India’s Expansion into Africa: From Colonised to Coloniser?

India’s relationship with the African continent  has been described as one of “old friends, and old family” . Indeed, India and Africa  have been connected for centuries. For example,  Chapati’s and Chai are so commonly found in Eastern and Southern Africa. However, cultural and trade relations between India and Africa move beyond Chapati and Chai going back to ancient times – from early fourth-century trade, through Britain’s shipment of Indian labour to work on colonial projects, to political cooperation during the struggle for Independence. India once described as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire is now a potential candidate for superpower status as US hegemony appears to be waning. Therefore, its relations with Africa will determine whether it has gone from colonised to coloniser.

As India becomes more involved in Africa, analysis of Indo-African relations increases. Certainly, India will also bring its own challenges in its African commercial interactions, bilateral relations and through its part in shaping the multilateral polity and global economy (see p. 81). Such challenges are highlighted by strategically forming and strengthening  ties to partnerstates in the East African Community an intergovernmental organisation which India has a keen interest in because of its strategic location by the Indian Ocean. Historical ties to partner states of the organisation mainly Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and the organisation’s development as potential Political Federation. India’s approach to partnership with Africa is driven by the aim of South-South Cooperation, empowerment, capacity building, human resource development, access to Indian market, and support for African investments in Africa.

Despite not being as close to the Indian Ocean, Indo-Nigerian relations are India’s most important on the continent as their relations are based on the supply of crude oil of which Nigeria has in abundance as the number one producer of crude oil in Africa (see page 54) with India being the largest importer of Nigerian crude oil. For India, getting a larger allocation of Nigeria’s crude exports would provide its economy a hedge against rising oil prices. India’s refineries, especially its older less complex facilities, prize Nigeria’s light sweet crude, which is easily turned into gasoline and diesel. Indian oil and gas companies would also get preferential access to Nigeria’s petroleum industry, which appears set to undergo a major overhaul in the next few years. Thus, India as Nigeria’s main customer for crude oil has undercut China from being the largest partner to Africa’s largest oil supplier with the country being  increasingly dependent on crude oil. Further adding fuel to the fire, Nigeria’s oil exports to China have slid to a nine month low as of June 2017. Notably, the African Union which includes Nigeria  supports India’s bid for membership on the United Nations Security Council, and if ever successful, India’s voice on the world stage and influence over African affairs will increase acting as a greater bulwark against China’s ambitions in Africa.

In terms of India’s relations with The Gambia, although India is the second largest export destination of Gambian exports, it is a partnership to look out for in a counterfactual sense as the democratically elected President of The Gambia Adama Barrow seeks to rejoin The Commonwealth Of Nations. If its reapplication is supported by India, this will strengthen the strategic partnership through encouraging democratisation domestically in The Gambia but also multilaterally in The Commonwealth itself.

It is clear as India moves forward and adapts to the challenges of a neoliberal international order, that India is not a coloniser in Africa. However, India as the world’s largest liberal democracy has a responsibility to promote democracy and encourage its partners to take a more active role in and support the membership of African states in multilateral organisations. Unfortunately, outright democracy promotion is not yet embedded in India’s foreign policy, largely because of adherence to Nehruvian notions of state sovereignty, which does, however, appear to be changing slightly (Price 2011: pp. 19-20 ) (Debey and Biswas page 105). However, the case of India serves as a reminder that it is possible to run a functional democracy in a context of great poverty, extreme ethnic and religious diversity and even social stratification anchored in tradition. As such, India indeed enjoys an advantage of being a consistent, if often messy, democratic country, with democracy acting as a comparative advantageous tool in its favour (Friedman, 2005 pp. 183-208) (Cooper Farooq pp. 235). Therefore, outright democracy promotion and encouraging activity in multilateral organisations will benefit both India and Africa in terms of soft power as both will be more attractive in the eyes of the international community while simultaneously dissuading accusations of India as a coloniser in Africa.


Featured image | The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Dr. John Magufuli playing drum, at the ceremonial welcome, at the State House, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania July 10, 2016 | wikimedia commons 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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