Forging a Security Partnership

Lt. Gen. (Retired) Rajender Singh
Former Force Commander, UN Mission

India’s relations with Africa are conditioned and energised by our historical linkages and the strong political foundations of the past. New Delhi’s approach towards the African continent reflects a balance between our values and interests. It takes into account the diversity of Africa as well as the policies of other key players.

Today, Africa looms larger in the security and geo-strategic considerations of many important outside actors than it did before. Indeed, the continent is fast emerging as one of the most sought-after destinations for bilateral engagement by many countries. Africa is clearly on the cusp of resurgence and India intends to play an active role in spurring the continent’s transformation. However, when parts of Africa were torn by conflict, and restoring and maintaining peace became a priority, India had also come forward to help in the United Nations peacekeeping missions in different African countries, including Congo, Somalia, Liberia, Burundi, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

India needs to build on this legacy and step up defence cooperation initiatives with Africa in a spirit of mutual trust and confidence. Let me elaborate in the light of my experiences in Africa.

Experiences in Angola

My experiences in Africa date back to 1995 when I was sent to Angola as Regional Commander of the UN Peacekeeping Mission.  For someone who never had a chance to venture out to Africa, this was a unique experience. Despite the fact that there was a ceasefire between the rebels and the government forces, tension persisted and both parties were unwilling to trust the other. The UN appointed me as the Commander of the Central Region and I had a challenging task since the rebel headquarters was based there. Though the presence of the Indian diaspora in Angola was not very significant, one thing that struck me was the tremendous goodwill Angolans had towards India. Almost everyone knew about Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. When the Indian troops landed there, the media hailed their arrival, calling them peace-keepers from the ‘land of Mahatma Gandhi’. This kind of goodwill and trust in India was to be an important factor which facilitated our task tremendously.

On reaching Angola, I felt awed by the natural beauty and wealth of the country. But I was equally struck by the thought that Angola could well have been one of the richest countries of the world, given the abundance of its natural resources like diamonds, minerals and oil, but for its internal turmoil. The ongoing conflict had led to a massive destruction of nfrastructure, reducing the ordinary people to a state of abject poverty. This also meant that there was plenty of opportunity for countries willing to come forward and help Angola rebuild its infrastructure like railways, roads and bridges. I was happy to learn that India had in fact stepped in and contributed towards the rebuilding of this fine nation.

My stay in Angola for the next one year was quite eventful and full of ups and downs as far as managing the security situation was concerned. But in the end we managed to convince the UNITA rebels to give up arms and join the rehabilitation camps, or “Quartering Areas”, as they were called, for the sake of peace. For the most part, our success in doing so was due to the extensive humanitarian work done by the UN Forces, particularly the Indian contingent, in rebuilding the civil society.

Ethiopia and Eritrea

My insight into African society and culture deepened during my tenure as the Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2006. During this time, we were not only able to interact with the top echelons of the two governments, but also get an insight into the  functioning of the African Union which was based in Addis Ababa. Since the  UN mission spread over a large area in Eritrea and Ethiopia, we also gained first-hand knowledge about the living conditions of the civilian population there. While we had to work extremely hard alongside the Special Representatives of the UN Secretary- General to maintain the peace in this challenging environment, my being an Indian definitely helped.

In both Ethiopia as well as Eritrea, there was enormous goodwill for India. Most political leaders and important members of the civil society invariably had good words to say about Indians. They often remembered their Indian teachers with fond nostalgia. Many senior army generals also used to talk similarly of their instructors in the Indian Military Academy.

The Indian Army, which has served in Africa as ‘Soldiers of Peace’, has consistently given a fine account of itself in UN peacekeeping operations. India’s image has burned bright in Africa as our troops there have operated with admirable professionalism, ingenuity and compassion. They have been at the forefront of bringing succour to the suffering civilian population.

During my tenure as the UN Force Commander, we launched a programme called ‘Winning Hearts’, aimed at synergising our military operations with developmental projects. We accorded particular priority to the rehabilitation of the unemployed youth and the resettlement of the refugees displaced during the war. It was a sustained and well-coordinated initiative based on consultation with the local civil administration of the two countries. Every effort was made to ensure that the basic needs of the people such as food, water, medical and veterinary aid didn’t go unaddressed. Wherever possible, we helped dig wells and build infrastructure such as check-dams, bridges and school buildings. The ‘Winning Hearts’ programme was almost entirely spearheaded by the Indian contingent, which used for this purpose its own resources or funds provided by the Indian Government.

In Africa, I also had an opportunity to interact with many foreign/defence ministers and the army chiefs of African countries like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Almost all of them emphasised the great potential of enhancing defence cooperation with India, particularly in the field of training and security sector reforms.

Our ambassador in Ethiopia also initiated a number of other measures which had gone a long way in increasing the levels of cooperation with Ethiopia and the African Union, including defence cooperation.

Defence Cooperation

India has had the good fortune of participating in peacekeeping as well as reconstruction operations in Africa. After my arrival in Ethiopia, when I called on the Prime Minister, he told me that my presence there was doubly welcome because India was much more than just a friend to his country; it was really like a brother. The leaders of Eritrea echoed similar warm sentiments.

Despite the recent improvement, uncertainty in the security environment is still an issue in some parts of Africa. Therefore, there is an urgent need to not only empower the countries in this direction but also to bring about urgent security sector reforms. India can play a major role in empowering and training the administrative machinery and security apparatus to meet the emerging challenges. This can easily be coordinated and steered under the aegis of the African Union.

India, with the world’s second-largest army, has demonstrated that it is a responsible stakeholder in the international system. It has gainfully employed its military in defence cooperation activities at the global level. An important element of our current policy relates to defence cooperation with select countries in Africa in order to assist their forces through training programmes and exposure to best practices of India’s armed forces. Our high standards of training and infrastructural facilities are a major contributing factor in this direction. The presence of English-speaking officers among the African armies makes it easier for us to impart training.

Over the years, India has trained a large number of African officers in various military institutions. Currently, India has military-to-military cooperation activities, primarily related to training, with almost a third of African nations. This includes the presence of Indian military training teams in many countries, including Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho, Seychelles and Ethiopia.

Training teams were also earlier deployed in Nigeria and Tanzania. India’s active participation in the UN peacekeeping missions in Africa has also led to Indian contingents playing an important role in training army personnel in conflict-afflicted countries like Congo, Sudan, Mozambique, Rwanda and Angola as part of post-conflict peace-building. We have also undertaken the supply of military hardware to a few countries like Kenya and Seychelles in the past.

A constructive engagement with African countries is in our long-term strategic interest. Given the growing presence of some of the big powers in Africa, it is prudent that measures are taken to engage African countries, both individually and as regional groups, more effectively. Military diplomacy needs to be more viably harnessed to further bolster overall relations between India and African nations. Additionally, building capacity of the African Union forces, especially in the fields of logistic management and communication and information systems, for which it is largely dependent on external support, is an area of priority.

Maritime security is one of the major threats to the region. India can establish a system of regional cooperation with the Indian Ocean littoral countries to combat threats, from non-state actors, of terrorism, armed robbery and piracy. We should also explore the feasibility of conducting different forms of multilateral defence cooperation involving select African nations and India.

The Way Forward

India recognises the African countries’ focus on capacity-building and human resource development. As a result, Africa today is the largest recipient of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. India’s growing economic synergy with Africa is quite visible in the expansion of bilateral trade over the years. What is urgently needed is a new boost to our defence cooperation.

Stronger military ties with African nations would provide excellent opportunities to combat security challenges. We have been on the right track, but we need to recognise that the unfolding change in Africa is complex, that its pace is rapid and inconsistent, and that the competition for Africa’s affection and attention has become increasingly intense. India will need to deepen its engagement with the specific goal of fulfilling Africa’s needs and aspirations in accordance with our capabilities and interests.

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