By all accounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s third trip to South Africa was a success. The local Indian community treated him like a rock star. He was riding high, and not just because of the Chandrayaan-3 triumph. India’s economy is booming while China faces demographic collapse and Russia faces recession.
For Modi, the visit to South Africa was about more than just BRICS. He has long understood Africa’s growing importance to the world economy. In his decade as prime minister, he has made two previous trips to the continent: In 2016, he visited South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya, each of the Indian Ocean littoral states. Two years later, he moved inland and visited Rwanda and Uganda, both countries where Indian businesses play important roles, before heading onward to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. Modi’s call to include the African Union in the G20 suggests he understands Africa’s economic and diplomatic importance.
Still, if India’s influence is to be commensurate with its size and economy, it must recalibrate its Africa strategy to go beyond just a few countries with large Indian diasporas or those lying along the southern stretch of Africa’s East coast. While China preaches authoritarianism and even establishes schools to expound the merits of one-party rule, India represents a brand Africans could embrace.
Simultaneously, Africa will be critical to India’s efforts to secure its own supply chain and take its industrial and technological sectors to new heights. Too often, the United States tendency to view international relations solely through the lens of bilateral relationships hampers effectiveness. Any policy Washington crafts toward Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, for example, is bound to fail if it does not consider that both Riyadh and Islamabad can, when pressured, simply pivot toward Beijing. Simply put, New Delhi needs not to replicate Washington’s mistakes. India must do more to recognise and counter the reality of China’s Africa strategy and Beijing’s efforts to co-opt the same countries New Delhi now courts.
Consider the Democratic Republic of Congo, the continent’s second largest country by area. The epicenter of instability until just two decades ago, it has now emerged from anarchy and, in January 2019, had its first peaceful transfer of power. More importantly, geologists and economists estimate its natural resources at almost two padma rupees (US$ 24 trillion). While Congo has its share of gold, diamonds and uranium, more important in the coming century may be its cobalt and germanium, both important to the lithium batteries necessary for modern computers and electric cars. The current Congolese leadership has been unhappy with China’s investment in the industry and, for a time, suspended operations to renegotiate, and/or seek other investors. It was the perfect opportunity for Indian firms to push China out of a strategic market upon which India’s future wealth will depend. Alas, India (like the United States) was largely absent. No senior Indian officials have visited Kinshasa in years, while President Xi Jinping laid out the red carpet for his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi this past May.
Likewise, India is absent in Somaliland. While no country today recognises Somaliland, 35 countries—including the permanent five members of the UN Security Council—each recognised the country in June 1960 when it gained its independence. After five days, Somaliland entered a union with Italian Somaliland to form what would become Somalia but, in 1991, Somaliland withdrew from that union against the backdrop of its civil war and collapse. In the decades since, Somaliland has remained largely peaceful. While unrecognised, many countries partner with it both because it is democratic and stable in a sea of autocrats and failed states. In 2021, I brought my then-nine-year-old daughter to its capital Hargeisa and port city of Berbera; we walked the streets without fear or security. The country is business friendly, home to Coca Cola’s second-largest bottling plant in Africa, and is a largely cashless society (even beggars seek donations via money transferred through mobile phones).
Somaliland not only has confirmed oil reserves—British and Turkish company Genel Energy will start drilling next year—but it also is rich in rare earths. NASA once used Somaliland’s recently refurbished Berbera airport, whose landing strip is the 10th longest in Africa, as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. The World Bank ranks Berbera’s deep-water port, meanwhile, above Mombasa’s and not far below Visakhapatnam. More importantly, a new highway runs from Berbera to the Somaliland-Ethiopia border town of Wajaale and then onward into Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country. While Ethiopia previously relied too much on Chinese investment, Addis Ababa along with many other regional states, realise their security lies in balance. The opportunities for India are huge as African governments seek to diversify their partnerships.
Somaliland is also a strategic asset for other reasons. It has an 850-kilometre coastline on the Indian Ocean and guards the approach to the Bab-el-Mandeb, a chokepoint through which 10 percent of world trade passes. While India has cultivated countries further south, its military outreach is sporadic. Should India even wish for a naval base, it is likely Somaliland could accommodate at Berbera. An Indian Naval presence on the western shores of the Indian Ocean would allow it to project its influence and defend its interests throughout the entire Indian Ocean basin. Not only would this balance China in the region as the People’s Liberation Army has established a base in Djibouti, but it would also allow India to disrupt Pakistani inroads to Islamist militants in Mozambique and Congo. An issue for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is not only radicalisation but also possession of Congolese gold and diamond mines from which they might profit via African proxies.
Geopolitically, Somaliland is primed to embrace India. It is the only country in Africa besides Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to recognise Taiwan. It has done so in the face of considerable Chinese pressure to revert course. So far, President Musa Bihi has held firm, but the Communist China continues both diplomatic pressure and more underhanded tactics, such as bribing key opposition figures, especially those in the opposition Waddani Party. It would be a strategic tragedy should Beijing flip Somaliland, but China can bring a lot more pressure to bear than Taiwan may be able to resist. India, however, is another story. If Indian businesses enter the region, they create a symbiotic relationship that benefits New Delhi, helps Somaliland grow, and bolsters Taiwan’s presence. As African countries increasingly seek to extricate themselves from China’s parasitic if not imperialist attitudes toward Africans, India may sway fence-sitters to stand up to Beijing’s threats and bluster.
India is a rising power, and may soon be a great power. India’s leadership across its political spectrum should have the self-confidence to realise that Indian business and diplomatic influence are a force for good. While China represents autocracy and decline, India’s anti-imperial history combined with its democracy make it a model partner. Africa is more than the BRICS summit or paeans to the African Union. It is time for India to do more, both for itself and to check China’s efforts to monopolise critical commodities. Expanding rapidly into Congo and Somaliland would be a good way to signal Africans that India aspires to be a power not only for the remainder of the 21st century, but also into the 22nd century.