It’s a market of 1.3 billion people, with the population projected to double by 2050. With the steady rise of the middle-class in Africa, its importance as a business destination will only grow. Yet Nepal, which has gradually embraced economic diplomacy, has paid scant attention to Africa. Nepal is served by two embassies in the continent, one in South Africa and the other one in Egypt in northeast Africa. These two embassies also handle relations with the other 24 African countries which have diplomatic ties with Nepal. The engagement between Nepal and Africa has been predictably patchy.
Nepal made common cause with third world countries, many of them African, through the Non-Aligned Movement that started in the 1950s. In April 1955, representatives from 29 Asian and African governments, Nepal among them, gathered in Bandung, Indonesia to discuss the role of the ‘Third World’ in the Cold War, mutual economic development, and decolonization. There is still much for Nepal to learn from Africa, especially its booming economies like Ethiopia and Rwanda, which were until recently beset with debilitating hunger and civil wars.
As the proverbial Dark Continent “gets brighter by the day,” veteran diplomat Dinesh Bhattarai advises a change in approach to how Nepal sees Africa. “They have lots of natural resources and are developing fast. Nepal has long neglected the region, which needs to change,” he says.
Nepal’s engagement with Africa, albeit limited, has multiple facets. Thousands of Nepali army and police personnel are serving under UN peacekeeping missions there. Other Nepalis have also started going in significant numbers to countries like Egypt, Congo, and South Sudan. A less salubrious development is the smuggling of Nepali women and girls to the dance bars and brothels in Kenya and Tanzania, again in big numbers.
Diversification is a stated goal of the KP Oli government, and there is a strong case to be made for diversifying into Africa.
Most African countries are in a similar level of development to Nepal’s, and have similar agendas. Just like Nepal, many countries in Africa have had to maintain a delicate balancing act between the US and China. Climate change is another common scourge. Recently, South African and Nigerian investors have shown interest in Nepal. In this Visit Nepal Year, and beyond, the continent could also send many tourists here, a relatively cheap destination.
Any way you look at it, there is a need for greater engagement between Nepal and Africa.
Africa ‘brightening’ but Nepal yet to feel its new luster
Nepal Army currently has 5,095 soldiers (including 183 women) under the United Nations peacekeeping missions in 12 conflict-hit countries and territories. Of them, seven—Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, West Sahara, Mali, Central African Republic, and Libya—are in Africa. Nepal first dispatched its troops to the continent in 1974, when they were deployed in Egypt. Nepali peacekeeping missions have since helped build strong people-to-people ties between Nepal and many African countries. Nepal Police started sending its own personnel in peace missions after 1992. Currently, there are around 1,000 Nepali police personnel serving in various UN peace missions, including in African countries like Sudan, Somalia, and South Sudan.
Nepal has also supported democratic movements in the continent, for instance, in South Africa. It stood by the South African people in their fight against Apartheid. Nepal even served as a member of the United Nations Special Committee against apartheid from its inception in 1962. From 1969 to 1994, Nepal was vice-chair of the organization. But diplomatic relations with South Africa were established only after 1994, when apartheid ended and a new government led by President Nelson Mandela assumed power.
During the Panchayat period, there were several bilateral visits between Nepal and African countries. The frequency decreased after the restoration of democracy in 1990. Foreign Ministry data shows that Nepali monarchs visited the continent on several occasions after Nepal established diplomatic relations with countries there in the late 1970s and early 80s.
The Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) was another prominent platform that brought Nepal closer to Africa. In April 1955, representatives from 29 Asian and African governments, Nepal among them, gathered in Bandung, Indonesia to discuss the role of the ‘Third World’ in the Cold War, mutual economic development, and decolonization. This was the precursor to the NAM. Most African countries, like Nepal, have since been staunch NAM supporters. The movement, today comprised of 125 member and 24 observer countries, has over the years provided a wonderful platform to cultivate ties between African and Asian countries at the top political level.
They have also developed common agendas. For instance, both Nepal and its African partners are these days trying to balance competing American and Chinese influence. Says a foreign ministry diplomat, “African politicians now seek our help in dealing with these powers.”
Nepal’s engagement with Africa is still miniscule though. Right now, Nepal has diplomatic ties with 26 of the 55 countries in Africa. But it has embassies only in two countries—South Africa and Egypt—which are tasked with looking after all other African countries as well. What’s worse, Nepali ambassadors rarely go to present their credentials in those countries.
As the proverbial Dark Continent “gets brighter by the day”, veteran diplomat Dinesh Bhattarai advises a change in approach to Africa. “They have lots of natural resources and are developing very fast. Nepal has long neglected the region, which needs to change,” he says.
Bhattarai deplores the tendency in Nepal of looking for immediate benefits. “With the resurgence of the African markets and its demographic dividend, this region should be our foreign policy priority,” he advises. “We must use the United Nations, the NAM, and other platforms to increase our interaction with African countries.”
Not the least because the number of Nepali migrant workers in Africa is gradually increasing. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), there were around 1,000 Nepali migrant workers in various African countries in 2016. In 2017/18, 37 Nepali workers got permits to work in Egypt. (The number does not include illegal workers.) This year, 25 more did. Government data show there are also significant number of Nepali workers in Congo, South Sudan, as well as in some other African nations. Again, the numbers are small but gradually increasing.
The trafficking of Nepali women and girls to Africa has emerged as a new problem. According to a 2018 NHRC report: “Trafficking of girls/women for dance, erotic performances, involvement in production of pornography in night clubs and other so called entertainment sectors in African countries like Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa is also reported,” says the report.
Egypt to Zambia
South African investors have shown some interest in Nepal. The Department of Industry has granted South African investors approval for two industrial plants and seven projects in Nepal, with total investment commitment of Rs 87.3 million ($0.85 million). This in turn is expected to create 253 jobs. With South Africa, there is also a huge potential in tourism. According to official figures, around 10 million South African tourists travel abroad every year. Few of them come to Nepal.
There is also scope of greater cooperation with Egypt in northeast Africa. Nepal and Egypt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on establishing a bilateral political consultation mechanism on 16 July 2007. But there has been no progress since. Late King Birendra had paid an unofficial visit to Egypt in September 1983. Former King Gyanendra and Queen Komal also visited the Arab Republic in 2005. But there been no high-level visit from Egypt to Nepal.
Ties with Zambia in south-central Africa are gradually increasing too. King Mahendra visited had Zambia to attend the third NAM Summit on 8-10 September 1970. Similarly, Zambian Army Commander Lieutenant General Paul Mihova came to Nepal from 3 to 9 January 2018 at the invitation of Nepal Army.
The newest country Nepal has established diplomatic relations with is Ghana in West Africa. The relations were established during Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s visit to New York last September. Before that, in June, 2018, Nepal and Burundi formally established bilateral ties.
There is a definite case for empowering Nepali embassies in Egypt and South Africa to expand ties with other African countries. For now, initiating high-level visits could be a priority. The African Union has come up with Agenda 2063 with a purpose of transforming Africa into a global powerhouse. Nepal will do well to tap into its vast potential.
Former Nepali Ambassador to Egypt Ram Bhakta Thakur says Nepal should not fail to benefit from the feeling in African countries that “third world countries everywhere should collectively fight for their political and economic rights.”
Timeline for establishment of diplomatic ties with African countries