Sunday, April 19, 2020

Arresting China in Africa

GII. 14 April 2020


A major diplomatic step by India to balance China’s aggressive outreach in Africa went unnoticed when in the third week of January this year, India inaugurated first ever convention made by it in Africa. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar inaugurated the Mahatma Gandhi International Convention Centre (MGICC) in Western African state of Niger. With a tiny presence of merely 150 Indians in a country of 2.25 people, Niger might sound as a very insignificant country on the world map for India’s diplomatic interests, but those equipped with some idea of its natural resources and strategic importance had realised long back that developing intimate relationship with Niger is in the long term interest for India.

Nearly 8 years ago, in June 2012, I visited Niger representing one-man delegation of Indian National Congress, which was then ruling the national government in India, to strengthen party-to-party relationship with Niger’s ruling party PNDS Tarayya—Party for Democracy and Socialism. Mahamadou Issoufou was heading the Government of Niger. Issoufou is still the President of his nation. Mohamed Bazoum was the chairman of PNDS. He was also the foreign minister. I had very relaxed and detailed meetings with Issoufou, Bazoum and with various of his ministers during my visit. They all had deep respects and liking for Mahatma Gandhi’s India. They all were intensely inclined for greater cooperation with India and indicated their uneasiness with expanding Chinese interests in the region.

I had developed an earnest rapport with Bazoum and Foumakoye Gado, who was the minister for oil, energy and mines at that time. Bazoum narrated to me his 17 years old story when he became the foreign minister for the first time in 1995 in the government of Prime Minister Hama Amadou and how he held the position after Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara seized power in a military coup a year after. He told me in details how PNDS opposed Maïnassara and he was removed from his position after few months. Issoufou was the president of PNDS and Bazoum was placed under house arrest along with him. They were released on the orders of a court.

Six months after my visit, a huge delegation from Niger comprising half a dozen senior ministers and PNDS Tarayya functionaries visited New Delhi in January 2013. The delegation was led by Gado. In addition to his ministerial responsibilities he was holding the position of the secretary-general of the ruling party also. He has been a very close confidant of president Issoufou for years. I was assigned the task of convening their meetings with union ministers, etc by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The members of the delegation met with the then foreign minister Salman Khurshid, Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit, Minister for Human Resource Development, Minister of State in Prime Minister’s office, Minister of Petroleum, Minister of Power, etc and senior office bearers of the Congress party including the Chairman of party’s Foreign Affairs Department Dr. Karan Singh. Each minister spent long hours with the delegation and a detailed report was prepared based on the deliberations.

In addition to coal, gold, iron ore, tin, phosphates, petroleum, molybdenum and gypsum, Niger has some of the largest uranium reserves in the world. It is the fourth largest producer of uranium on the globe. It is to be underlined that Russia is on 5th position, China is on 8th and USA is on 8th position. Niger is a ten times bigger producer of uranium than India. The discussions between the Niger delegation and Indian leaders covered many important areas but as it was an exercise in the direction of strengthening ‘party-to-party’ relationship, there was no scope for signing any formal agreement. The informal drill was for chalking out a preliminary roadmap.

By the time the relationship between the Congress party and PNDS Tarayya and their leaderships started taking conducive shape, India went into general election mode by the end of 2013 and in the summers of 2014, Congress faced the colossal electoral setback of its lifetime. My friends in Niger have been keeping in touch with me. When president Issoufou was in New Delhi in October 2015 only for a day to participate in Africa Conclave organised by prime minister Narendra Modi, he spared plentiful time for a meeting with me.

          Issoufou has emerged taller after winning elections for the second time. He has everything the West wants in an African leader. The approach ha adopted in tackling the problem of elevated flow of migrants from Africa to Europe and the insecurity in Africa’s Sahel region, Issoufou has established his international prominence.  He played as a key partner for European leaders who hoped to both block migration and prevent it through economic development. The northern Nigerien city of Agadez had become a hub for migrants coming from across West Africa, as it is a gateway to the Sahara, Libya, the Mediterranean and, ultimately, to Europe. The crackdown had reduced the flow of migrants through Agadez by 80 percent.

President Issoufou’s Niger is also an important member of the ‘G5 Sahel Joint Force’, which deployed battalions from Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad in an effort to improve security in the Sahel and especially in the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border regions. Niger has obvious attraction for USA and Europe due to its relative stability, which contrasts with the endemic violence in neighbouring Libya, northern Mali, northern Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

In contrast to various other counterterrorism partners in Africa, Issoufou has genuine democratic credentials. He was first elected in 2011 in a vote deemed free and fair by many observers. The election followed a crisis in Niger involving civilian overreach and a short-lived military junta. Additionally, Issoufou gladly shows solidarity with the West at moments of crisis, for example by marching in a rally in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. Just two weeks after the recent Paris summit on migration, Issoufou was in Germany to speak at the ‘Paths of Peace’ conference on religious understanding.

          Modi has matured a personal and cozy relationship with Issoufou in the meantime. He has interacted with Issoufou on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly, UNGA session in September last year. They held deliberations on furthering economic and people-to-people cooperation between India and Niger. MGICC in Niger is an outcome of the personal connect between both these leaders. This is the time when Modi needs to utilise the goodwill of Issoufou in swiftly entering into the personal corridors of the future presidency in Niger, as Issoufou’s won’t be the president after this year.

Though, Issoufou has aggressively neutralised his political rivals, his role in the fight against Boko Haram has earned him enormous appreciation and he is the most popular West African leader today, but he will be completing his current term of presidency in March 2021. General elections in Niger are scheduled for the last week of December this year. Niger’s constitution does not allow a person to hold office of president for more than two terms of five years each. Therefore, Issoufou will not get third tenure. Then, who after Issoufou? I feel, with his experience, candidness, reliability and grasp, Interior Minister Bazoum could be the next president of Niger. Issoufou could be the Chairman of ruling PNDS.


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