The visit of Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu to Gabon in central Africa and Senegal in west Africa is a significant one. It shows the continuity of policy for high-level engagement with African countries. There is also a realisation that central and west Africa need closer engagement.
The Vice President had earlier been to Sierra Leone in west Africa with Comoros in 2019, and to Malawi, Zambia and Botswana in 2018.
Gabon is one of the few countries in Africa where India still does not have an embassy even after 18 new embassies were introduced. It is the third country the Vice President has visited where India doesn’t have an embassy at the time, including Sierra Leone and the Comoros.
Gabon is an important country which has attained stability after the demise of its long-term President Omar Bongo after a 42-year rule. It is currently one of the three African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, a major supplier of oil and through its stability and encouragement to foreign investors, is attracting Indian investment. Thus, a visit to Gabon was important in the sense that it gave an opportunity to engage with an African country on the Security Council. This should become part of our regular Africa policy where engagement with those countries that Africa elects to the UNSC should be pursued for the period that they are there. This will bring a focus as well as a rotation in engagement.
The President of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, received the Vice President and had substantive talks. He has been to India as Defence Minister in 2008 and also participated in the IAFS III in 2015. He remains committed to increasing engagement with India in mining, energy and FDI. Gabon was rarely on the radar of Indian business. Since a Pio company opened an SEZ in Gabon, it has attracted a significant number of Indian companies, which now number over 50. Gabon opened its timber resources for manufacture and processing. Energy supply from Gabon can be increased as Indian companies are already engaged in prospecting.
Central Africa has been the weakest link of India’s Africa policy. Gabon was offered projects for capacity building at the time of IAFS I and II. However, in both cases, it was unable to meet its commitments towards the projects. The utilisation of ITEC and scholarships also remains weak mainly due to the language barrier. The Indian Mission accredited to Gabon from DRC needs to make stronger efforts to perhaps get a new project for capacity building linked to the SEZ to train manpower, which could then be absorbed by the investors into the SEZ. Similarly, it needs to make sure that the ITEC and scholarship slots are fully utilised through relentless efforts not only through the government, but through the Indian companies working there and the civil society.
The visit to Senegal was longer. Senegal is a partner of long-standing, though surprisingly it has not had a high-level visit ever. I had visited Senegal as the head of the Africa division in 2002 with the then MoS Omar Abdullah and later for an African Union meeting. I have always found it a vibrant country with a strong culture and commitment to economic growth and capacity building.
This time the visit was more important because Senegal is the current chair of the African Union. This again should become a template of India's Africa policy that a high-level visit to the AU Chair of the year should be a part of the calendar, if not, the reverse by inviting the chair of the AU to India. It was significant that President Macky Sall met with the Vice President and held delegation-level talks. A meeting with the President of the National Assembly, Moustapha Niasse, also took place. Soon after that Sall flew with the chairperson of the AU Commission to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin and discuss the hardship for food grains that Africa is facing due to the Ukraine war.
In both Senegal and Gabon it was decided that special programmes for their diplomats to be trained at the Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi would be undertaken. This is a new dimension of diplomacy going beyond ITEC and scholarships, by utilising diplomatic training as an important segment of engagement.
With Senegal, a cultural exchange programme was renewed, a youth partnership signed and a waiver of visas for diplomatic passport holders was also agreed upon. Senegal was the host for the hub of the Pan African e-Network project which lasted for a decade between 2009 and 2019. Its transition to the E Arogya Bharti and E Vidya Bharati excludes the utilisation of the earlier facilities. How Gabon and Senegal react to the new opportunities remains unclear.
However, Senegal is a recipient of an important Indian project, the Entrepreneurship, Training and Development Centre (ETDC). This is a successful manifestation of India in Africa. This project was originally conceived as a part of the G-15 initiative and was established in 2001. Thereafter under the IAFS II programme, it was enlarged and now a further request for its enhancement has been received. This institution was meant for the French-speaking countries of Africa. As per a recent book, The Harambee Factor, on India's economic and development partnership with Africa, over 6,000 students have been trained at the EDTC and 300 students are currently there, learning various skills, which see them integrated into their economic milieu in their own countries. The Senegalese have assimilated the training provided alongside the institution and localised it very well. It is one of the success stories and needs further renewal and expansion.
It is heartening that soon after the Vice President's visit to these two important countries, Minister of State (MoS) for External Affairs V Muraleedharan, in charge of Africa, is also visiting Zimbabwe and Malawi in southern Africa, with whom India has a good relationship. This can see much larger functional and economic cooperation.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia & ASEAN, Ethiopia & the African Union. Views expressed are personal.