• Article covers with the European discovery of Africa, Indian Diaspora & Soft Power, China’s relationship with Africa earlier and its strategy today to get a foothold in Africa today.
  • Lastly is a way forward. India cannot get compete with Chinese financial muscle but it can achieve lots by leveraging its strengths smartly.  

"Peace does not make a good ruler” ~Botswana proverb

The whole world is rife with the talks of the South-China Sea and the coming conflict there. No doubt, the South-China Sea is a hotbed of activities due to its estimated large hydrocarbon deposits and other lucrative minerals. Those are all estimates, and may vary at the actual time of excavation and extraction. However, there is another continent rich in natural resources, which geopolitical pundits often ignore. It is this continent where future ‘Mexican stand-off’ may take place if all involved parties do not stick to the rules of the game. 

The continent is – ‘Africa’ – the land of opportunity and future of humanity, holding promise for the 21st century.


The European exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa began with the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, pioneered by Portugal under ‘Henry the Navigator’. The ‘Cape of Good Hope’ was first reached by Bartolomeu Dias on 12 March 1488, opening important sea routes to India and the Far East, but the European exploration of Africa itself remained very limited during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, between 1870 and 1900 almost all of Africa was being controlled by European states. By early 20th century established empires, notably Britain, Portugal, and France, had already claimed for themselves vast areas of Africa and Asia, and emerging imperial powers like Italy and Germany had done likewise on a smaller scale.

The book by Adam Hochschild ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ is an eye-opener on the western colonial era in Africa. Jeffery Keeten a reviewer summarized it very well – “The Congo in Leopold’s mind was not one of the starving porters, raped hostages, emaciated rubber slaves, and severed handsIt was the empire of his dreams, with gigantic trees, exotic animals, and inhabitants grateful for his wise rule. Instead of going there, Leopold brought the Congo—that Congo, the theatrical production of his imagination—to himself”. This just about also summarizes the mind set of all other colonial rulers in Africa.


The African nations started getting a reprieve when between January and December of 1960, 17 sub-Saharan African nations, including 14 former French colonies, gained independence from their former European colonists. By 1977, 54 African countries had seceded from European colonial rulers.


Brothers love each other when they are equally rich”. ~ African proverb

As per ‘World Economic Forum’ the earliest accounts of the Indian presence on the eastern coast of Africa are found in the ‘Periplus of the Erythaean Sea’, written in the first century AD by an anonymous author. Through this and other writings, it is evident that Indian merchants had been plying their trade through the Indian Ocean since the days of ancient Babylon, and had even established trading posts along the coast of East Africa. There is no mention of any armed adventure or meddling in the local politics by any Indian in the African continent ever.


In the modern era widespread belief is that the people of Indian origin in the region are descendants of the labourers who built the Kenya-Uganda railway. However, this is not actually the case. About 32,000 indentured workers were brought in from India – mainly Sikhs from Punjab – to build the railway. Except for 7,000 who chose to stay back most of the laborers returned back to India. The railway opened up East Africa for trade, and large numbers of “free” emigrants, both Hindu and Muslim, mainly from Gujarat, followed in the years after the Sikh labourers had left. They set up trading posts deep in the interior, and became the traders and merchants of East Africa.


Today around 3 million people of Indian descent reside in various parts of Africa, with the largest population being in South Africa, Mauritius, Reunion, Kenya, and Tanzania. Today, the Indian community in Southeast Africa is largely affluent and play leading roles in the region’s business sector and dominate the economies of many countries in the region. They are well respected and absorbed in society.


Indian soft power is very much visible in Africa through its export of ‘Bollywood movies. All along the east coast of Africa Bollywood movies are a rage, but Nigeria stands tall amongst them all. Special mention of northern Nigeria is a must, which does not have any significant Indian immigrant community whatsoever is obsessed with Hindi movies. Originally a cheap alternative to Western films, Bollywood’s themes and stories resonated with Nigerians turning an import gamble into a national obsession.


Medical tourism’ is another area where Africans trust India. As per the United Nations, since the 1990s India has been flaunted as a global leader in medical tourism. India boasts highly qualified doctors and state-of-the-art equipment, and the treatments are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration. In addition to quality medical services provided by its hospitals and doctors, patients go to India because medical costs are a lot cheaper compared with the US and UK.


Trade is another area where African nations, due to healthy deficit, respect India. They acknowledge the onerous and earnest efforts of Indian traders in helping African economy from time immemorial. Africa’s trade with India has grown nearly 35% every year from 2005, and is now estimated at $100 billion. But there are even bigger plans, unveiled by business and government leaders at a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) India Economic Summit in Delhi last November, to boost the India-Africa trade to $500 billion by 2020. According to ‘PMO India’, they also plan to work jointly with Japan for the development of Africa.


Latest boost for India is in the area of infrastructure development. As per ‘Economics Times’, India has edged out China as the preferred partner for key European nations, Japan, the United States and the United Arab Emirates for joint infrastructure and capacity building projects in Africa. On the other hand, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is facing a pushback in Africa, with some countries cancelling or going slow on projects owing to huge debts.


Show me your friend and I will show you my character. ~ African proverb 

Not much is known about ancient Chinese trade relationship with Africa. Records exist from the 14th century onwards, when African scholars Ibn Battuta and Sa’id travelled to China. Gavin Menzies’s book ‘1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance’ also gives details of voyages undertaken by Ming dynasty eunuch Admiral, ‘Zheng He’, who sailed in his fleet of hundreds of ships to India, East Africa and Italy from 1405 to 1433.


However, Chinese imperial courts never utilized these voyages the way western countries did, after the voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1498. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Egypt and Ethiopia were frequently visited by Chinese merchants and diplomats. With the advent of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the official contact with China again dwindled. Chinese attitude towards native Africans was never very pleasing, and Africans have not forgotten that part of history.


As per ‘New Africa’ magazine – “In the absence of any written or oral history, it is impossible to know what Africans in antiquity thought of these early Chinese travellers. What is known, however, is Chinese attitudes towards Africans. The dynastic Chinese viewed black Africans with racist stereotypes that echo, sadly, down the ages. They saw Africans as lacking the “moral virtue”, which they (the Chinese) saw themselves as possessing in bucket loads”. Present day African nationals still feel the same. No doubt Chinese workers are considered modern-day ‘Stakhanovites’ but calling African nationals ‘feizhouren’, an online slang for a loser, crosses all limits of condescension.


In the modern era China borrowed a leaf out of its closest ally, North Korea’s state ideology ‘Juche After the revolution China again resumed its trade with African nations and applied principles of Juche during the reforms of the 1980s, effectively. Nearly a decade ago, China surpassed the US to become Africa’s largest trading partner. In 2017, its two-way trade hit $170bn — four times larger than US-Africa commerce showcasing China’s pussiance. 


But this munificence comes at a great cost to African nations. China wants to dominate them, intervenes in their domestic politics and run them like its suzerainty.  China is pressing for Chinese kind of economic model for all these nations. It is also pushing for the infrastructure development in the continent so that Chinese goods and raw materials are shipped smoothly. For that purpose, China gives loans at commercial rates, and Chinese companies get contracts to undertake projects along with Chinese workers. Chinese workers are mostly Chinese prisoners called ‘Laogai’. African companies feel short-shifted and often complain that how could anyone compete against construction companies using prison labors.


Over half of China’s infrastructure projects are under-performing, damaging rather than fuelling growth and leaving an enormous debt burden for the domestic economy. These projects are being dubbed as Chinese ‘Cul–de–sac’. The case, in particular, is of standard gauge railway project of Kenya. China charged more than three times the industry standards for the project. Many experts are of the opinion that the existing railway tracks could have just been repaired saving a large sum for Kenya.


Today there are about over a million Chinese people residing in various African nations. ‘Howard W. French’ in his book ‘China’s Second Continent’ calls the influx of Chinese people “one of the most important and unpredictable factors in China’s relationship with Africa”. Numbers are hard to pin down, but writing in 2014 French estimated that 1 million had arrived in just a decade. The whole of Namibia has a population of only about 2.5 million scattered across an area more than twice the size of Germany. Howard French thought it might have the highest concentration of Chinese people in any African country. He quoted common estimates of 40,000 in Namibia alone. These immigrant traders are killing local trade with their cheap imports from China. The feeling of ‘Finlandization’ has led to clashes in the past, and administrations do not want to take chances. To avoid tribulation, many countries have banned Chinese traders from operating in the main city centers.


19 countries in Africa are under a dictatorship and a similar number are partly free. This works very well for China. Personal favors to the dictators are often the norm to push for Chinese agendas. It has pledged $60 billion to Africa, 2018 marks a pivotal year for China. The Asian giant had already invested $124 billion in Africa since 2000, fuelling concerns that African nations are saddled with unsustainable levels of debt. This nostrum would surely force them to mortgage their oil and mineral resources as collateral or hand over other assets and resources when they are unable to pay back the Asian power.


Labelled as ‘Predatory Infrastructure Financing’, these agreements signed between China and Africa and other nations may lack accountability and transparency, with China maintaining the upper hand in negotiating the contracts. African populace is well aware of egregious plight of Sri Lanka, in the Hambantota ‘Loan and Lease’ case. They are also aware of vicissitudes of Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Poland, Laos and Pakistan after they jumped into the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) without much due diligence. China is doing hard PR exercises to ward off bad press they are getting. They have many economists and academicians on their payroll. One can only wonder why likes of Sholto Byrnes of ‘Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia’ and US academician Arthur Waldron are singing paeans in the favor of BRI.


China is often accused of plundering Africa’s natural resources without much thought to the environmental issues. In his book ‘The Looting Machine’, Tom Burgis brings out the plight of African nationals in the hands of combined evil of African dictators and Chinese SOEs. In his book, Burgis also talks about an elusive Chinese businessman and former intelligence officer, Sam Pa, who has cycled through multiple aliases while making deals across the continent from Angolan oil to Zimbabwean diamonds. Pa is believed to lead the secretive Queensway investor group. Burgis claims that Pa has been representing the Chinese State, although the government ostensibly disavowed this.


China is scouting for overseas naval bases. It has modified the U.S. term ‘Destroyers for Bases’ of the ’40s to ‘Loan for Bases’. Despite the fact, the Chinese government denies any military ambitions, the requirement, and development of Gwadar port of Pakistan and Hambantota of Sri Lanka cannot be left to chance. Latest in the shopping list is ‘Doraleh Port’ of Djibouti


Siddharth Chakraborty of the Economics Times wrote, “The location of Djibouti is of prime importance as its proximity to edgy regions in the Middle East and Africa makes it strategically important for military superpowers to set up their bases there. It could potentially become another part of China’s ‘string of pearls’. The sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are considered among the most strategically important in the world”. 


According to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through Indian Ocean choke points, with 40 per cent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 per cent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 percent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait. A major concern of India in the Indian Ocean is energy. India is fourth-largest economy in the world, which is almost 70 percent dependent on oil import, major part of which comes from the Gulf region. 




The uncontroverted statement of President of Zambia, Michael Sata in 2007 had a panoptic prescience. He stated “European colonial exploitation in comparison to Chinese exploitation appears benign, because even though the commercial exploitation was just as bad, the colonial agents also invested in social and economic infrastructure services. Chinese investment, on the other hand, is focused on taking out of Africa as much as can be taken out, without any regard to the welfare of the local people”. There is a lot in this statement for all stakeholders to take from.


India must give all-out assistance to the Indian diaspora in Africa. They are well established, respected and integrated into African societies. This video says it all. 


Japan should get over its fear of backlash from China due to its positive trade surplus with China. It is backing India in most of the initiatives, however, it has to be more aggressive and get over its ‘Nanking’ guilt. Same goes for EU, which is carrying the baggage of its colonial era sins. In fact, it can make use of its knowledge of the territory and highlight the legacy it has left behind and help ‘Economic Partnership Agreements’ (EPAs) with Africa grow further. The United States should go beyond ‘African Growth and Opportunity Act’ (AGOA). AGOA is a non-reciprocal trade agreement that grants about 40 countries duty-free access for approximately 6,400 products to the U.S. and has created a lot of goodwill amongst African Nations since 2000.

Lastly, India should take a leadership role in Africa. It has the capacity, goodwill and right kind of leadership. Opening up of 18 more embassies in Africa in the recent past is a positive and well-calculated move by the Indian government. India’s acceptance to western nations has helped it in getting access to French military bases in Africa and the Indian Ocean. 

Commonwealth ties in the wake of Brexit has become more relevant and important, and should be pursued aggressively. ‘Asia Africa Growth Corridor’ (AAGC), an economic cooperation agreement between the governments of India, Japan, and multiple African countries is another area which should be given priority. It is China’s misfortune that even when it is showcasing soft power the outcome becomes hard power, India should exploit that aspect. India scores much higher than China when it comes to the combination of hard and soft power. Good news is, that it has taken many good initiatives in the recent past, and there should be no letting up on that. This news should be taken to African nationals to further their ambitions and aspirations, which they are truly worthy of. They should be reminded of this African proverb -

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.


First published in December 2018 here


Author worked in a technology company and subsequently as a pilot with the Indian Navy in addition to duties with Indian Air Force, and Indian Coast Guard. Now he works with a private sector airline. 


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