india africa summitindia africa summitIndia provided crucial support to our partners in Africa so they could be free. (Logo source: http://www.iafs.in)

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan, 

International peace keeping was one of the three main themes of Indian Presidency at the UNSC during the month of August 2021 (the other two: maritime security and terrorism). India has been associated with UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs) since their inception. Till 2018, more than 200,000 Indian troops have served in 49 of the 71 UNPKOs, making India the largest contributor cumulatively. India’s early participation, the professionalism and expertise of its officers set the benchmarks, contributing to the development of the UNPK doctrine. Till 2018, a total of 3802 peacekeepers died, the highest number 164 from India. India at the UN initiated a Memorial to all fallen peacekeepers, the Memorial Wall was inaugurated during India’s August 2021 Presidency.

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Among others, India distinguished itself in the first large-scale UN operation in Congo in 1960, which had nearly 20,000 personnel at its peak. Apart from Congo, India participated in several other UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, including Egypt, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Sudan etc. In many of these countries, the conflicts centered on the freedom movements. That India was a global leader in the movement against imperialism and colonialism made Indian peacekeepers doubly welcome. Indian troops provided crucial support to the local revolutionary movements to resolve conflicts by peaceful means; guided the nascent national governance institutions (Namibia); Indian women peacekeepers became role models for local women (Liberia). These are only a few examples. And memories have lasted. The Indian presence is viewed as benign. The role of Indian peacekeepers in Africa is a solid foundation on which we can continue to build the edifice of an everlasting relationship.

In several countries of Africa, early successes in overthrow of foreign domination often gave way to authoritarian and military rule. The conflicts graduated to intrastate conflicts. Peacekeeping graduated to peace enforcement. In some countries such as Zambia, India was invited to set up Indian Army Training Teams. This helped plant the values of an apolitical character of the security forces.

During the early decades of our independence, India’s relations with African countries were founded on common struggle against imperialism, colonialism, apartheid. India provided crucial support to our partners in Africa so they could be free. As a founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement, India extended recognition to the otherwise proscribed anti colonial movements in Africa. This enabled the revolutionaries to gain moral and material support, set up offices in India, and travel on Indian passports. Once independent, these countries assumed their rightful place as sovereign states at the UN and other international organizations. The signing of the agreement establishing full diplomatic relations between India and South Africa, the last bastion, after the release of Nelson Mandela, was historical. The stage was set for India to play its next role.

The success of Indian economic reforms launched in 1991 was a turning point in the history of independent India. India became an economic player on the world stage, apart from a political and moral force. India opened its economy to foreign participation. From an aid recipient, India became a net aid provider. In Africa, several former colonial powers continued their economic stranglehold. Their aid and trade came tied. Others had swooped on the continent in what came to be characterized as neocolonialism. They were not trusted. Many countries fell into debt traps.

India had no historical baggage. Earlier, our own financial difficulties and balance of payments crisis had tied our hands; our hands were now free to complete the loop in our traditionally friendly relations with Africa. The time was ripe to substantially upgrade our relations with the continent. A major leap in our relations was taken during 2005-2008 when the ground was prepared by updating bilateral relations; establishment of institutional cooperation with the regional organizations; and promoting dialogue framework with the 53 (now 54) member African Union. This culminated in the historic first ever India Africa Forum Summit of 2008. India’s three-pronged policy on Africa was crafted to help Africa help itself, based on equality. Rest is history. India has since built on this foundation by holding regular Summits, every three years.

With the Indian visit calendar picking up as the Covid challenge settles down, we may look to resuming high level visits to our traditional friends, and now partners of a new age, in Africa. It may be a good idea to begin the post covid calendar with countries in Africa where India participated in peace keeping, peace enforcing, and peace building activities. This will not only fill the required visit gap, it will also help face the common challenges of post covid economic recovery, health pandemics, and the increasing threats of terrorism as non-state actors find new bases in Africa. We can update and gauge firsthand the situation in our partner countries. We can have direct contacts with the African leadership at a time when the world has been on a virtual mode since last year. This will enable us to develop the agenda and prepare for our next Africa Summit.

A conscious political outreach with Africa assumes even more importance given that we are currently sitting in the UNSC, a body that primarily deals with international peace and security. Given that nearly 70% of the work of the UNSC relates to Africa, our current non-permanent membership of the UNSC offers a lot of scope for cooperation with the continent, especially sub-Sahara Africa, that India should leverage. This will be to mutual advantage.

We are indeed privileged to have four Ministers in the Ministry of External Affairs. In my entire service of 35 years in the IFS, this probably was never the case. Our diplomatic footprint in Africa has markedly increased. India has recently taken several steps to meet the multi-dimensional challenges of an increasingly globalized world. New challenges have been added since we held our last Summit with Africa. Let’s go.

(The author is a former Ambassador. She is also a former Joint Secretary, Africa, in Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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