Thursday, April 10, 2008

A meeting of minds: India - AU Summit

The first ever collaborative summit between India and the African Union (AU) has ended yesterday in New Delhi with a pledge to work as partners to address economic and development challenges. Both sides identified rising oil and food prices as top concerns. Tanzanian President and current chair of the 53 nation AU, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete said high prices will hamper efforts around economic growth and reduction of poverty. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed and said both India and Africa needed to increase domestic food production. He promised to help Africa with technology to increase farm productivity.

There is much mutual interest at stake at the summit. Rising food and oil prices threaten many African economies and while India is dealing with a three-year high inflation rate of 7 per cent, which poses a serious difficulty for Singh's government as it contemplates national elections next year. India sees Africa as a cheap and bountiful resource supplier and will look to offer a carrot of easy export conditions, billions of dollars in lines of credit as well as investment of money and skills in low-cost industry and services.

Both sides have also agreed to back each other to gain a bigger role in the proposed expanded UN security council. India, Japan, Germany and Brazil have long been campaigning for several years for permanent seats on a body that remains fixed to the boundaries set for at the end of World War II. Now African countries also are eager to be permanently represented on the council. On Tuesday Singh recruited African support for his country’s push saying in return that India would support any country nominated by Africa for permanent membership. "No one understands better than India and Africa the need for global institutions to reflect current realities and to build a more equitable global economy and polity," he said.

The historic summit was greeted positively in the host country with Newstrack India saying it produced “new bonds of friendship” and laid the foundation for a deepening relationship between resource-rich Africa and Asia’s fast growing economic powerhouse. The relationship is closely following the successful model laid down by China. However Prime Minister Singh claimed India was not in competition with China for African influence. “We are not in any race or competition with China or any other country,” he said. “It is up to Africa to determine the path they wish to pursue and to the extent of what lies within our capacity, we will offer whatever help is required.”

Whatever the truth of that, there is little doubt that with one third of the world’s population between them, India’s evolving partnership with Africa will become a major factor of world influence in the next couple of decades. On the Monday prior to the two day summit, foreign Ministers from key African countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia, South Africa and Tanzania attended a closed-door meeting with their Indian counterpart to set the tone for the conference to follow.

Sources close to the meeting said the Africans and Indians agreed to co-operate in widely varied key areas including economic, trade, industry and investment, agriculture, finance, regional integration, politics, science, technology, research and development, ICT (Information & Communications Technologies), water and sanitation and poverty eradication to meet their challenges. At the summit itself, Manmohan Singh talked grandly of the desire to turn the 21st century into a "century of Asia and Africa".

India’s summit website reflected its leader’s optimism and discusses the “philosophy” of the forum in flowery language. It talked about the similarities of both sides including the struggles against colonialism and apartheid and the need to “jointly accept the challenges of a globalising world.” Their vision of the partnership saw the need to develop "a new paradigm of cooperation which will take into account Africa’s own aspirations for pan-African institutions and development programmes".

Meanwhile the official African objectives of the summit were more prosaic: strengthening co-operation, setting up frameworks to reinforce that co-operation and harnessing the resources of the continent’s Diaspora populations, Africa was represented at the summit by many of its most senior leaders. Tanzania’s Kikwete was just one of a swag of presidents in attendance including Ghana’s John Agyekum Kufuor, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, and the DRC’s Joseph Kabila. They will all return to their home countries emboldened by a new direction in world affairs that owes nothing to their former western colonial masters.

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