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Turkey-Africa Relations – Professor Hussein Solomon

November 1, 2018


Turkey-Africa Relations

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 6 (2018), Number 18 (November 2018)

Opening the second Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum last month in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, “We want to improve our relations, built on mutual respect, in all areas on the basis of win-win and equal partnership” to the 3000 delegates attending. The forum was co-hosted by Turkey’s Ministry of Trade and organized by its Foreign Economic Relations Board and the African Union (AU). The forum is important since it indicates Ankara’s revitalized interests on the African continent as well as its desire to move from bilateral to multilateral engagements.

Several reasons account for Turkey’s revitalized thrust into Africa. First, Africa provides economic opportunity with its 1.2 billion people. This is set to more than double to 2.5 billion by 2050. This demographic dividend could provide a source of cheap labour for Turkish companies as well as a market for Turkish exports. The latter takes on added significance if one considers that Africa is urbanizing at a rapid pace and that its middle class is expected to grow significantly in coming decades especially if the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement comes into effect. Second, and a concomitant of the first point, Ankara is being opportunistic in that it seeks to expand its footprint on the African continent at a time when Western states, specifically Trump’s America, is retreating from the continent. Whilst other players, specifically – China, has aggressively entered the African space, Ankara has a Muslim identity and is a successor to the Ottoman caliphate which it seeks to exploit. Early last month, for instance, President Erdogan visited Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali – all predominantly Muslim countries. The Ottoman aspect of the relationship comes out with Turkey recently securing a long-term lease and rights to restore Ottoman-era buildings on Khartoum’s Suakin Island in the strategic Red Sea. Third, there is the underlying philosophy and personal ambitions of Turkey’s strong-man president, which seeks to remake Turkey into a global player under his leadership. Since coming to office in 2003 as Prime Minister, Erdogan has made more than 30 visits to the continent.

One of the major reasons accounting for Turkish successes in Africa is that Ankara is far less risk-averse than many other countries. In 2011 when many international actors was fleeing from Somalia on account of a growing terrorist insurgency, famine and drought and a failing government, President Erdogan and his wife landed in the Somali capital Mogadishu and began negotiating a Turkish presence in the country. The successes of Ankara has been undeniable. There are currently 41 Turkish embassies in Africa that Ankara hopes to increase to 54 in the next few years. Turkish airlines, moreover, operates in 50 African destinations. Turkish trade volume with Africa has quadrupled from US$ 5.4 billion to more than US$ 20 billion between 2003 and 2017. Nevertheless, this is by no means a “win-win” or “equal partnership” that Erdogan speaks of. Consider for instance Turkey’s bilateral trade ties with Ethiopia. Whilst Ankara currently exports US$ 440 million to Ethiopia, it only imports US$ 36 million from Ethiopia. More than just the trade volume, however, is what Turkey actually exports to African countries. Turkey has a highly developed textile industry and in countries like Kenya, cheaper Turkish textile imports is hurting the Kenyan textile sector.

The full extent of the downside of Turkish relations with the African continent is perhaps best seen in Somalia where the entire state seems to have been “colonized” by Ankara. There is the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital for those who are ill. A Turkish company runs the airport in Mogadishu. The roads are built by Ankara and refuse collection is done by the Turkish Red Crescent. The recently established Turkish military base in Somalia raises serious question over Somali sovereignty. Critics also argue that the contracts, Turkey secured from Mogadishu seems to have been skewed in their favour. The Somali state is notorious for its corruption.

Beyond the economic dimensions, there is also the political dimensions of the relationship that is often neglected. Africa has suffered terribly under various strong-men: from Amin and Bokassa to Mugabe and Bashir. Erdogan’s Turkey is increasingly autocratic and has the dubious reputation of having incarcerated the most number of journalists in the world. Africa has no need to emulate Turkish authoritarianism. Erdogan’s friendship with others of his ilk like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, undermines Africa’s attempts to democratize.

There is also a danger that Erdogan is externalizing his domestic problems onto the African continent. The Fethullah Gulen movement is an Islamic social movement which follows the teachings of reformist Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen. Gulen was an ally of Erdogan but after a falling out, Gulen has been in self-imposed exile in the United States but his movement is very active in Africa establishing schools and working in the health sector closely allied to African civil society. Erdogan has been using his African outreach to pressurize African governments to purge the movement in their respective countries calling the Fethullah Gulen movement a virus despite the positive work they are doing on the African continent.

African countries need to approach Ankara’s embrace with much more caution.



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