Turkey’s connections to Africa stretch back several centuries – the Ottoman Empire ruled most of North Africa and the Sudan virtually until the First World War, and set in place many of the institutions and systems that operate to this day. However, after Africa became independent in the 1960s, relations withered as both entities focused largely on their own development and political priorities. Now it would appear that a new era in Turkish-African relations has begun with an increase in diplomatic, political and business links.
Turkey’s recent intervention in Somalia has highlighted the country’s growing role in African affairs. Ankara brings a unique perspective to the continent because of its historical ties to Africa and its government’s attempt to present a modern face of Islam to the world. Above all else, Turkish interest in Somalia, Libya and elsewhere underlines the growing complexity of Africa’s relations with the rest of the world, in what is becoming an increasingly multi-polar global political economy.
After other external attempts to help Somalia have, at best, met with mixed results, Turkey is bringing a new approach to the war-torn Horn of Africa. When African Union troops forced Islamist group Al Shabab out of Mogadishu, the Turkish Red Crescent arrived in force to set up tented camps and food supply centres. Many aid organisations and foreign governments have been reluctant to get involved, but the Turkish Red Crescent has brought a new enthusiasm to the mission.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even visited Somalia last August with his family, in what was the first visit by a non-African leader in almost two decades. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told the BBC’s World Service: “We came to Somalia to show our solidarity with the brothers and sisters of Somalia, but this is not just for one day, we will continue to work for our brothers and sisters and we will never leave them alone. There was a perception that nobody can go to Mogadishu; we try to destroy the perception. We came: many others can come.”
A fundraising campaign in Turkey last year quickly raised more than $100m for the mission, while the Turkish government has promised to rehabilitate the city’s shattered infrastructure, including the road from the city centre to the airport. The new British ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, said: “The Turkish have shown what it is possible to do operationally. They’ve brought a really strong political force to bear. They’re intimately involved; a real force.”
Despite the succession of conflicts that have wracked Mogadishu, hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants have flocked to the city to escape drought conditions and thousands of them are now receiving support from Turkish organisations.
Ankara’s growing involvement in Africa could be seen as just the latest example of Asian states investing in the continent. Using a combination of investment and soft power – diplomatic activity and development aid – China, Japan and South Korea have become more involved in the continent over the past few years in order to strengthen their access to raw materials and exploit new markets for domestic firms. This is in part also true of Turkey but the country’s involvement in the continent goes much further than that.
An alternative model
Under the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, Turkey has become far more diplomatically active than for many decades.
While accession to the European Union remains a key strand of the government’s international strategy, Ankara has become involved in Middle Eastern power politics and more latterly North African and sub-Saharan affairs.
In the guise of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey once ruled most of North Africa and Sudan in one form or another and was a major player in international affairs until the Empire collapsed under the weight of defeat at the close of the First World War.
Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gul are also keen to promote Turkey as a power within the Muslim world and as a more modern Islamic alternative to Iran and Saudi Arabia. There seems little doubt that the Turkish government is actively seeking to become more politically and economically involved in the African continent.
Ankara launched a ‘Year of Africa’ as long ago as 2005 and held a summit that attracted the leaders of almost every African country. Gul has toured African capitals on several occasions over the past three years, holding talks in Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville and Ghana among other states.
Turkey had just 13 embassies in Africa in 2009 but now has 27. The new embassies have been opened in Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Uganda and Zambia. More are planned in the near future, including one in Djibouti by the end of this year.
In December, representatives from almost every African state attended the Ministerial Review Conference of the Africa-Turkey Partnership in Istanbul, with the aim of strengthening commercial ties between Turkey and the continent. Growing relations have also been initiated by African organisations. In January 2008, the AU voted to make Turkey one of the organisation’s strategic partners. Many African governments have also opened embassies in Ankara for the first time. For instance, Ghana has now opened its embassy on the back of an increase in bilateral trade with Turkey from $175m in 2009 to $440m by the end of last year. Accra predicts that this figure could rise to $1bn by 2015. The value of total Turkish exports to Africa increased from $3bn in 2010 to $10bn in 2012.
The move into Africa is part of a more assertive foreign policy. Talking to journalists about his country’s growing role in the Muslim world, an unnamed Turkish official said: “We are not aspiring to become an imperial power again but history and geography are chasing us. We understand them better than others and they get along with us better than others.” The Erdogan government hopes to replicate this approach in Muslim Africa.
Erdogan toured Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in September, taking almost 300 Turkish businessmen with him. An estimated $850m worth of contracts were signed in Egypt alone. As always, the groundwork on negotiations is carried out before the official visit but the scale of the tour sent out a powerful signal about Turkey’s commitment to the region. Erdogan’s popularity in North Africa also increased last year as a result of his calls for Hosni Mubarak to step down as president of Egypt, although his support for secular government in the region has not met with the approval of everyone.
Ankara’s involvement in Africa could have another benefit. With a secular constitution in a largely Muslim nation, it can provide a model that other countries on the continent could follow. Indeed, the prevailing winds of change in North Africa appear to be blowing towards Islamic parties that are prepared to operate within a secular context.
Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, argues: “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.”