Turkey is rather enigmatic at the best of times and even harder to fathom under its current leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s shifting alliances with great powers in the Syrian conflict, for example, have been especially baffling to many pundits.
The motives of his Africa policy are also not so clear.
It’s true that Turkey has deep historical relations with North Africa, its traditional “Ottoman” hinterland. But it was only from 2005 that Turkey dramatically accelerated relations with sub-Saharan African, after Erdoğan came to power. That year, he secured observer status for Turkey at the African Union (AU).
In 2008, the AU declared Turkey a strategic partner. The first Turkey-Africa summit was held in Istanbul, the second summit in Equatorial Guinea in 2014 and the third is due to take place in Turkey in 2019.
Bilaterally, relations also soared – from 12 Turkish embassies in Africa in 2009 (five of them in North Africa) to the present 39 (plus a consulate-general in self-declared independent Somaliland), with another soon to open in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
Conversely the number of African embassies in Ankara grew from about 10 to 32 during the same period.
Turkey’s official development assistance (ODA) to Africa meanwhile grew from only $52-million in 2008 to $783-million in 2013, almost one third of its global ODA. Turkey has also contributed troops and money to seven of the nine United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.
By almost any measure, Turkey’s advance into sub-Saharan Africa has been remarkable. What’s it all been about?
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers the rosy suggestion that Turkey is just going home, the Ottoman Empire having been “itself an African state”.
The more prosaic explanation is that Turkey merely joined other big powers in the second scramble for African natural resources and markets.
To an extent, this has paid off. Two-way trade with Africa tripled between 2003 and 2015, to $17.5-billion (though some 65% of this was with North Africa).
In 2000, Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa totalled about $750-million. By 2015, it had risen to anywhere between $5- billion and $8.4-billion. Turkish construction companies have profited most, winning over 1,000 projects worth $54-billion, constituting 21% of their international business, in the wake of the drive into Africa.
Even so, these economic returns, especially when one subtracts the North African components, don’t quite seem to justify the large investment in sub-Saharan Africa.
There’s something more than money involved.
Erdoğan is pursuing, also in Africa, his wider ambition of asserting greater Turkish leadership in the world, especially the Sunni world. This sense emerges in particular from his focus on resolving intractable conflicts and bringing development to two Muslim states, Sudan and Somalia.
Erdoğan’s Somalia diplomacy has been particularly remarkable. He has channelled an extraordinary amount of time, effort, money – a total of some $600-million, Ankara says – and, one must add, courage into trying to rescue the world’s most failed state.
In 2011, Erdoğan put his credibility and even his life on the line by becoming the only international leader to visit Mogadishu – opening an embassy there and also inaugurating regular flights by Turkish Airlines.
Turkey also started rebuilding and renovating infrastructure to pave the way to further stability in the country.
Ankara credits Erdoğan’s historic visit to Somalia with creating an “unequalled breakthrough in turning around the fate of this country”, by boosting international confidence in the country and helping to set it on its (precarious) road to democracy.
A little exaggerated, perhaps, and a little premature – but a remarkable effort nonetheless.
By asserting Turkish leadership in Islam, and also simply taking greater cognisance of trans-Saharan Africa, the Islamist Erdoğan distinguishes himself from the long Westward-looking and scrupulously secular Kemalist tradition that preceded him, and with which he is in constant conflict.
Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution writes in his new book, Five Rising Democracies, that “In many ways Africa has become the laboratory for Turkey’s soft power agenda”.
Incongruously though, much of the soft power which Turkey has projected in Africa has been through the Gülenist movement. This shadowy network, founded and led by the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, strongly supported Erdoğan, politically and financially, and helped him defeat the military secularists until they fell out in 2013.
Erdoğan blamed the Gülenists for the failed military coup attempt against him last July, and he purged thousands of them from all institutions of society.
But meanwhile the Gülenist movement, better known on the continent as Hizmet (the Service) had built up a vast network in Africa. This includes about 110 schools, in 35 countries – mostly with significant Muslim populations – as well as business federations, an aid agency and a media empire.
Few Africans connect all this to Gülen. The schools, for instance, teach the local national curriculum, not an Islamic one and have various names, none of which identify them as Gülenist or Hizmet. Most locals simply call them “the Turkish schools” and value their high academic standards. For many Africans, they are the face of Turkey.
For many years, much of Turkey’s soft power in Africa – including development work, education outreach and business development, was effectively “out-sourced” by Ankara to the Gülenists – as Ertan Aydin, a member of parliament for Erdoğan’s AKP party and his former chief adviser, acknowledged at a seminar on Turkey-South Africa relations in Pretoria last month.
The Gülenists in Africa seem to have no political agenda.
But ever since his fall-out with the Gülenists in Turkey in 2013 – and much more so since the botched July coup – Erdoğan has been going after the various institutions in Africa.
Last month, Erdoğan conducted the latest of many trips to Africa, visiting Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar. One of his main aims was to urge the governments of those countries to shut down the alleged “terrorist” networks.
The Tanzanian government had already rebuffed entreaties to them last year by the Turkish ambassador to shut down the 10 or 11 “Feza” schools, as they are known there.
So Erdoğan came to deliver the appeal directly to President John Magufuli. The latter’s response is not public information.
Likewise in Mozambique, where he asked President Filipe Nyusi, to shut down “terrorist cells” before they destabilised Mozambique. Nyusi gave no public response although he seemed unlikely to be sympathetic – since many of the Frelimo elite (reportedly including himself), send their children to Maputo’s Willow International School, run by the Hizmet group.
Similarly in Madagascar, Erdoğan urged President Hery Rajaonarimampianina to eliminate what he called FETO (the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation) “to save the Malagasy people from the coup plotters’ ruthless actions”.
The Malagasy leader’s response sounded sympathetic, though equivocal.
South Africa, which also has other issues with Turkey (namely, Syria), seems more firmly to have rebuffed Erdoğan’s entreaties, as several other countries have, on the understandable grounds that they see no reason to become entangled in Turkey’s Byzantine politics.