Celebrating the Africa Day
Amb Gurjit Singh

Africa Day is commemorated on 25 May annually. This marks the launch of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) by 32 countries in 1963 in Addis Ababa. The OAU drew inspiration particularly from India, with its successful decolonization, democratic elections held twice by then and showing reasonable growth in a plural democratic society.

In 2001 the transition to the New Economic Partnership for Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU) were approved by the OAU Summit. These were major decisions.

I was the head of the Africa division in the Ministry of External Affairs at this time. In those days, the Africa division was a peripheral division and if you got posted there, people wondered what wrong you had done to be banished there. In my case, it was slightly different. I had just been promoted to a Joint Secretary and therefore it was a vast charge. Moreover, I had recently returned from a long posting in Kenya and therefore, had the African flavour to bring to my new assignment.

The Africa division covered the whole of Africa except the Arab countries, which remain till today a part of the WANA (West Asia & North Africa). After my term, the Africa division, was demarcated into two separate divisions, one dealing with East and Southern Africa and the other with West Africa.

Be that as it may, between and 2002 when I was the JS Africa, it was a period of intense activity in Africa. We were happy that we kept pace and engaged rapidly. That by itself was an achievement because it meant that one had to grab the attention of the senior mandarins of South Block to focus on Africa and thereby hangs a tale!

The Jaswant Singh led Foreign Ministry had very little interest in Africa. It was largely left to the Minister of State (MOS) Omar Abdullah and it was up to the efforts of a relevant Joint Secretary to bring proposals to his attention through the secretaries.

In a trip to Senegal where MOS inaugurated the exemplary Entrepreneurship Development Training Centre, President Wade of Senegal took a great liking to our explanations of India's progress, particularly in railways, and the involvement of the private sector in India's development. He suddenly announced at the meeting that Senegal was going to host the first ever private sector NEPAD summit next month, April 2002. MOS readily agreed that India would participate. Upon our return we found that we already had our hands full with a series of Africa related events. Nevertheless, we worked at putting together the first ever CII and Exim Bank team from their respective Africa offices to accompany us.

MOS Commerce, Raman Singh, led the Indian delegation. For the first time in Africa, we presented a public-private partnership. We found immense interest and attention paid to the Indian delegation. While we were watching what others were doing, others wanted us to get more involved. 1000 delegates and 12 leaders attended.

This experiment led to the first MEA led business proposition for Africa by involving CII and Exim Bank. A meeting of India's developmental partners in Africa was organised to show support for NEPAD. 14 development finance institutions from Africa attended the meeting addressed by MOS Digvijay Singh. This also brought the Ministries of External Affairs and Finance together in this effort. These alignments later became a norm for our Africa policy once the Indian Development and Economic Assistance Scheme (IDEAS) was launched in 2003 and the CII-Exim Africa Conclave in 2005. The NEPAD meetings set the tone for these.

This had been a very quick follow up to the NEPAD and enthused the African diplomatic Corps and the African countries who were represented to look at India more carefully. A delegation of African HOMs called on EAM Yashwant Sinha to brief about African aspirations through the AU. In those days it was rare for EAM to meet the African diplomatic corps.

At this time, there was little attention paid by Indian Missions in Africa to NEPAD or the AU and the processes underway. Having participated in the NEPAD Summit, we were now more knowledgeable about the development of the AU, The Secretary in the ministry dealing with Africa, Shri Shashank and I were the Indian delegation to the first AU summit in Durban in July 2002.

This was a memorable occasion. It was evident that the transition from the OAU to the AU was thought to be a people's transition. AU would not only be for Africans providing African solutions, but would also relate more to the African people, not only to African governments. Not only was there a summit at which the transition to the AU was completed, but a public event was held at the ABSA stadium. The Theme was "Peace, Development and Prosperity: The African Century", derived from the objectives of the AU Constitutive Act. During the launch there was a theme song produced by Caiphus Semenya and Jonus Gwangwa, military tattoo, mass choir performance, Abautu parade and Cape minstrel parade. South African and African artists performed together. There was celebration in the air.

A stadium full of people enthusiastically welcomed the creation of the AU. Several people were centre stage in this large football stadium. The spotlight was on former South African President Nelson Mandela, President Thabo Mbeki, who Chaired the Summit and Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. UN SG Annan was there too.

Gaddafi provided the drama around the event. His arrival in South Africa was with several plane loads of equipment, including a large posse of armoured cars. He arrived in a caravan of two Boeing 707s in Durban, guarded by his Amazonian female guards, who were a big attraction. His security detail soon got into a skirmish with the host security because of the number of weapons that they were carrying. As per the norms of the protocol each delegation was allowed four small arms. Here was a platoon of armed people who wanted to come in. While Gaddafi enjoyed the song and dance around his arrival, this protocol skirmish continued till finally, the diplomats stepped in, the Libyan Ambassador was taken aside and the matter was resolved by leaving the weapons in the planes. Gaddafi rode through the city, unplanned but attracted attention much due to his style, his colourful costume and the voluble Amazonian guards.

The biggest cheer on that day was reserved for Mandela, who for many was the spirit of the new Africa. Mandela’s release, South Africa's freedom from apartheid and return to democracy for all post-cold war events. The economic strength of South Africa was still intact to have both economic and moral leadership of Africa then.

Gaddafi’s Arabic speech was long, vociferous, but was lost in translation. It was a visual appeal for most in the stadium. Thabo Mbeki set the stage alight, though he was not as dramatic as Gaddafi. What he said, was really what Africa wanted to hear. I distinctly recall that he praised Mahatma Gandhi.

‘I am proud that Africa is taking the giant step forward she is taking today at the temporary home of Mahatma Gandhi. He taught us what we needed to do to achieve our liberation. At this place, Mahatma Gandhi accumulated the skills that helped to free India from the yoke of British colonialism, the jewel in its crown, which precipitated the collapse of the colonial system in Africa and elsewhere in the world.’

Mbeki did not have Mandela’s charisma, but he was a worthy and efficient successor. Perhaps South Africa misses him today.

We had occasion at that time to meet different delegations. The African delegations were full of optimism and thrilled that they had achieved this transition themselves. They considered themselves now in charge of their own destiny. The delegations from partner countries, mainly the donors, also remained optimistic. They felt that now Africa was better organized and willing to take responsibility so they could relate with it better. Their focussed-on NEPAD, headquartered in Midrand, South Africa, separate from the AU, and its myriad nascent organs, which were in Addis Ababa.

I look back at those heady days when I had occasion to participate in the NEPAD private sector Summit and the launch of the AU, both were important turning points in the modern history of Africa. These 21st century developments set the trend. NEPAD and the AU subsequently became diligent partners for India in an expanded format under the India Africa forum summits from 2008.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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