For all the success stories that one hears about India in Africa, the fact is that New Delhi is a distant second to Beijing when it comes to garnering natural resources and funnelling investment in the continent of promise. It was in this otherwise gloomy scenario that vice-president Hamid Ansari landed on Saturday in Juba, the capital of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. It marks an important first, but only first, step in what should be a sustained effort.
China’s success has been attributed to its deep pockets. India simply cannot match what Beijing devotes to investment in infrastructure in African countries. That has been clear for more than five years now, time sufficient for our political leadership—especially the ministry of external affairs—to chalk out an alternative strategy to match China’s influence.
There is hardly any sight of it, except saying that India’s democratic credentials and its economic success are an alternative to the Chinese model. How that can be translated into deals and flow of money and material has remained on paper. South Sudan is a good opportunity to test whether that is a practical idea or merely an interesting argument.
South Sudan has come into being after decades of bitter struggle. China has for long backed undivided Sudan and has deep reservoirs of support in Khartoum. That fact is well known in Juba. If there were an opportunity to make a case for the Indian alternative, this would be probably be the best we can get.
There will, of course, be difficulties. South Sudan poses risks that can deter the hardiest of investors. Food insecurity is high. To give two examples, more than 40% of households in one of its larger provinces, Jonglei, have weak access to food. Its oil-rich province of Upper Nile is equally worse. The country is a mosaic of various tribes, the majority being the Dinka tribe—concentrated in the oil-bearing regions. Already, there are voices that other groups—the Nuer and the Azande being two examples—are being “ignored”. To top everything, the country is home to 75% of the oil reserves in undivided Sudan. This is a recipe for conflict fuelled by resources unless accompanied by far-sighted leadership.
India should take calculated risks and venture there. Given its natural wealth, South Sudan merits close attention. Even if a couple of billion dollars have to be spent to buy influence, they should be spared. That country merits much greater politico-economic attention than what we devote to an average African country. The rewards promise to be in much greater proportion than the effort expended.
What should be India’s approach to South Sudan? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org