A Passage to India, By Femi Adesina

What do you do during a flight that lasts nine hours and six minutes? You read. You sleep. You wake, and sleep again. You eat. You pray (if you are the praying type). You discuss with your co-passengers. And of course, you ruminate about your destination. What you’ve heard, or read about the place, particularly if you were visiting for the first time.

But first, due credit for this headline. ‘A Passage to India’ is the title of a literature text I read in the university some 32 years ago. It was a 1924 novel by the English writer, E.M Forster. The book was on the struggle for Indian independence from British colonial rule, and the book is today regarded as one of the 100 Great Works of the 20th Century by the Modern Library, while Time Magazine also includes it in its ‘All Time 100 Novels’ list.

A Passage to India. That was what I embarked on, alongside my principal, President Muhammadu Buhari, who was billed to attend the 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit, scheduled for New Delhi, the Indian capital, between October 27 and 30,2015.

What had I heard about India? You probably heard those childhood tales, too. India, the land of potent talisman. India does not take part in world soccer competitions, because the world football ruling body, Fifa, had banned it for life. What was the offense? Well, France had met with a country that nobody knows, in a game of soccer. But instead of depending on natural skills, India deployed its famed talisman. The opponents kept kicking the air, because the Indians had made the ball invisible. While the opponents did all the gyrations, however, the Indians did all the scoring. When the game ended at the end of 90 minutes, India had scored 90 goals.

Blue murder, Fifa screamed! This is unnatural, and would bring the beautiful game into disrepute. So it banned India for life. Well, that was the story we heard as young boys. Believe it, and you’d believe anything.

And what of athletics. The International Athletics Federation had to ban India for life, too. What happened? It was an Olympics Games (nobody seemed to know what year, and who the host country was). India was competing, and ended up winning gold medals in all the races. You would see all the athletes at the starting blocks, and the moment the whistle is blown for the race to begin, Indian athletes would already be breasting the tape at the other end. Talisman at work!

This is unfair competition, the rest of the world screamed. So the athletics federation banned India again. And that was how the country was left to play cricket, hockey and other such games. But the question we did not ask ourselves was; if talisman worked with soccer and athletics, why doesn’t it work with cricket and hockey? At least, India gets defeated in those games. Some imaginations are simply fertile.

Well, we were passing to India, and it was for serious business. India and Africa had found common grounds, and were cooperating for development in what Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister calls “partnership beyond strategic and economic benefits.”

We landed in the land of film stars, beautiful damsels (hope my wife is not reading this) and, of course, medical tourism, at nighttime. Straight to Lalit Hotel, where our President and his entourage were to stay. Lalit. You need to hear a bit about the story of the hotel. It was part of the Lalit Hospitality Group, established in 1988 by Mr Lalit Suri, a very successful businessman and politician, who represented his people in the Indian parliament.

Lalit Suri had the Midas touch. The hotel chain was very successful, and can be found today in most major Indian cities. He had great plans for expansion, and was growing steadily towards the goal. But in 2006, while on a trip to London, Lalit suffered a massive heart attack, and died. He was only 59. But his wife, Dr Jyotsna Suri, took up the gauntlet, and is today keeping her husband’s dreams alive, along with their four adult children.

A day before we travelled, a massive earthquake had occurred in Afghanistan, and the tremor was felt both in Pakistan, and New Delhi. But the organizers of the summit said ‘no shaking,’ that delegates had nothing to fear. There were presidents and top government officials from more than 41 countries, and it was, indeed, a great outing for India and Africa.

Wednesday began with a bilateral meeting between President Buhari and Prime Minister Modi. Discussions focussed mainly on three areas: strengthening relations between the two countries, oil business, and helping Nigeria and Africa to develop their potentials.

India would be quite willing to cooperate with Nigeria on the military front, the PM said. She had helped set up the Nigerian Defence Academy in the early 1960s, provided instructors, and also took in Nigerian officers in its military academy. In fact, President Buhari was at the Defense Services College, Wellington, between July 22 and November 24,1975.

India wants Nigeria’s oil on government to government transactions, and President Buhari said the request would be considered in the context of ongoing reforms in the industry.

Back to Wellington. The alumni of the academy paid the Nigerian president a courtesy visit at the Lalit Hotel. Led by Gen V.K Singh, it was time to go down memory lane. The then Lt Col Buhari had been described thus in a confidential report by H.W Kulkam, the Chief Instructor of the College:”Tall, slim, and well-turned out, Buhari is a quiet, unassuming and honest individual.”

Major General S.P Malhotra, Commandant of the College, on his part, had written: “Sober and balanced. Straightforward, simple and mature.” Memories are made of such.

In almost all the countries he has visited, President Buhari always spared the time to interact with Nigerians in the Diaspora, at the grounds of the Nigerian Embassy or High Commission. It was not different in New Delhi.

Ambassador ‘Sola Enikanolaiye, the acting High Commissioner of Nigeria to India had put together an impressive assemblage of professionals, post-graduate students, businessmen, indeed, Nigerians from all walks of life. He reeled out the many ways in which the High Commission supports Nigerians in India, and from the way he was repeatedly hailed, he seems quite popular with the people.

Nigerians asked many questions. The President answered them all. And he gave them his usual charge: be law abiding. Don’t lord it over your hosts. Obey the rules. Be good ambassadors of Nigeria.

From the High Commission, it was time to meet with the CEOs of Indian companies, particularly those who do, or are aspiring to do business in Nigeria. All the big names in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, construction, manufacturing, power, oil and gas, agriculture, and many other sectors, were there. They spoke earnestly. The President responded frankly. New vistas were opened, promises were made. A very rewarding session, if you ask me.

That parley did not end without President Buhari warning the Indian businessmen not to connive with unscrupulous people to send sub-standard food and pharmaceutical products to Nigeria. To show how dear this was to the heart of the Nigerian president, it formed part of his paper at the plenary session of the summit the next day.

Thursday was the main day, in which 41 heads of government gathered at the Indira Gandhi Stadium for the high point of the summit.

After a colorful opening session of cultural display, Prime Minister Modi took the floor. He underscored the raison detre of the summit:

“The dreams of one-third of humanity have come together under one roof. Today, the heartbeat of 1.25 billion Indians and 1.25 billion Africans are in rhythm.”

He said further:”India is honoured to be a development partner for Africa. It is a partnership beyond strategic and economic benefits. It is formed from the emotional bonds we share, and the solidarity we feel for each other.”

Modi backed his position with statistics. In the past few years, trade between Africa and India has more than doubled to over $70 billion. India is now a major source of business investment in Africa, and 34 African countries enjoy duty free access to the Indian market. The country has equally committed $7.4 billion in concessional credit and $1.2 billion in grants since the first summit held in 2008.

In the immediate future, according to Modi, concessional credit of $10 billion would be given to Africa within five years, while grant assistance will total $600 million.

The presidents spoke one after the other. Trust Robert Mugabe, who spoke in his capacities as Zimbabwean president and chairman of African Union, he used the opportunity to fire darts at the West.
According to him, one-third of the world’s population must be respected, therefore, the United Nations must become the United Equal Nations, with its Charter amended.

Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, submitted that Africa and India could no longer be rationally excluded from the permanent seat of the UN Security Council, a position supported by almost all the presidents.

One thread ran through the presentation of nearly all the African leaders. This was a good time to promote cooperation between Africa and India. South-south cooperation must not just be political slogan, but an opportunity for the countries to to meet their growing challenges.

“Africa needs mutual partnerships leading to development, rather than aids,” submitted King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

Idris Deby Itno of Chad said India and Africa had had mutual exchanges since time immemorial, stressing that partnership will help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

President Muhammadu Buhari said India and most African countries have similar historical experiences, and the summit was an opportunity to review what had been achieved since 2008, stressing:”India and Africa must develop new spirit of solidarity to confront challenges.”

He equally brought the message home, saying:”as a government, we have demonstrated our strong determination to change the direction and content of governance, including the management of our resources through accountability, transparency, and result-orientation in governance. We are confident that India, as a tested friend and dependable partner, will always stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the discharge of the mandate entrusted to us by our people.”

With the summit over, and planning to return home, I sent text messages to my friends in Nigeria, saying since I was in the land of talisman, they should indicate the type they wanted. The responses were rib-cracking, but you can’t beat this one from Steve Nwosu, Deputy

Managing Director/Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sun Newspapers. He wrote:

“Get me a money-doubling ring. They call it evergreen pocket. Every money you spend finds its way back to your pocket. Hahahaha.”

No doubt, India and Africa are onto a strong partnership that may be enduring, mutually beneficial, with strong implications for development. That is the true talisman.Ever potent, ever sure.
Femi Adesina is Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, to President Buhari


Photo: State House Photos-Bayo Omoboriowo