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India's search for new sources of oil—and political influence—has washed up on the remote shores of West Africa where New Delhi's foreign policy reach has been notable for its absence. On March 1, New Delhi will jumpstart its West Africa policy when eight ministers from that part of the world—Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Chad and Burkina Faso—will sign a framework agreement that will see India give financial and technological support in exchange for oil and natural resources these countries abound in. Never has New Delhi seen such a motley gathering of African dignitaries as for the 'Team-9' initiative (eight African countries plus India).
It might appear odd that New Delhi should reach out to these nations, considering the poor experience of Africa's ability to pay back soft loans. But all this is changing because of the economic growth these countries are witnessing. Equatorial Guinea, for example, was considered a basket case, poor beyond redemption. With the discovery of oil, its annual per capita gdp jumped from $800 in the '90s to $2,000 now; it notched an incredible growth of about 65 per cent, as against India's 5.5 to 6 per cent of 'shining growth'.
Now, Equatorial Guinea is enviously referred to as the 'Kuwait of Africa'. American oil majors are swarming all over the place with the US now buying about two-thirds of the country's petroleum. Oil was the reason for President Bush's Senegal visit in July 2000. Neighbouring Chad, again one of the world's poorest countries, is expected to pump over 2,00,000 barrels of oil daily. India sources about 15 per cent of its oil from Africa, with Nigeria contributing most of it. The Team-9 initiative is expected to diversify sources of India's energy security. For, this part of Africa is considered more stable than West Asia.
As New Delhi plunges headlong into the new oil rush in Africa, diplomatic sources say India has so far shied away from this region because of three reasons. First, geographical remoteness of the region; second, the language barrier. Ghana is the only English-speaking country; otherwise Spanish is spoken in Equatorial Guinea and Portuguese in Guinea Bissau. While Arabic is the language of Chad, the other four countries—Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso—speak French.
Third, the Indian diaspora is negligible in West Africa. Ghana has just 250 families of Indian origin; it's even smaller elsewhere—Mali has just 20 Indians, Chad 125, Guinea Bissau 20 and Senegal 13. No figures exist for Equatorial Guinea or Burkina Faso. In fact, India established diplomatic ties with the latter in '95 for the only prime ministerial visit to the region (by Narasimha Rao) and the mission was wound up soon after. It was then speculated that Rao halted in Ouagadougou because he wanted to escape the inimical influence of the solar eclipse in India that year! Now, bilateral relations—as they exist—are handled by the mission in Ghana; Chad is looked after by the mission in Nigeria; Equatorial Guinea by the one in Angola; and Guinea Bissau and Mali from Senegal. Ivory Coast is the only other country where India maintains a mission. Sources now say that "when things develop we hope to open charge d'affaires-level missions in these places".
When foreign secretary Shashank travelled to the region last May, it was the first secretary-level visit in seven years. Says a senior official: "The endeavour was to put these countries and India together in an economic cooperation framework." But the question now is, will the MoU, to be inked on March 1, work? Officials are optimistic, claiming that when "we lend money we'll not be worried about it coming back. We will get back in kind what we are giving away in cash".