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Can India become a major weapons supplier to African states?

India wants to be a key supplier of military hardware to African states. But what shape can this cooperation take?

Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh speaking at the DefExpo event where he pitched India as a weapons supplier to African nations.

The India-Africa Defence Dialogue commenced on October 18 in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, on the side-lines of the DefExpo 2022. The Dialogue, first held in 2020, was decided to be organised every two years to revise the commitments of the defence and security cooperation between India and the African states.

The theme for this year’s engagement is - adopting strategy for synergizing and strengthening defence and security cooperation, to explore new areas for convergence for mutual engagements. As the theme suggests, the focus would be on finding different arenas of possible cooperation and strengthening the existing agreements even further. The Defence Minister of India, Rajnath Singh hosted the 50 African countries, including 20 defence ministers, seven CDS (Chief of Defence Staff)/Service Chiefs and eight permanent secretaries of the participating states. The event is held on the side-lines of the larger DefExpo event which is organised to support and develop partnerships on aerospace and defence manufacturing sectors with India.

The India-Africa dialogue for defence cooperation is important to pay attention to because of the immense potential these two partners hold in building security and stability within the Indian and African region. Over the years, focus has shifted to building trust with the African states and India’s approach to Africa is largely based on the Kampala Principles.

The Kampala Principles

The Kampala Principles reiterate the engagement with the African states over building local capacities and opportunities for the states. The focus has also remained on improving trade and economic cooperation along both sides as well as India’s strong support towards bringing a digital revolution within Africa. The idea is to invest immensely on education, health, and public service infrastructure by also adding to the digital literacy programmes in the African region. India, through the Kampala Principles also acknowledged the high potential of the land and mineral resources existing within Africa and there is a recognition of the need to improve upon Africa’s agriculture sector as well. Africa and India share the mutual fate of belonging to the global south which would bear the larger brunt of climate change problems and hence there is an acknowledged need to cooperate on reaching climate action goals together. The recognition of threats of terrorism and extremism is also a part of the Kampala principles. One important aspect of India’s approach to Africa is to build stability in the ocean region that connects the two regions together. Defence and security cooperation is needed in the Indian Ocean region through maritime security measures.

South-South Cooperation with Africa

The African region is often viewed in conjunction with the prolonged conflicts along with existing challenges of human security and development. However, there is a vast reservoir of untapped resources in the region that could contribute immensely to the region’s growth. This is where the importance of bilateral and multilateral cooperation comes in, whether it be economic or strategic.

India and Africa have had a history of strong bilateral cooperation and there is a mutual acknowledgment of the need to build partnerships across diverse areas. The last India- Africa Defence Dialogue focused on finding possible avenues of bilateral cooperation of mutual importance. There is extreme potential for rapid economic growth and improved developmental infrastructure in the region which is why Africa now occupies an important aspect of the Indian Foreign and Defence Policy. The initiation of events such as the DefExpo and the multilateral dialogues in the form of India-Africa Defence Conclave is primarily important in increasing the involvement in the region in a way that is mutually beneficial to all the parties.

Economic trade forms a major area of cooperation with India. The bilateral trade between India and Africa reached up to USD 89.5 billion. To meet the energy security needs, India imports much of the crude oil and coal from Africa while also exporting refined petroleum and pharmaceuticals to the region. India’s external investments in the region have also grown over the last few years and it has become one of the top five investors in Africa’s development projects.

The ongoing India-Africa Defence Dialogue provides another forum for the two parties to diversify the areas of cooperation effectively. This is significantly important when viewed in the larger global context of the global security crisis. In the run-up to the first Defence Conclave, the Indian Army jointly organised the field training exercises with 17 African nations. Joint cooperation on building military academies in Ethiopia and Nigeria for improved training was also an important aspect of the involvement of India and Africa’s defence infrastructure. The need for defence cooperation was further consolidated through the joint agreement of the Lucknow Declaration which was the result of the first India-Africa Defence Dialogue.

Building on the Lucknow Declaration?

The Lucknow Declaration was the product of the first India-Africa Defence Dialogue held in 2020 along the side-lines of the DefExpo event. The African States came together with India for the first time to exclusively acknowledge cooperation on defence and security. There was a mutual recognition of the need for peace and security through investments in conflict resolution, management, and peace building mechanisms. This can be achieved through increased capacity building and training while also creating a gender-neutral space for peace builders to collaborate. This was a breakthrough development in the sense that there needs to be more engagement in the peace building process and conflict transformation infrastructure in the African region for the overall improvement of security.

In the Lucknow Declaration, there was a mutual recognition of the need to tackle terrorism and adhere to the international regime for counter-terrorism mechanisms. Maritime Security also provides a significant area of India-Africa cooperation as there is a need to build a stable cooperation mechanism in the Indo-Pacific with Africa as an important player in the regional security dynamics. There was an agreement on the building and securing maritime communication lines and cooperation over tackling maritime security threats through information sharing and effective surveillance infrastructure.

The Defence Dialogue of 2022 will likely build on the declaration of the previous session and would also focus on the need for security development in the current volatile geo-political scenario. The African region, at present, is dealing with a range of security challenges from the energy crisis initiated by the Russian war to the food security and healthcare challenges aggravated by the prolonged conflicts within the regional states. There is also an international neglect of the African region when it comes to increasing investment, defence cooperation and the involvement in a peacebuilding infrastructure for lasting positive peace in the region. Therefore there is a significant need to build on the progress made through the Lucknow Declaration in the present Defence Dialogues. This is because defence cooperation could be a way to secure the region and stabilise it so the African countries could allocate more resources on tackling the internal security challenges as well.

New Avenues of Cooperation

Focusing on the defence cooperation between India and Africa, there are some conventional areas of cooperation which include global challenges of climate change, food, water, energy and health crises. However, in the current global scenario, there are growing anxieties of a nuclear threat looming in the face of the Russian war on Ukraine. Thus, cooperation of peaceful usage of nuclear energy could be another possible area of cooperation to be explored. Along with this, securing the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is also mutually beneficial to both India as well as the African states as it would improve stability and maritime resource management.

Apart from this, the global pandemic was a lesson in the power of information technology and cybersecurity. While there were effective security mechanisms created through cybertechnology, at the same time it was also a space for cyberthreats to develop. Therefore, there is a greater scope of engagement and cooperation when it comes to information technology and cyberspace. India and the African region need to build a mechanism for cyberspace capacity building to counter the new-age security threats. There is also a space for improving on the African state security apparatus by tackling issues of arms and narcotics trafficking as well as undressing the challenge of grave unemployment to transform the asset of youth.

Defence security cooperation could also diversify by strengthening defence industry investments, joint ventures in defence equipment software as well as contribution to research and development towards building defence infrastructure. Defence and security cooperation is an important way to enhance confidence building and mutual trust between India and the African nations.

India and the African states share a colonial history that binds them culturally and diplomatically as well. Defence and economic cooperation are an important way for both the regions to come together to echo the voice of the Global South in a world that is largely bearing the brunt of the crises initiated in the Global North.

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