Monday, May 23, 2011

Beware of the crocodiles in Africa

All Indian eyes are on Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh –- as if he fills the whole of Africa with his towering presence. But Africa is a huge continent and no one can be the monarch of all he surveys. The distance between Addis Ababa in the heart of Africa and Abidjan on the west coast alone makes about 7000 kilometers, which is twice the travel route from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. Africa could contain quite a few colonial powers at the same time in the 19th and 20th centuries – Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Holland.

But Dr. Singh has no pretensions. To borrow an expression from an Indian official accompanying Dr. Singh, there is “enough space” for many outside powers to simultaneously pursue their agenda in Africa. While Dr. Singh’s prime ministerial aircraft was descending on Addis, another distinguished visitor was taking off from Abidjan – French president Nikolas Sarkozy. Their missions present a study in contrast and give a timely warning to the Indian policymaker. Sarkozy went as a conquering hero who deployed French forces to effect a transfer of power in Cote d’Ivoire. What an irony -- military power to enforce the outcome of a democratic election! Dr. Singh, on the contrary, arrived in Addis showering petals of goodwill in a continent where Gandhiji understood the magical powers of non-violence.

To go back to the Indian official, what he said is absolutely true – “The West is setting up Africa as a zone of contention. They want to pit India against China. They want us to be at each other’s throat. But this is not the 1885 Congress of Berlin where European powers decided to scramble for African resources.” From the tenor of his intellect, one can identify the Indian diplomat as someone with a scholarly sense of modern history. The point is, history never quite ended in Africa with the national liberation struggles of the 1950s. The flow of history merely got punctuated and the struggle for outside domination merely took new forms as Cold War picked up. The rivalries somewhat eased when the bipolar world gave way. A respite followed but in retrospect it hardly lasted for a couple of decades.

Today, the big power rivalries are picking up. China’s rise and its growing profile in Africa has given a new dimension to the continent’s politics. For the first time in modern history, western world is facing a real “challenger”. Conversely put, the dreaded moment is fast arriving for the West when the African countries may insist on negotiating for optimal deals and equitable partnerships. China increasingly presents a “strategic option” for the countries of Africa to diversify their partnerships that the West hitherto arrogated as its monopoly. This is the quintessence of the big power struggle building up in Africa.

The remarks by the Indian official suggest that Delhi grasps the geopolitical realities in good measure – and, more important, India is crafting its “non-aligned” path. He noted that the large Chinese presence in Africa was mostly focused on infrastructure, raw materials and extractive industries and was concentrated in major projects and ventures. Whereas, India’s main strength lies in another domain. “We feel there is enough space for India and what it is good at, especially capacity-building, skills development and training”. He punctured the western attempts at “divide-and-rule” by underscoring that the West and its Indian pundits (who are either infected with the “anti-China" virus or smitten by the “pro-American" bug) are barking up the wrong tree by caricaturing that China is “outsmarting” India in Africa. On the other hand, the reality, he said, is that China and India are adopting different approaches in their engagement with Africa. “Africa has tremendous economic potential. It’s a continent on the move. For us, it’s an opportunity, and for the rest of the world also it is an opportunity.”

Well said. The heart of the matter is that the prosperity of the western world has crucially depended through the entire period since the industrial revolution in Europe on the transfer of wealth from the colonies and this paradigm has merely taken new forms today. Cheap raw materials and captive markets in Africa are integral to the sustenance of prosperity of the stagnant western economies. Delhi will do well to sense that it may even have shared interests with China insofar as India is bound to come up against the very same western pressure tactic that China is facing today when its upward progression on the ladder of economic growth continues at the present rate. Make no mistake about it that there is no question of the western world graciously making way for India all because it is a functioning democracy. History is replete with the carcasses and bleached bones of imperial ambitions.

A telling example is just unfolding right in front of us with Europe feverishly insisting that there is no way it will hand over the top executive position in the IMF to some upstart from India or China. The tacit understanding in the euro-Atlantic discourse through the past few decades has been that World Bank would be headed by an American and IMF by a European. Period. The brusqueness with which Europe is now asserting its claim testifies to the reality that when it comes to holding the main levers of economic power – be it in the Middle East or in Africa – the West will never willingly share in a spirit of partnership.

What should really worry India is that if the push comes to a shove, the West may use military power to assert its prerogatives. Libya is an unfolding scenario. The African swamp is full of crocodiles, indeed. Sarkozy was fairly explicit that the West will not hesitate to interfere in Africa’s internal affairs if its interests are in jeopardy. Sarkozy’s vision is diametrically opposite India’s. A pattern is emerging. In the Middle East and Africa, through the Cold War era, the West gave an ideological veneer to its agenda of dominance by pitting communism as the antithesis. Today, what is unfolding is the banner of “democracy” – and in the name of advancing freedom and human rights, the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” is being dusted up. Sarkozy is a no-nonsense type statesman and he bluntly said, “This is the new Africa policy that we shall adopt, and it’s an international policy”. Was he speaking on behalf of Dr. Singh as well? I doubt it.

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