fertilisers that has set up shop in Ethiopia's badlands - the Danakill Depression - at the Eritrean border. The Indian company has been a trailblazer, followed by Australians. Or even Bhaskar Chakraborty, who when he is not an honourary correspondent for Sudan Vision (a local newspaper)ensures that Indian pharmaceutical companies corner a big chunk of the market in that part of Africa.

Indian companies have acquired or invested in almost 80 companies in Africa since 2005, hoping to replicate the low-price, high volume model perfected in India. Essar is buying coal mines in Mozambique and Vedanta copper mines. Mohan Energy is extracting uranium in Niger and Godrej has been buying cosmetics companies in South Africa.


African governments see the Indians and Chinese throwing goodwill and money at them and their arms open in welcome. They're now quite good at playing to different strengths. China builds quickly and efficiently. India helps them with the intangibles - how to run elections, frame parliamentary rules, strengthen democratic institutions.

"India and China don't put conditions to their aid. That's important, " said Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia's deputy PM. "India, China, Brazil - these countries give us space to operate. The Washington Consensus does not work for Africa. But we don't want to replace it with a Beijing Consensus. We want the African way, " he said.

This is Africa's resurgence. They want democracy, they want participatory government. The headwinds from the Arab Spring cannot fail to touch chords in sub-Saharan Africa. But while pitching for democracy, Africans are also discovering a new kind of nationalism, a sort of "resource nationalism". They know foreign countries want their minerals, but now they want a lot more in return.

This is breeding a kind of backlash against the China variety of the African safari. Tanzania recently declared that Chinese peddlers would no longer be allowed in. In Namibia, the world's fourth-largest uranium producer and biggest miner of offshore diamonds, a new law will ensure its citizens get more benefits from their mineral wealth. In Zambia, elections are run on anti-China planks.
This is India's strength. Nowhere is it seen as a threat. It is a little slow, slightly bumbling, but its heart is in the right place.

Reader's opinion (1)

Raviskrish May 27th, 2011 at 14:39 PM

very well researched article. Very surprisingncoming from TOI !! Keep up the good work.

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