PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Monday (May 23) for the second Africa-India Forum Summit is an opportunity for Delhi to reconnect with an often ignored continent and its people, who have a very special relevance for India. The first such Summit was held in Delhi in April 2008 when 14 African countries participated – and this time leaders of 15 African states chosen by the Africa Union will join PM Singh in Addis Ababa.

I had occasion to visit Addis Ababa on May 12 as part of an academic conference sponsored by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and the deliberations gave me an insight into how the modern Africa perceives India and the manner in which the relationship can be best pursued – in an equitable manner. For me this was a special occasion, for I was returning to Africa after almost 40 years. My first visit to the ‘dark’ continent and Ethiopia in particular was in 1970 when Emperor Haile Selassie was the ruler and Africa’s most respected leader.

Going back after four decades was an eye-opener. The country had changed considerably – and its geography is now very different.  Eritrea, earlier a part of Ethiopia became independent in 1993 – and now Ethiopia is land-locked. Yet it is the seat of the African Union and hence the hub of many pan-African political and diplomatic initiatives.

Today Africa is home to almost one billion people in 54 countries and the continent is spread across 30.2 million sq. km – and the contrast with India is stark.  India has an area of 3.2 million sq. km – or it is one tenth the size of Africa and yet has a slightly larger population of 1.2 billion people. While India may be seen as an emerging economic power, the reality is that on human security indices – such as  availability of  fresh water, sanitation, literacy and infant mortality – many African nations are ahead of India as a collective.

Africa is resource rich but poor in infrastructure and institutional capacity. While India was also colonized like Africa – the pillage and ruthless exploitation of Africa is to be seen to be believed. Many European powers including the lesser known like Belgium ‘raped’ the continent and its people and did not allow the growth of local institutions and an inclusive political culture.

However post 1947, India supported the African cause unequivocally and the end of colonial rule was whole heartedly supported by Pandit Nehru. For India the greatest contribution of Africa is the transformation of a little-known but tenacious Gujarati lawyer. An obscure individual who went to Africa as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned as a potential Mahatma – and enabled India’s independence through non-violence and Satyagraha.

India’s links with the African continent predate independence in 1947 and were mediated by the compulsion of the colonial era. Hence indentured labor for sugar plantations (Mauritius) and traders (South and East Africa) were among the early contacts and a sizable Indian diaspora was created over a century.  The Indian military was also deployed in Africa during World War II (1939-45) - and more recently in a number of UN Peace Keeping operations that have earned praise from African states.

Concurrently Indian business acumen   at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum in Africa and the contribution of its teachers are still widely acknowledged (as I noticed in the Addis academic event) and in summary it is these qualities about India that are attractive to today’s Africa. The fact that India is a robust participatory democracy – despite many inadequacies in governance - is also deeply appreciated – and here the contrast with China is striking.

Just  as the global community is wary of the ‘rise’ of  China but welcomes and encourages the emergence of India,  in Africa the presence and participation of  India is seen  positively – and with China there is a sense of wariness and unease.  Liberal opinion seems to suggest that with its deep pockets, Beijing   has already made inroads into the African ruling elite and is entering into long term contracts for natural resources from hydrocarbons to minerals and forestry/ agriculture.

But India’s growth in Africa has been steady.  Bi-lateral trade which was a mere US $ 3 bn in 1999-2000, grew to $ 46 bn in 2010 – and the target of $ 70 bn by 2015 may be surpassed by current trends. The potential for growth will be predicated on the internal stability of  major African states  and here the demographic  heavy-weights are Nigeria ( 152 mn people );  Ethiopia ( 88 mn ) ;  Egypt ( 80 mn ) ; Congo ( 70 mn ) ;  and South Africa ( 49 mn ) with Sudan, Tanzania and Kenya all at about 40 million. 
It is instructive that in 2010, Africa’s total GDP  ( US $ 1.4 trillion) was slightly larger than that of India ( $ 1. 25 trn )  and some projections suggest that by about 2040 or so,  the world will have  three large single-state economies ( China, USA and India )  and two large collectives -  EU and Africa.  Thus it is imperative for India to renew its old linkages with sincerity and offer Africa an economic and trade partnership based on an equitable relationship for the long term.

And since security is a pre-requisite for development, India can also offer certain niche expertise such as military training – and an exchange of views about current challenges like piracy. In his quiet persuasive manner, PM Manmohan Singh could well lay the foundations of an Indian re-discovery of Africa and illuminate the relationship with the ‘dark’ continent.