Turkey’s Return to Africa

Strategic Interest

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Turkey’s Return to Africa

In the end, neither the superabundant expressions of support voiced by donor nations for the ramshackle «Transitional Federal Government» (TFG) of Somalia nor that regime’s corresponding utter lack of promise—President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed spent the week preceding quarreling with, dismissing, and reappointing Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke—were as significant as the venue of the three-day high-level conference last weekend. The meeting was convened neither in New York, headquarters of the United Nations, nor in Addis Ababa, seat of the African Union. The representatives did not travel to the capitals of any of the permanent five members of the Security Council or those of any of the other members of the ad hoc «International Contact Group» for the benighted Horn of Africa country. Rather, the summit was hosted in Istanbul by Turkey, a country that usually is not thought of as a major player in Africa, but which has nonetheless been steadily expanding its ties across the continent in recent years. Given their increasing recognition of the strategic importance of Africa for their own political, economic, and security interests, policymakers and analysts in Africa’s other partners, especially the United States, would do well to take notice Turkey’s return into this theatre.
While the Ottoman Empire had extensive relations with Africa over the centuries, with the territory of a number of current members of the African Union—including Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia—falling, whether in whole or in part, under the suzerainty of the Sublime Porte at various historical moments as late as 1912, when the Ottoman vilayets that together formed what would become Libya were conquered by Italy. This engagement changed in the aftermath of World War I, and the abolition of the monarchy and the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. From 1923 until well into the 1990s, insofar as Turkey had an Africa policy, it was no policy. While Ankara played a minor role in assisting the anti-colonial struggles in Zimbabwe and Namibia, overall it limited itself to simply according recognition to all the newly independent countries and establishing diplomatic relations, albeit usually nonresidential, relations with them. Quite simply, the Turks had enough on their hands with all the challenges of consolidating of their own modern secular state to be engaging in adventures geographically distant from their immediate neighborhood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
In 1998, under Prime Minister Ahmet Mesut Yilmaz of the center-right Motherland Party, Turkey adopted an «Opening Up to Africa Policy» with the goal of developing its political, economic, and cultural ties with African countries. This policy choice was maintained by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) when it came to power in 2002. In 2005, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaimed a «Year of Africa» in Turkey and became the first Turkish head of government to ever carry out an official visit south of the equator when he visited Ethiopia and South Africa. Shortly after this visit to Addis Ababa, Turkey acquired observer status at the AU and, subsequently, accredited its ambassador in Ethiopia as its official representative to the pan-African organization. The following year, the Turkish prime minister visited Sudan. In 2007, Erdoğan returned to Addis Ababa to address the annual summit of the African Union. In his speech, the Turkish leader acknowledged that «our political, economic and cultural relations are far from reflecting the existing potential between Turkey and the African countries,» and pledged to work «to revitalize these historical friendly relations and subsequently, to bring them to the desired level.»
The following years have likewise seen flurries of activities. In May 2008, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) hosted a Turkey-Africa Foreign Trade Bridge which saw some 1,000 business leaders from three dozen African countries descend on Istanbul. That same month, Turkey became the 25th non-regional member of the African Development Bank. In August, the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit was hosted in Istanbul by President Abdullah Gül. The summit was attended by representatives from fifty African countries (only Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland were absent), including six presidents, five vice presidents, and six prime ministers. The resulting «Istanbul Declaration on Africa-Turkey Partnership» affirmed the «need to consolidate and further expand Africa-Turkey Partnership at all levels and in all fields and to establish between African countries and Turkey a long-term and stable partnership based on equality and mutual benefit.» Specifically, the declaration outlined priorities for cooperation on trade and investment, agriculture and water resources management, health, peace and security, infrastructure and energy, culture and education, media and communications, and environmental concerns. Two months later, in October, the votes of African countries helped Ankara to secure election to one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council (the African states cast their votes en bloc in favor of Turkey’s candidacy). Meeting with African ambassadors at the margins of the UN General Assembly that year, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan announced that fifteen new embassies would be opened to complement the existing dozen residential diplomatic missions on the African continent. President Gül paid state visits to Egypt, Kenya, and Tanzania in 2009, followed by similar trips to Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year.
This week, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, accompanied by the ministers of defense, higher education, and mineral resources and the deputy ministers of international relations and cooperation, trade and industry, and tourism, is in Turkey for talks with Prime Minister Erdoğan. Addressing a celebration of «Africa Day» at Ankara University, Motlanthe affirmed that he was «convinced that the government and the people of Turkey have graciously welcomed us on this wonderful day in Africa’s political calendar because of an abiding interest in the African continent.» At a working luncheon in honor of Motlanthe that was hosted in Istanbul by the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), three agreements were signed which will bring $220 million in Turkish investments to South Africa. During the South African visit, it was also announced that negotiations over a free trade agreement would soon be started with an eye to boosting the current $2 billion trade volume between the two countries.
The South African delegation’s visit to Turkey follows on the heels of the state visit three weeks ago by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who announced plans to open an embassy in Ankara (Turkey opened one in Kampala in March) and promoted business opportunities to Turkish investors in the infrastructure projects in Uganda as well as in the trade of goods and services. Among the agreements which the East African statesman signed during his sojourn in Turkey were provisions for a political consultation mechanism between the Ugandan and Turkish foreign ministries as well as an accord of over air transportation. At a meeting hosted by TUSKON, the Ugandan president invited Turkish companies to especially consider investing in steel production in his country.
The increased political engagement between Turkey and African countries clearly also has led to heightened economic, developmental, and security cooperation. Turkish exports to Africa have jumped from $1.5 billion in 2001 to over $10 billion last year. Turkish Airlines has established regular flights to Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Dakar. Some four hundred Turkish businesses, mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises, have invested over $500 million in various African countries and more clearly hope to do so, if the 150 executives who accompanied President Gül on his trip to Africa earlier this year are any indication. In addition, at a first-ever meeting last week in Istanbul of the Turkey-Libya Business Forum, Turkish Industry and Trade Minister Nihat Ergün announced an agreement between the two countries to increase their bilateral trade volume to $10 billion over the next five years. Tamer Taşkın, chairman of the Turkish-African Business Council, which operates under the umbrella of the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK), recently declared that for Turkey Africa was not a temporary alternative market to Europe but a permanent export destination: «Things like safaris, droughts, hunger and poverty come to people’s minds when Africa is mentioned. That is why no one from around the world goes there. This is an opportunity for us.»
The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) supports development projects in thirty-seven countries from regional offices in Addis Ababa, Khartoum, and Dakar. TIKA tends to concentrate on long-term efforts, rather than crisis operations. Typical of a TIKA initiative is the Agricultural Development Program currently being implements in Burkina Faso, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda. While Turkey itself is classified as a developing country, its government provides scholarships for more than three hundred African students each year to study in Turkish universities and other institutions.
Turkey also currently deploys military and police personnel in support of five UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, including the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), the hybrid AU-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), and the UN Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI). Since early 2009, the Turkish navy has deployed half a dozen frigates as part of the United States-led Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, a multinational naval force carrying out anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. For part of last year the task force was even commanded by a Turkish officer, Rear Admiral Caner Bener, the first time ever that Turkey had assumed the leadership of such a joint maritime mission.
To provide expertise needed to manage the fast-multiplying web of relationships Turks are establishing across Africa, the Turkish government established the African Studies Research and Application Center at Ankara University in 2008 with the mandate to train researchers specializing on the African continent, establish a library and a documentation and archive unit which can serve as a point of reference, hold national and international meetings regarding on issues relating to Africa, and provide private or public institutions with consultation services. In his speech at the new institution’s inauguration, President Gül declared that: «Turkey does not see Africa only as the cradle of civilization but also as the center of the future of humanity. In fact, Africa, with its virtue and wisdom that has been distilled to our day through centuries passed, its young and dynamic population and vast natural resources is above all a continent of opportunity for the countries and peoples of Africa.»
In absolute terms, the quantitative impact of Turkey’s increasing links to Africa does not even begin to approach the volume of the Chinese or Indian investment in the continent, much less the extensive networks of the United States or the former colonial powers. Nonetheless the phenomenon is significant for several reasons, including:
First, Turkey’s experience as a medium-sized country that has both modernized politically and developed economically is one that resonates with many African countries and, in point of fact, is probably a more reasonable model for their emulation than China or India, both of which are unique in their global standing.
Second, African states stand to benefit from Turkey’s new interest in their continent insofar as the addition of yet another suitor enables them to diversify their sources of foreign investments and other partnerships so as to not become too dependent on the United States, France, China, Britain, India, or any other single outside actor. The key, however, is that Africa’s leaders must be prepared to approach this opportunity strategically—a feat that many have not always been particularly adept at if history is any indication.
Third, not only does Africa clearly provides a new market for the growing Turkish economy, but, at a time when the Turkey’s eventual integration into the European Union is very much in doubt, the nations of the continent provide Ankara with a much-needed avenue to diversify its diplomatic portfolio. The recalibration of Turkey’s foreign policy as well as the country’s bolder forays into global politics—as witnessed by the recent attempt by Prime Minister Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to broker a deal in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions—will have considerable impact on the international system in general and regional balance of power in particular, to say nothing of the NATO alliance which Turkey has been a member of since 1952.
Fourth, Turkey’s reentry into Africa does not come without its complications. Last November, for example, controversy was stirred when Sudan’s International Criminal Court-indicted ruler, Umar Hassan al-Bashir, was invited to an economic and commercial cooperation conference being held in Istanbul. Faced with blistering global criticism for planning to host the subject of an international arrest warrant charging him with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, Turkish officials prevailed upon the Sudanese ruler to cancel his visit less than twenty-four hours before he was due to arrive. Nonetheless the episode underscored the potential that American and European governments might find their ability to impose reform agendas and other leverage in Africa diminished as a result of the arrival of the Turks on the scene.
Fifth, while the Turkish example of secularism in politics in the modern period is probably one worth considering for Africans who have been faced with religiously-stoked communal tensions such as those in Nigeria over the imposition of Islamic law in northern states, the growing concern that the AKP government in Ankara may be chipping away at that very secularism is reason enough for a cautionary attitude concerning Turkey’s increasing engagement on the continent. The geostrategic implications of a Middle Eastern power with an Islamist orientation acquiring a greater stake in Africa cannot be ignored.
While alarmism about Turkey’s return to Africa is certainly not justified, neither can American and other policymakers, analysts, and businesses afford to ignore the greater role that the Turks has set about carving out for itself as a political and economic force on the continent. To this end, engagement—constructive, but critical as necessary—is the most prudent approach for the United States to continue advancing its own strategic interests on the continent as well as those of Africa’s peoples.

— J. Peter Pham is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Editor-in-Chief of its refereed Journal of the Middle East and Africa.
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean’s, among others

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