‘Africa Day’ by Simona Vittorini
Simona Vittorini is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies where she lectures undergraduate and postgraduate courses on the comparative politics of Asia and Africa.
A diplomatic crisis was narrowly averted last week in Delhi when the African Heads of Missions finally agreed to participate in the Africa Day celebrations organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in New Delhi.
A few days earlier, in a press release the Eritrean Ambassador Alem Tsehage Woldermariam (Dean of the Group of African Heads of Mission in Delhi) communicated the decision of the African diplomatic community not to take part in this year’s Africa Day’s celebrations.
This decision was taken after the brutal killing of a Congolese student – Masunda Kitada Oliver – who was beaten to death by a mob in a residential area of New Delhi.
This was not the first time that African nationals had been physically attacked and in some instances also killed in India. In 2013 a Nigerian national was stabbed to death and five other African nationals were left injured in Goa. In 2014 a mob attacked some African students at the very busy Rajiv Chowk station of New Delhi metro. And last February a Tanzanian student was assaulted and partially stripped by a mob in Bangalore.
Coming hot on the heels of the rather successful Third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) that was held in Delhi at the end of last October, and before Modi’s widely-anticipated first visit to Africa in July, the ICCR-sponsored event was seen as an attempt at deepening India-Africa ties and restarting a process that had lost considerable steam, especially during the last year of the UPA government.
The Africans Heads of Missions’ boycott not only had the immediate effect of bringing the news of Oliver’s killing to the front pages but it also stung Modi where it most hurt him. With the anniversary of Modi’s second year in government fast approaching, the snub by the African diplomats marred the BJP’s celebratory mood. Significantly, while Africa Day is celebrated on 25 May around the world, the ICCR event was to take place on 26 May, the day on which Mr Modi was sworn into power in 2014.
What’s more, African envoys took the decision to recommend to their government not to send new students to India due to the stereotypes and racial prejudices against Africans in India.
Several thousand African students study in India each year. They come thanks to the many scholarships generously offered by the Indian government as part of its development cooperation programmes with the continent. In fact, India is the second largest Asian partner in Africa, coming only after China. However, India does not have Beijing’s deep pockets and in terms of trade, its presence in the continent is less than a third of that of its Asian neighbour. However, where India had excelled so far has been in its investment in human capital development. A legacy of Nehruvian aid policy that privileged training, education and skills development, India has always offered precious scholarships and short-term training programmes to many African students, administrators and professionals. Over the decades, India has trained many African professionals in various fields. At the Second IAFS, New Delhi committed to building a number of vocational institutes across Africa, the most prominent of which is the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE). In October, at the Third IAFS, Modi promised 50,000 scholarship in 5 years.
It is this long-lasting commitment to education and training that is believed to have created a sense of goodwill among Africans towards India. In a continent where China receives a good deal of ‘bad press’ – whether for its perceived neo-colonial approach or its dubious contested labour relations in the continent – enjoying such good relations with Africa is a huge bonus for New Delhi, especially at a time when Africa’s 54 votes would make a considerable difference to India’s bid to a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
This is a huge bonus that is however quickly shrinking before New Delhi’s eyes. At the 6th Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – held last December only a few weeks after India’s own third Africa summit – Beijing pledged to offer 2000 education opportunities with degrees or diplomas and 30,000 government scholarships. It also offered to invite 200 African scholars to visit China each year and to train 1,000 media professionals from Africa, along with building a number of regional vocational institutes in the next three years. Although China’s educational institutions do not enjoy the same prestige as some of India’s top technical institutes, Beijing’s offer threatens to quickly outstrip what New Delhi can afford and is able to deliver.
Thus, the envoys’ threat to ask African students to boycott Indian scholarships touched a raw nerve in Delhi and risked seriously damaging India-Africa relations. In a series of tweets all fired off in quick succession on the eve of the Africa Day celebrations, the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj reached out to the African envoys. She quickly put in place frantic damage control efforts promising to take all the necessary steps to ensure the safety and security of all African nationals. She also asked General V K Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, to meet the African Heads of Missions. The assurances of the Ministry of External Affairs were deemed sufficient as early in the day on 26 May all African envoys eventually agreed to take part in the Africa Day celebrations.
While the quick actions of the MEA saved the day – and the Africa Day fete – on such a significant occasion for Mr Modi, guaranteeing the safety and security of India’s African nationals may be harder to ensure. Following the killing of Oliver, other attacks on African nationals were reported in the capital.
Whilst the African diplomatic community asked New Delhi to take urgent steps to ‘address the problems of racism and Afro-phobia in India’, the government vigorously denyed the existence of this problem.
In one of her Tweets, Mrs Swaraj said that the killing of Oliver was the action of local goons. She also frankly admitted that incidents of this kind were not acceptable because they are a source of embarrassment for India. If that was not enough, this statement was followed by similar remarks made by General V K Singh after further attacks on African nationals were reported. Echoing Mrs Swaraj’s words, Singh dismissed these attacks as acts of hooliganism, indeed minor scuffles blown out of proportion by the media.
While it may be true that incidents of this kind can be isolated episodes of urban, social unrest, what is troubling is that statements such as those by Mrs Swaraj and General VK Singh significantly downplay the more troubling and deeper racism that instead transpires from these criminal acts – which are unfortunately becoming more frequent in India’s large metropolitan areas.
New Delhi has consistently framed its relations with Africa by employing notions of friendship and solidarity with the continent and by talking of an accumulated sense of history. Indeed, the theme of this year’s Africa Day was to celebrate the warm and cordial India-Africa relations.
But as the acting High Commissioner of Nigeria, Sola Enikanolaiye bluntly said “Ideas like partnership, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity will continue to ring hollow as long as Africans feel generally unsafe in streets and campuses of India”.