AS former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh strode into the old African Union meeting hall in Addis Ababa one unremarkable day in May 2011, he could not have failed to note the frenzied construction work on a gleaming new headquarters building just next door.
He also would have seen just under 15 African heads of state waiting for him, many half-asleep.
The swanky new headquarters complex, since completed, was funded and built by China, at the estimated princely sum of $200 million. Then-AU chair Obiang Nguema referred to is as “a reflection of the new Africa”.
Singh was in the Ethiopian capital for the India-Africa summit, a triennial summit started in 2008 but that was seen as New Delhi’s attempt to rouse itself from an investment “stupor” following China’s rapid multi-billion dollar engagement with Africa.
New Delhi analysts who this writer spoke to just ahead of the summit wistfully talked of “the lost decades” in reference to a seemingly surrendered historical advantage in the bid to be Africa’s lead economic partner.
Just two years before, China had held its fourth much-watched Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, where close to 50 African heads of state or governments attended. Deals worth $10 billion were dangled at Africa by then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, before being doubled in 2012.
China eats India’s African lunch
In the event, Singh offered “only” $5 billion, mainly couched as staggered loans, again drawing inevitable - and unfavourable - comparisons with its Asian neighbour.
India at the time bristled at the suggestion, insisting that its “genuine two-way” approach to Africa was based on “friendship” and “mutual benefits”, but it was apparent to the keen observer that New Delhi was irked by the growing heady commercial romance between Africa and Beijing.
The relationship has in recent years hit some turbulence, as Chinese methods have increasingly come under deeper scrutiny. New Delhi, still in the shadows despite bilateral trade with Africa last year touching $93 billion (ahead of $70 billion projections by 2015) but still only under half of China’s $211 billion volumes in 2013, has had several chances to regain the advantage, if it ever had one.
India regularly plays up its “soft-power” approach based on skills and energy transfer, but it also imports 70% of its crude needs from Africa, while consultants McKinsey have projected that its multinationals will quadruple their Africa revenues to $160 billion by 2025.
But in the face of China’s march, India has preferred to harp on its centuries-old historical links with Africa, including a shared colonial experience, as Beijing scraped the barrel—and even the bottom of the Indian Ocean sea— in search of a similar but more elusive narrative.
Days such as India’s annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas—Non-Resident Indian Day—held every January to mark Mahatma Ghandi’s return from South Africa have served to further reinforce the depth of its links with its diaspora including that in Africa, estimated at three million.
With such advantages of perception, the third India-Africa forum set for New Delhi this year would have been a perfect opportunity to remind Africa of the value of old friendships.
But on Wednesday India’s foreign ministry announced that the summit had been cancelled due to Ebola fears, despite being scheduled for December, citing “logistical difficulties” in dealing with the large numbers of delegates expected, even as New York played hosts to hundreds more during its annual General Assembly that is currently underway. In August, the much-bigger US-Africa summit went ahead, its focus on the economy a refreshing break from all the talk about Ebola.
Delhi catches Ebola fright
But just last month a delegation of Indian MPs bailed out of a high-level parliamentary trip to South Africa where they would have met President Jacob Zuma, citing Ebola fears.
Given the sheer terror aroused by the illness, several countries—including in Africa itself—have barricaded themselves in, shutting out citizens of the worst hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
This has been in the face of concerted calls for non-isolationist measures aimed at managing the epidemic. In the face of such a challenge, what Africa needs is its international friends to step up and remain engaged, not to bolt off or batten down the hatches.
New Delhi told Reuters that its decision to push back the summit was in “consultation with the African countries.” But the African Union has itself been at the forefront urging continued open relations with Africa as a way of heading off Ebola and opening up economic activities—essentially what India’s summit seeks to achieve. World Health Organisation (WHO) officials have also noted that the risk of the virus being imported into India is low.
It is hard to shake off the feeling that India has missed an opportunity to stand up for Africa, to cement its claim as the ever-constant friend to the continent, as prominently mirrored by its “a shared future” slogan the government often plays up. Advantage China?