New Delhi: President Ram Nath Kovind this week embarks on his first foreign tour after taking office in July to Ethiopia and Djibouti in a bid to keep up India’s engagement with and expand its footprint across resource-rich Africa. This comes against the backdrop of India’s strategic and economic rival China rapidly expanding its influence across Africa and in the Indian Ocean region.
“Africa is chosen as the first destination of president’s overseas visit—an index of the importance attached to the African continent by the current government," Neena Malhotra, joint secretary in charge of East and South Africa in the Indian foreign ministry told reporters on Friday.
In recent years, India has moved to re-fashion its ties with Africa, after seeing its influence wane across the continent in the late 1980s to the early 2000s after achieving a high water mark in the 1950s to the early 1980s. In 2008, India organized the first India-Africa Forum Summit with the aim of recasting its ties with the continent. New Delhi has followed up its initiative with two more such summits—in 2011 in Addis Ababa and in New Delhi in 2015. In the last three years, there have been 16 visits to Africa by the Indian President, vice-president and the Prime Minister—a calculated move to keep up engagement with Africa given that the next India-Africa Summit is scheduled in 2020.
Kovind’s visits come at a time when the US’s interest in Africa is on the wane and China is increasing its economic and strategic footprint across Africa besides along India’s periphery in the Indian Ocean that New Delhi considers its sphere of influence, where it seeks to underline its credentials as the dominant regional power and net provider of security.
Kovind’s first stop will be Djibouti—located in the Horn of Africa and bordered by Eritrea in the north and Ethiopia in the west and the south. “This would also be the first ever visit at the level of Head of State or Government from India to the Republic of Djibouti since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries," an Indian statement said. The tiny country was the hub of operations during Indian efforts to evacuate its nationals fleeing the civil war in Yemen in 2015. Earlier this year, Djibouti began hosting a Chinese naval facility in addition to ones run by the US, Japanese and the French. “Strategically, Djibouti is very important to India. During the evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen, Djibouti extended India all facilities required to move thousands of people by air and sea," said Gurjit Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti. “This is despite India not having a presence there," he noted. “So, this visit by president Kovind is a very good gesture on India’s part" to ensure a high level visit to the country, Singh said.
On the second leg on his visit, Kovind is expected to reach Ethiopia on 4 October on a three-day trip—the first by an Indian President in almost five decades. It comes at the invitation of the Ethiopian president of Mulatu Teshome, the Indian foreign ministry statement cited above said. “India is amongst the top trade, investment and development partner of Ethiopia. Ethiopia continues to be the largest recipient of India’s concessional Lines of Credit in Africa," the statement said.
Indian links with Ethiopia date back centuries. In modern times, the country has been a hub for Indian businessmen and teachers. Bilateral trade currently amounts to $1 billion. India is at present among the top three foreign investors in Ethiopia with $4.8 billion in investments and with 540 Indian companies having a presence there. Most of the Indian investments are in agriculture, engineering and textiles. India has also extended $1 billion in concessional loans to Ethiopia.
“Ethiopia is one of the longstanding partners of India on the African continent," said Ritu Beri, a senior Africa analyst at the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses think tank. “It is one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent. The headquarters of the African Union is located in the Ethiopian capital," Beri said, recalling that then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited Ethiopia in 2011. “Another high level visit will only underline the country’s importance to India," she said, adding the declining US interest in Africa presented New Delhi—which has put development initiatives at the heart of its Africa policy—with an opportunity to deepen its engagement with the continent even more.