Africa new focus for global giants

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

A language is spreading rapidly in an important continent, the continent of Africa. This huge territory inhabited by a wonderful, vibrant people has had a tortured history, and to this day, parts of it are subject to unfair exploitation by countries from far away. An example of the latter is France, which still dominates several of its former colonies on the continent, some by military force. In what is still called “French” Africa despite colonialism supposedly having been eliminated long ago, French companies enjoy an advantage based on the influence of Paris in decision-making in such capitals. They seek to keep companies from other countries out, but these days are finding this difficult because some of these countries are far bigger than France, examples being India and China.
However, this is not to say that the French will surrender their historical dominance without a fight. In the territory of Madagascar, for example, French companies are working hard to ensure that companies from Asia do not gain a toehold in a country that has remained desperately poor but which can emerge as an economic powerhouse once given genuine freedom from foreign predators. That the influence of businesses from Asia has been good for Africa can be seen from the fact that infrastructure in countries such as Kenya are rapidly improving because of such investment. For example, a modern railroad line on standard rather than narrow gauge has been built by a Chinese company operating in Kenya that has linked Mombasa to Nairobi.
The Chinese have been investing heavily in modern infrastructure in several African countries, something that was not done by European companies thus far. Not surprisingly, their companies are generating larger sales than those of competitors, including those from countries which were once the colonial masters of specific African companies, the British in the case of Kenya, a country where there is still a thriving British community involved in farming and in business, and which is contributing significantly to the Kenyan economy in the form of taxes and employment generated. Unlike France, the UK has not tried to retain its control over former colonies by inserting itself in their governance and in virtually selecting the governments that are in office in such quasi-colonies, usually with the assistance of French troops.
However, globally the spread of French or Portuguese is far slower than in that of English. The language got a significant boost when the American colonists decided to choose the language over German as the lingua franca of the new state. Another advantage came from the Knowledge Industry, especially the internet, where far and away the most prolific language used is English. Now that the UK has moved away from the European Union, an effort is being made to banish English from the councils of the EU, leaving in place French. However, despite the warmth shown (at least in public) by Merkel and Macron, the reality is that Germans are far more comfortable learning English and speaking the language than they are French, despite the obvious charm of that language. Also, new members in the EU, especially in East Europe, are aware that leaning English is of far greater use to them than a similar effort in France, unless of course they wish to settle down in some former French colony in Africa or the South Pacific.
Of course, even there the language is giving way to the international link language, given the exigencies of globalisation. The fact is that the biggest magnet is still the US, and in that country, the dominant language is English, although the rate of population growth of those speaking Spanish as either a first or a second language is rapid. Interestingly, India is a country whose leaders – especially those educated in the UK or in the US – have sought to downgrade the importance of English, refusing to allow it to be taught in government schools except very recently. There has been a strong class bias in such policies, as the same leaders who shower abuse at the international link language and those speaking it are precisely those who send their children to study abroad in Australia, the US, the UK or Canada.
Examples are Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, as also many in the BJP, who clearly do not want poorer people in India to get the opportunity they crave, which is to learn through English medium in government schools, the only education they can afford. A refreshing contrast has been the stand taken by the new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, who has introduced English as a subject from the primary school level. Whether it be in Asia, Europe or Africa, the use of this global medium of communication has become widespread, although the same is yet to be the case in South America, where too governments in power have refused to teach English to their populations, confining much of learning through Spanish or Portuguese. The second language, especially, is useful only in a few corners of the globe apart from Brazil
The countries that speak English are known as the Anglosphere. Hence, in a modern Anglosphere, a country such as India (where over 300 million people speak some form or the other of English) should definitely be included, as should Singapore and South Africa, as also Kenya.
Such a 21st century Anglosphere would be a natural grouping of countries that could work together to promote values and growth. In such a context, the rapid growth of the international link language in Africa will assist in linking that continent with Asia. Indeed, such is the intention of the $ 150 billion Africa Initiative launched by Prime Ministers Modi and Abe of India and Japan respectively, and supported by the US. Hopefully, the growth of a common language will also result in a more accommodative approach towards disputes, so that war gets banished as an option of statecraft save against foes of humanity such as terrorists.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
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