India Follows China In The Rush To Do Business In Africa

This week's Africa-India Forum Summit in Ethiopia shows how hungry India is for Africa's energy resources and minerals. Twenty years after China began to arrive on the continent, this reportage shows how large Indian companies are eager

Indian telecom Airtel has 50 million subscribers in Africa (Jurvetson)
Indian telecom Airtel has 50 million subscribers in Africa (Jurvetson)
Patrick de Jacquelot

CHENNAI - Here in one of India's biggest cities, the massive headquarters of Apollo Hospitals dominates the downtown skyline. Based in this southeastern city of Chennai (formerly called Madras), Apollo - a private hospital chain - is renowned for its high-level medical specialists.

And only a minute's drive from HQ there is a small annex where non-medical high-tech materials are stocked: multizone screens and high-speed Internet connections, among other things. On a screen wall, we can see a doctor seeking advice from a specialist from Chennai who is looking over the patient's image and medical records. But what is particular is that the sick people and doctors are calling from hospitals located in the heart of Africa.

Welcome to one of the Pan-African e-Network centers, created and financed by the Indian government to provide hospitals and universities from 47 African countries with access to Indian expertise in their fields. A typical operation of India's "soft power diplomacy" with Africa, which matches the best Indian expertise in scientific, medical and telecommunication services, to the African countries' daily needs. And it doesn't cost a fortune.

India has taken a very clear interest in Africa. After the first Africa-India Forum Summit, which took place in New Delhi in 2008, a second one is being held this week in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city and home to the African Union. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has joined 15 African heads of state and government at the summit. Right away, one draws a parallel with China, which engaged with the African continent in a serious way starting about 20 years ago.

"These two Asian powers take an interest in Africa for fundamentally the same reason: first and foremost because of their strategic needs for energy and raw materials," notes one Western diplomat.

India has another specific, more political reason: it is pushing for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. "The African bloc's votes are essential for them," the Western diplomat adds. African countries are paying close attention to India's interest in their continent. At March's "conclave," the prime minister of Mozambique, Aires Bonifacio Ali, listed some of the prime assets that Africa has to offer: "petroleum, ores, raw materials and arable lands."

As far as India is concerned, it has the innovative technologies that fit emerging countries' needs. Sekou Sylla, UN secretary-general of the West African Development Bank, agrees: "Africa is now facing development problems that India overcame in the past. India is capable of understanding our fundamental needs." Indian Secretary of Commerce Anand Sharma also underlines the concerns the two have in common: "Both countries need a lasting and inclusive growth, they both need to feed their peoples, to fight pandemic diseases, to introduce security in terms of sanitary conditions and to launch a knowledge revolution."

Though some of its biggest problems are far from being resolved, India could be considered a model for Africa. India also has the advantage of a longstanding diaspora on the continent: some 1.5 million Indians settled in South Africa and in the eastern part of Africa. Oil industry contracts, including those with the Indian public giant ONGC in Sudan, are in great demand. The oil industry represents 63.5% of the 25.4 billion dollars of Indian exports from Africa, mostly from Nigeria and Angola, from 2009 to 2010. Indian companies are also investing more and more in the African mining sector to exploit coal, iron core and manganese.

Besides, India intents to invest in arable lands. According to a study published by Ernst & Young, about 80 Indian companies are going to invest 2.3 billion dollars in commercial agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique. The most striking example is this company from Bangalore called Karuturi, which cultivates roses for the European market in 60 hectares of greenhouses in Ethiopia and 135 hectares in Kenya. The company's long-lasting success is obvious: Karuturi owns 311, 000 hectares of agricultural lands in Ethiopia where rice, corn and palm oil have been cultivated.

India wants to buy energy and natural resources from Africa, but it also intends to sell its own products and services in return. For the big Indian companies, Africa is a huge market that needs to be conquered. In 2010, the leading Indian telecommunications company Bharti Airtel signed a 7.8 billion euro contract to take over mobile phone operations in 16 African countries from the Kuwaiti firm, Zain.

Tata Group, another famous Indian company, is well-established in 13 African countries, with interests in energy, communications and information technology. Senegal was able to afford 500 buses made by Tata Motors thanks to credits granted by the Indian public bank Exim Bank. The Indian conglomerate Godrej Consumer Products also counts on Africa. "We have made several purchases in Africa: a hair coloring agent manufacturer in South Africa, a soap business in Nigeria... Now, we are also exporting hair coloring agents all around Sub-Saharan Africa and we are going to start exporting insecticides from India to all around Africa," explains Nadir Godrej, the Managing Director of Godrej Industries. Today, business links in Africa represent 10% of their turnover.

India has a strong foothold in the pharmaceutical sector, and in general Indian business leaders think they have products and services that fit Africa's needs. "Africa is reaching the state of development that we had a few years ago," says Godrej. "We can help them, because we know how to produce things for emerging countries," he adds. The potential of cooperation is still modest, but it can be big. Bilateral India-Africa trade is expected to grow from 45 billion dollars to 70 billion dollars by 2015, according to Anand Sharma.

The key role played by Indian private companies in the development of the bilateral India-Africa trade is a specific characteristic of India, because China has adopted a much more statist approach: "Bharti Airtel and Reliance can do much more than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to transfer Indian skills in Africa," says Basudeb Chaudhuri, a Franco-Indian economist.

All the same, India lags far behind its eternal rival China in terms of bilateral trade with Africa. China is building highways in return for oil supply agreements. India does not have enough money to do the same and thus prefers to fall back on its Pan-African e-Network, on giving grants to 20,000 African students in India, or on creating personal training centers in Africa.

According to figures compiled by JP Morgan Cazenove, China invested 2.5 billion dollars in Africa each year from 2006 to 2008, whereas India only invested 332 million dollars annually. But the Indian model may be the one with legs, says Sekou Sylla of the West African Development Bank. "China is much more forceful. Chinese companies go to Africa and become well-established, but there is no skill transfer," says Sylla. "When India will have a strong foothold in Africa, India-Africa bilateral business links will endure and will be more profitable."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - jurvetson

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!