Africa Diary
Africa Diary

SENEGAL: Most Indophile in Francophone Africa

Senegal is often described as the most Indophile of West African nations. It has been influenced by many privately run Indian cultural institutions, ranging from Hindi cinema to the concept of caste and outcasts. There are dozens of Indo-Senegalese friendship societies and film clubs.

India’s relations with Africa have been traditionally warm, friendly and multi-dimensional, reflecting the centuries-old socio-cultural and economic ties. Rooted deeply in history, they now cover virtually all fields of human endeavour and enjoy regional and international significance.

African countries fought their battles for independence from their colonial masters mostly individually. India was always in the forefront vigorously espousing their cause on the international scene, hastening the decolonisation process. African nations are beholden to India for providing moral and material support in their struggles. In the fight against apartheid and racism, again, India was the lone voice raising the clarion call for decisive action. Most countries acknowledge India’s contribution to gaining their independence.

Eastern and Southern African countries, and India on either side of the Indian Ocean forged direct links, helped doubtlessly, with the presence of large population of Indians and persons of Indian origin resulting in a lot more interaction in various fields. The countries on the West coast of Africa like Senegal, separated by a huge land mass across the African continent, mostly French or Portuguese speaking, do not share similar backgrounds and exchanges also because of a much smaller Indian community.

Senegal is often described as the most Indophile of West African nations. It has been influenced by many privately run Indian cultural institutions, ranging from Hindi cinema to the concept of caste and outcasts. There are dozens of Indo-Senegalese friendship societies and film clubs. Indian music is highly popular in the country as are Bollywood movies and dances and Indian television serials. The Senegalese singer Akon, who sings in Hindi as well, became a sensation in India for his rendition of Chhammak Chhallo in the Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan movie Ra-One.

My direct contact with Senegal started under fortuitous circumstances in the early 1990s. A general impression prevails that diplomats/Ambassadors lead a cushy and glamorous life. They work in exotic places, attend lavish parties, enjoy diplomatic immunity and get duty free privileges. Protocol, alcohol and glib talk is all that they do. Don’t be carried away by this false image. There is a flip side to it.

I barely completed seven months of a tension-ridden stint in the paradise called Fiji, as India’s Diplomatic Representative to the Pacific Island nations in 1990. This was after the military coup there, engineered by the Army Commander Col. Sitveni Rabuca, during which the predominant population of Indian origin was racially targeted and denied of their democratic and human rights. India gave them moral support and took up their just cause at various multilateral fora, which were not liked by the illegal military junta. Then one fine morning in the middle of May 1990, I was summoned by their Foreign Secretary, who curtly conveyed that on account of the alleged hostile attitude of Government of India towards Fiji, a decision had been taken to ask India to close down its diplomatic mission immediately. Accordingly, I left the station prematurely in June 1990.

On returning to New Delhi, I was asked by Government of India to proceed to Senegal immediately to take charge as the Ambassador of India there. For me, it came as a pleasant surprise. Senegal enjoys a reputation as being ‘Petite’(little Paris) of West Africa. As a prominent leader of the Francophone countries in the region, it is politically important. It was considered to be the bastion of democracy during the period when in majority of the countries in that continent, citizens did not enjoy the right to exercise franchise in a free and fair manner. Strategically, it is considered an important outpost to reach out to the West African countries who had hitherto not got the importance they deserved from India. Despite this fact, on political front, India and Senegal have a common approach on many global issues, including UN Security Council reforms, the future of multilateralism, climate change, South-South Cooperation and multilateral trade negotiations. This has led to our fruitful cooperation in the UN, NAM, IAEA, WTO, G-77, G-20.

For me, Senegal historically, apart from being a transit point (Goree’ Island) for transporting slaves to the Americas, was the land of the visionary poet Leopold Senghor, the first Senegalese President after the country gained independence. He had a soft corner for India. Senegalese are handsome people. The society shows how disparate elements- French, Islamic, and African- can mingle to create a unique and distinctive culture. I am struck by one of their famous sayings: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; we will understand only what we are taught.”

It was President Leopold Senghor who sent at least five Senegalese research scholars to India to trace the common links between Wolof-the language spoken by majority Senegalese, and the Dravidian languages like Tamil.

I also looked forward to catching up with a close friend from our days at Oxford, Ambassador Gabriel Sar, Diplomatic Advisor to the then Senegalese President Abdou Diouf. (Incidentally, a contemporary celebrity in our group at Oxford in 1976 was the former Pakistani P.M. Benazir Bhutto, with whom I had many an argument on the burning topics of the day, especially the emergence of Bangladesh for which she blamed India.)

To return to the cultural exchanges between the two countries as indicated above, Indian films dubbed in French, continue to be a huge draw in Senegalese cinema halls to this day! Hindi film songs can be heard on the radios in market places in Dakar at any time. In the 1990s, there used to be an active cultural association run by the jovial local impresario Amadou Badiane, by the name of “Rajasthan Club”. Badiane popularized Indian folk and cultural dances and Hindi songs through his road shows throughout the country and neighbouring states too. All we did was to get for him some Indian musical instruments, costumes, Indian jewellery, and Indian music and dance tapes/videos. I am proud to say that my daughter Medha, who studied in Dakar at that time, gave Bharat Natyam performances in front of the Senegalese President and his cabinet ministers at the Opera House and elsewhere for the TV stations, which were well appreciated.

My three and a half years’ stay in Dakar (1990-94) turned out to be such a memorable experience professionally and an enjoyable one personally! Senegal has been a true friend of India. Our two countries share so many things in common-our commitment to democracy, holding free and fair elections, free press and judiciary. We are both secular countries and have highly developed a cultural sense. We have been supportive of each other at various international fora. Senegal has been supportive of India’s quest for membership in various international organisations. The two countries initiated the Team-9 project that also involves seven other Francophone/Lusophone countries in West and Central Africa for which a sum of $ 2 billion was made available by Government of India. Senegal as a beneficiary was deeply appreciative of India’s gesture.

Majority of Senegalese practice Islam as a religion but they follow a benign, peaceful and tolerant variety on the lines of the Sufi mystics. I vividly recall the 6th Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Dakar in 1993. Our well-founded apprehension was that Pakistan would hijack the summit by moving rabidly anti-India Resolution on J&K, which is what they ‘ought to do’. We were comforted by the fact that as the host and Chairman of OIC for the session, Senegal would not allow India to be embarrassed. According to my information, it was the Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, who with the support of true friends of India like the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Algerian President, that the rhetoric of the resolution was toned down.

An important event during my tenure as Ambassador to Senegal was the summit meeting of the G-15 countries in Dakar in 1994. Senegalese President Abdou Diouf, broke protocol and personally received Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao on his arrival at the airport for the conference and saw him off. The chemistry between the two leaders was excellent. India and its technology made an impact at the summit. At the conference, India became the Convener of the Group on Solar Energy and Biotechnology. India handed over solar technology equipment/panels that it had put up at an exhibition, specially put up for the Dakar summit, promising to pass on the technology and offered to train personnel. These gestures left a deep imprint on their people. The other major thing announced by the Indian P.M. at the summit was to set up a Entrepreneurial Training & Development Centre (ETDC) in Dakar, run it for five years, train personnel from all over Africa and also the local trainers to prepare them to take over the running of the Institute after the stipulated period. I was pleased to hear that the ETDC was inaugurated in 2002.

In 2005, I returned to Dakar for a brief visit and was delighted to find the many changes that have taken place in Dakar, since my days. It is now a bustling business city. The number of Indian businessmen in the country has gone up to a few thousand. The day I landed in Dakar, I was pleased to find TATA buses being publicly introduced on Dakar roads and helped to revamp its urban public transportation system. In a symbolic gesture, President Abdoulaye Wade and his Ministers took the initial ride on those buses. This proved to be a major publicity coup for India in the local media. During the same visit, I was honoured by Foreign Minister Mr. Cheikh Tidiane Gadio when he graciously invited me over to his home to his private birthday party with his close friends.

During my tenure in Senegal India’s trade and commercial links, as also investments in a range of sectors including textiles, manufacturing and chemicals started increasing and the same trend has continued ever since. Back in the 1990s, Senegal’s largest industrial complex Industrie Chimque du Senegal (ICS) entered into a joint venture involving the Indian fertilizer giant IFFCO and started exporting the bulk of its phosphate output to India. I understand that in 2007, IFFCO undertook a $100 million project to revive the 6.6 lakh tonne capacity phosphoric acid plant of the ICS to raise its production to optimum levels. Here is a success story to talk about. Around that time in two other sectors, Mr. Vijay Mallya’s companies were active through acquisition locally of Berger Paints and the prestigious textile unit SOTIBA. But their operations did not last long unfortunately and were sold to other parties.

India provides scholarships for training Senegalese personnel under its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme. Senegal is also part of India’s Pan-African e-Network project that allows it to tap Indian expertise through telemedicine and tele-education. A hub earth station of the network is located in the Sebikotane village near the capital city of Dakar. Senegal, once the largest importer of rice in Africa, sought and got technological support from India for increasing its rice production in 2008, which improved so dramatically that the country has gone from being an importer to a net rice exporter in a matter of four years! Kirloskar Brothers had a lot to do with it and their pumps earned India a wonderful reputation as the ultimate brand name even in the countryside.

India has extended concessional Lines of Credit (LoC) to Senegal for:(a) development of rural SMEs and purchase of agricultural machinery and equipment from India;(b) supply of buses (400) and spares by Tata Motors;(c) irrigation projects; (d) Women Poverty Alleviation Programme;(e) IT Sector, hardware and logistics movement; (f) rural electrification;(g) fishing industry development projects;(h) acquiring railway coaches and locomotives from India; (i) supply of medical equipment etc. to four hospitals in Senegal and (j) establishment of a slaughterhouse, with modern facilities, a tannery and livestock market.

India and Senegal have forged long-lasting and abiding links. Senegal has realised that the donor aid model from the Western world, some free grants on ill-conceived projects and lots of inapplicable/inappropriate advice doled out through hordes of consultants with little capacity building induced dependency in these countries and produced no sustainable results. They are convinced that co-operation with India as equal partners, on the other hand, put their country on the path of fast track development. They have seen that partnership with India has turned out to be more constructive, tangible and has resulted in skill development, capacity building and transfer of appropriate technology.

In conclusion, Senegal is fortunate that it has successively had stable leadership at the Presidential level in Leopold Senghor, Abdou Diouf, Maitre Abdoulaye Wade. The present incumbent President Macky Sall is continuing in the same vein by intensifying efforts in bringing about improvements in peoples’ lives and to address endemic structural policy and governance (both economic and political) challenges facing the continent.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who briefly met President Macky Sall at an international conference, recently discussed ways to carry forward bilateral relations between the two countries to new heights. Senegal has now shown interest in importing three-wheeler scooter rickshaw to ease the urban transport problem. Many other new avenues are being explored to carry forward this relationship to a new stature. The future of India-Senegal relations looks promising indeed. n

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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