Rabat/Morocco: Indian Vice-President Mohammed Hamid Ansari on Monday said last week’s killing of a Congolese man by a group in New Delhi was “despicable" and needed to be condemned. This comes as India is trying to shore up ties with Africa in the face of stiff competition from strategic rival China.

The vice-president who arrived in the Moroccan capital Rabat during the first leg of a two-nation tour of Morocco and Tunisia said India “greatly value(s) its relationship with Africa..."

“Our present commitment to developing a comprehensive relationship (with Africa) is something that is well stated," he told reporters en route to Rabat. “It (the attack) is unfortunate, it has to be condemned," Ansari said. He later arrived in Rabat and was welcomed by Moroccan prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane.

A Congolese man was severely beaten up by a group of people in New Delhi following an altercation last week. There are many thousands of Africans in India either pursuing studies or here for affordable medical treatment. Following the incident, envoys of African nations stationed in New Delhi protested, and some even threatening to boycott Africa Day celebrations on 26 May. The situation was later resolved with the intervention of the government.

Ties with Africa

The incident comes at a time when India has been trying to forge closer links with resource rich Africa fending off competition from China which has been involved in building large infrastructure projects in Africa—roads, ports and soccer stadia. There has also been considerable investment in Africa by Chinese companies, notably in energy and commodities like minerals. Once seen as close to India, African countries are now being wooed by countries as diverse as China, South Korea and Japan, besides the US and European nations. India supported de-colonisation movements across the African continent in the 1950s and 1960s, but of late has seen its influence on the continent get eroded.

It was in a bid to re-craft its ties with Africa that India held its first India-Africa summit in 2008 in New Delhi and followed it up with another in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 2011. The third such summit was hosted in New Delhi last year with the heads of state or government of 41 African nations and delegations from all 54 African countries attending it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a slew of measures, including $10 billion dollars in aid to African nations and connecting Africa digitally, during the summit.

Vice-president Ansari’s six-day visit (30 May to 4 June) to Morocco and Tunisia is aimed as a follow-up to the India-Africa summit, given that the next summit is to be held after five years in 2020. “The idea is to keep up the momentum and level of engagement with Africa so that there is constant interaction and not just at periodic intervals," said a person familiar with the development, who did not want to be named. This is the first visit by a an Indian vice-president to Morocco and Tunisia in almost five decades. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had visited Morocco in 1999.

Besides Ansari’s, there are other visits planned to Africa to consolidate ties. PM Modi is set to travel to east Africa in July, where he is to visit Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique, besides South Africa. President Pranab Mukherjee will travel to West Africa later this year to Ghana, Ivory Coast and Namibia.

In his interaction with journalists, Ansari admitted that India’s contacts with countries in the Maghreb region or northwestern Africa had been infrequent. “There is no particular reason for this but this is how things work out," he said. This is despite having friendly relations with these Arab nations situated along the southern flank of the Mediterranean Sea. “There are no points of conflict and politically our outlooks do not clash," he said.

Ansari’s visit to Morocco comes after King Mohammed VI of Morocco visited China and the two countries declared a strategic partnership earlier this month.

Importance of Morocco and Tunisia for India

Both Morocco and Tunisia were important for India given that India imports a large amount of phosphates from these two nations, the vice-president said. “With food security a key item on the agenda of the Indian government, the importance of these two countries cannot be over stated. Phosphatic fertilisers are critical for our agriculture sector," an Indian official said.

According to a note posted on the website of the ministry of external affairs, India is one of the major markets for Moroccan phosphate and its derivatives. An India-Morocco fertiliser joint venture in Morocco, called IMACID, was set up in November 1999. “At present, it is producing around 430,000 million tonnes of phosphoric acid per annum, nearly all of which is imported by India," the note said, adding that the Moroccan phosphate company, OCP, has also invested in Paradip Phosphates Ltd in India.

Other main items of export to India are metallic ores and metal scrap and inorganic chemicals. India’s exports to Morocco are cotton yarn, synthetic fibre, transport equipment, pharmaceuticals, agricultural implements, chemicals, spices and manufactured metals. However, the India-Morocco two-way trade, which was once worth almost $2 billion dollars, dropped to a little over $1 billion in 2015-16.

Indian business presence in Morocco includes a Tata Motors plant in Casablanca which manufactures bus bodies. Ranbaxy too has a presence in Casablanca with a manufacturing plant for production of medicines.

In Tunisia, Indian business presence includes Gujarat Fertilizer and Coromandal Fertilizers which have a joint venture. According to one of the Indian officials cited above, the Indian automobile sector is also looking at Tunisia which is seen as a “very prospective market".

Ansari will be discussing with his interlocutors “how to strengthen our outreach to Africa generally," Amar Sinha, secretary economic relations, ministry of external affairs, told reporters last week, “Also Morocco wants to pose itself as a gateway to francophone Africa that is one of the key issues why Vice-President decided to go there," he added.

Terrorism, ISIS

According to Ansari, both Tunisia and Morocco are seen as “moderate" Islamic countries battling the menace of terrorism. A terrorist attack in Marrakesh in 2011 killed at least 15 people. In Tunisia last year, gunmen with suspected links to the radical Sunni Islamic State militant group killed at least 60 people, many of them foreign tourists. Media reports say that many fighters of the radical Islamic group, the Islamic State (IS), are drawn from Tunisia and Morocco. In the case of Morocco, the number of those suspected to have joined the ranks of the IS number between 300 and 1,500.