Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
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Major Religion Islam

Turkey’s Developing Role in Africa: Interview with Mehmet Ozkan and Birol Akgun

In the following interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the views of Mehmet Ozkan and Birol Akgun, two leading academic experts on Turkey’s burgeoning diplomatic and economic engagement with Africa.

The work of Mr Ozkan, a PhD scholar at Spain’s Sevilla University, focuses on how cultural and religious elements shape foreign policy mentality in South Africa, Turkey and India. Prior to that, he studied at Istanbul University in Turkey, the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and Linkoping University in Sweden. For his part, Birol Akgun is a professor of international relations at Selcuk University in Konya, and has affiliations with the Institute of Strategic Thinking (SDE), an Ankara based think-tank. Professor Akgun concentrates on Turkish domestic and foreign policy and global security issues in general.

Readers interested in learning more about the topic should read an important article co-authored by Ozkan and Akgun, entitled “Turkey’s Opening to Africa” and published in Cambridge University Press’s 2010 Journal of Modern African Studies. References in the following interview are to comments made in that specific article.

Background and Ideologies

Chris Deliso: When did Turkey start to really perceive the value of expanding its diplomatic and economic reach in Africa? In your article, you point to 1998 – four years before the current AKP government took power – as a key date, a year after the EU failed to give Turkey candidate status at its summit. You point to this rejection as one part of the reason why the then-foreign minister, Ismail Cem, created the ‘Opening up to Africa’ policy document. Historically speaking, do we know what were the other motivations or influencing parties behind the creation of this doctrine?

Birol Akgun: As a matter of fact, there were some political initiatives made by Turkey in the 1960s to reach out to the third-world countries, in order to develop political relations with the non-Western world, and for a couple of reasons. To start with, after American President Lyndon Johnson wrote a letter explaining that the US might not be willing to defend Turkey against the Soviet Union in case of Turkey’s use of force in Cyprus, Turkey’s political elite began questioning the value of NATO’s security umbrella for Turkey.

Therefore, the Turkish government sent some ambassadors to different African countries and tried to reach out to the Non-aligned movement as well. Again, when the US Congress imposed an arms-sale embargo against Turkey (a NATO ally) because of Turkey’s involvement in Cypriot affairs, a large majority of people in the country lost their belief in the US, and some political parties including leftists, Islamists and nationalists advocated that Turkey must follow a more diversified foreign policy, one that should look at both the west and east at the same time.

In the 1980s, Turgut Özal somehow found a way to develop good relations with many Middle Eastern countries for economic reasons. When the Cold War ended, then, again it was Özal who successfully explored ways of further deepening ties with the countries of the ex-Soviet bloc, including the Central Asian Turkic states. The expansion of the three-party Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) into Central Asia, and the creation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) were part of Özal’s new opening strategy to the neighboring regions.

Thus, when Ismail Cem took over the MFA post in the coalition government of 1997, Turkey had already developed economic ties and political frameworks within Turkey’s immediate geo-political environment. Now it was time for Turkey to further its vision for the African continent across the Mediterranean Sea.

Therefore, it would be a simplistic view to explain Turkey’s rapprochement with Africa merely in the context of its rejection by the EU in 1997, if we do not take into consideration Turkey’s growing interest in various parts of the world in the last three decades. In sum, Turkey’s opening to Africa is not a reactionary move but rather a visionary approach.

CD: In the article, you also note that it was only after 2005 that a “massive effort” began to increase Turkish presence in Africa. So, to what extent should the credit be shared between Cem and Davutoğlu, the latter with his expansive foreign policy vision of “strategic depth” for Turkey? Was this simply a continuation of the late 1990s-era policy, being implemented finally at a time when the opportunity arose?

Mehmet Ozkan: Ismail Cem had some thoughts about reshaping Turkey’s foreign policy in the new era. But he was serving as foreign minister in a three-party coalition government that made his efforts difficult to organize in a coherent way. Also, the economic crisis in 2000-2001 in Turkey was so severe that Turkey could not look beyond or commit itself to Africa by undertaking coherent and coordinated diplomatic work.

It would be unjust, however, to say that now Ahmet Davutoğlu is just simply following what Cem already started. It certainly helped and was important; however, what Davutoğlu has brought is the sophistication and connection of Turkey’s relations with different regions. Davutoğlu believes that every [Turkish] move in Africa or in Latin America has implications for Turkey’s relations with other regions as well. So Turkey now acts considering all in a single approach. Of course, it was [necessarily] Turkey’s political stability and high level of economic growth under the current AK Party government that have provided the opportunity for Davutoğlu’s vision to be fully implemented in the 2000s.

CD: The current realization of this policy is now becoming tangible. You cite that Turkey is opening 15 new embassies in various African countries, while in the 1990s some of the few that were there had to be closed due to lack of budget. Where is all the money coming from to do so? What other regions of the world have suffered in terms of foreign ministry budget being taken from one priority to the new one in Africa?

BA: You open an embassy if your country gains in economic and political terms. Before Turkey’s trade with Africa was very limited, and mostly with a few countries. Now, as Turkey opens to the world and develops economic relations, new embassies are a necessity. As far as we know, there is no other region that has suffered from a lack of budget [as a result]. Beside, Turkey’s growing export sector is also demanding political support, to expand their business in Africa as well.

CD: On the same theme, have the foreign ministry budget and the Africa expansion plans in specific had to be defended against any criticisms from the Turkish opposition parties? Or is there a feeling that the new diplomatic opportunities that will arise will help the new embassies to “pay for themselves.”

MO: When Turkey announced 2005 as the ‘year of Africa,’ many people were so critical and many journalist and former diplomats saw this as a waste of time and energy and resources. However, when Turkey’s opening to Africa started to pay off, those critics went silent. In that sense, the Erdoğan government has changed the conception of Africa in Turkey. The image of Africa in Turkey is now much more positive than it had been before.

CD: Historically, has the security sector played any role in the ‘opening to Africa’ for Turkey? After all, Turkey’s most famous moment in Africa in modern history is probably the abduction of Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, by Turkish secret agents in Kenya in February 1999. Did that operation transpire successfully because of renewed Turkish activities in Africa? If so, in what respects?

BA: Neither the security sector nor the capture of Ocalan in Kenya have contributed to this opening, nor been influential for this opening in a meaningful way. It is a civil society-driven opening, and the state has to follow it most of the time [to keep up].

Institutions, Organizations and Economics

CD: You note that in 2005, Turkey was granted ‘observer status’ at the African Union. Practically speaking, what does this mean for a country such as Turkey? What new capacities can the observer build, what new sources of information are opened, etc?

MO: This ‘observer status’, if nothing else, will help in one thing: to overcome the lack of knowledge on both sides. In Africa, even little kingdoms require a visa for Turkish citizens- not because they see Turkey or Turks in a different way, but just because they don’t even know where Turkey is, and if such a country exists at all.

Both sides thus need time to understand each other and to see the potential. We think that permanent contacts will facilitate this and lay the foundation for future relations. Briefly, observer status and political communication help both sides in changing mutual perceptions.

CD: This new institutional cooperation also involves military training for various African forces in Turkey. That said, have there been any concerns from NATO or NATO states about the potential for exfiltration of sensitive information or other potential compromising of classified NATO material? If so, what was the reaction?

BA: Turkey’s military relations with Africa are still very basic. Mostly, it involves police training. There is no need for NATO to have concerns.

CD: Your research cites that Turkey’s volume of trade with African countries shot up from $5.4 billion in 2003 to over $16 billion in 2008- with the government hoping to clear $30 billion per annum soon. What industries and companies in particular have benefited most from this rapid trade increase?

MO: Construction companies and those who produce mechanical parts benefited most.

CD: What are the major Turkish investors in Africa? Do you expect these to increase their role in coming years? Are there others, yet to emerge, who have shown interest in African markets?

BA: Mostly they are medium-sized companies. Their economic activities will increase in coming years, as many new companies are entering into African market.

CD: A major new trade organization in Turkey, the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey (TUSKON), is discussed in your treatment of Turkish-African relations. Founded in 2005, it apparently represents 11,500 businessmen and has organized (among its other trade conferences) three sessions with Africa, in which thousands of Turkish businessmen have been informed of opportunities in Africa.

Considering the implication that the TUSKON is also in some respects an ally of the AKP government, along with your observation that Turkish society still has many ingrained negative stereotypes about Africa, what can we make of this concerted action? Is it a case of politics driving economics, or vice versa? That is, does the government want more Turkish investors in Africa to bolster its political and ideological agenda, or are the  businessmen pushing the politicians to develop new economic opportunities in Africa for purely financial reasons?

BA: Both the government and business community are helping each other. It is a perfect example of a convergence of interest between civil society and the state.

CD: You note that the inaugural Turkey-Africa summit was held in 2008 in Istanbul, and will be held next in 2013, somewhere in Africa. Considering that South Africa and Nigeria are Turkey’s biggest trade partners on the continent, can we expect one of these to host the event? Or are there any other likely hosts in the running?

MO: So far, there is no information about the next Turkey-Africa summit. Our guess is that it will take place in a central or east African country (e.g. Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia) rather than in Nigeria or South Africa.

Development, Religion and Politics

CD: In your article, you mention the important role that the TIKA, Turkey’s international development agency, has played in humanitarian work in Africa. Can we compare the TIKA’s role to those of similar development agencies from the US or EU states, of course accounting for the relative wealth and capacities of each respective to one another?

BA: Yes, it is very much comparable with development agencies in European countries. In the end, it is the official aid agency of Turkey, and acts in accordance with Turkey’s priorities and planning.

CD: Has the TIKA presence been able to help Turkish diplomacy and intelligence in any tangible ways? Do the Turkish aid authorities choose their destinations of work in Africa based solely on perceived humanitarian need, or for political and strategic goals as well? If so, are there any examples you can point out?

MO: TIKA has tried to cover all of Africa, and it acts with a balance between strategic planning and humanitarian needs in Africa. TIKA is not an intelligence agency, and Turkey’s approach to Africa is more driven by economic and trade interest than political concerns at this stage.

CD: In your article, you cite a very interesting detail involving Turkey’s little-known Directorate for Religious Affairs. In November 2006 in Istanbul, you note, the government organized a historic “Religious Leaders Meeting of African Continent Muslim Countries and Societies,” Apparently, the African leaders present emphasized that they wished to restore the Ottoman legacy which they saw as positive. To what extent do you believe this was a genuine feeling of enthusiasm? After all, it was obviously the response that the Turkish hosts wanted to hear…

MO: Interest in the Ottoman legacy is very much alive among Muslims in Africa, especially in Eastern and Western Africa. We think it is an expression of genuine feeling. We think in the future that we will see this playing a greater role in relations, as both Turkey and Africa are reshaping their historical narratives.

CD: Again, regarding the Directorate, your research reveals that in 2009 the government invited through its embassies 300 African Islamic students to study theology in Turkey. The implication, as far as I understand, was that Turkey was and is selling this as a positive alternative to radical Islamic teachings being conducted elsewhere in Africa. To the best of your knowledge, is this new development sort of a policy point that Turkish leaders have sought to emphasize when meeting with Western diplomats concerned with radicalism in Africa?

BA: There is no official discourse on it, nor any information regarding such a conversation with Western diplomats. Inviting African students to study in Turkey, in theology and other fields, is part of Turkey’s soft power effort in Africa. Turkey has long experience with providing support to students of developing countries as well.

CD: According to your research, the Turkish charity Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) is now present in 41 African countries, and has spent many millions of dollars on humanitarian operations. Since in many cases it has been the first Turkish contact with locals, you have dubbed it a sort of “pioneering” organization. Yet considering its orientation as an Islamist proselytizing organization, to what extent does the group and its members represent the general mainstream of Turkish society? Is there a risk that Africans might get a limited sense of Turkey and its people from exposure to only one such group?

MO: The secularist elite in Turkey has no Africa vision, nor have they an interest to develop one. The IHH goes to Africa with the intention of [providing] humanitarian aid. Today, the IHH is considered one of most credible aid organization in Turkey. It enjoys a huge legitimacy among the vast majority in Turkey.

Besides, there are many other organizations that have projects in Africa as well. Many businessmen have connections with Africa. Africa has already been exposed to all layers of Turkish society through different channels. In addition, so far the IHH has not played a missionary role; rather its activities are mostly focused on tangible developmental and humanitarian projects in Africa.

CD: Again on the IHH, this group is dealing with famine relief, other natural disasters, and infrastructure issues. Another example was the large-scale, free cataract-removal operations for poor Africans, accompanied by a marketing slogan- that Turkey would ‘open the eyes of 100,000 Africans’ by these operations. However, considering the group’s religious goals, can we understand this slogan in another sense? If so, are there records being kept of Turkey’s ‘successes’ in bolstering Muslim faith and expanding Islam in Africa?

BA: No. We don’t think any organization in Turkey, be it IHH or others, hold such a record.

CD: You note that Turkish influence has also been stepped up in the form of schools. I understand there are now large areas in African countries where the Turkish language is being spoken or understood for the first time by the local peoples. Has language knowledge transfer helped Turkish political and economic aspirations in any specific ways?

BA: It only helps Africans to know Turkey and Turkish culture first-hand. It may help Africa to aspire to develop political and economic relations. Some graduate of these schools also continue their higher-education studies in Turkey. They can thus naturally serve as a bridge between Turkey and African nations.

Future Likelihoods

CD: Whether or not the AKP government’s contentious relationship with the Turkish military causes damage for Turkey’s military-industrial sector, will we see Turkish military industry begin to sell more weaponry to African states?

MO: I doubt it. Actually, the Turkish military is interested in buying, rather than selling. For example, Turkey has had a long-time interest in buying the Rooivalk attack helicopters for the Turkish army from South Africa.

CD: Commentators sometimes portray Africa as the ground for a global economic exploitation war between China and the United States. How has Turkey’s new positioning on the continent benefited it there in relations to these two superpowers?

MO: Turkey’s move is more modest comparing to that of India, China, US and others. Therefore, such a rivalry has almost no influence on Turkey’s opening at this stage.

CD: You say that Turkey needs Africa for ‘diversifying energy resources’- can you clarify more about what this means?

MO: As is well-known, Turkey’s energy resources very much depend on various countries, such as Russia. Turkey is desperately looking to diversify it energy resources for its high-speed development. Africa has a share in that planning too. That is why we look at trade statistics between Turkey and Africa; energy resources play an important role in Turkey’s import from Africa along with other things.

CD: Turkish leaders have recently stated their support, as you indicate, for Africa in terms of being a ‘voice’ for the continent on the international stage. Western states are usually quite skittish about getting involved in interventions in Africa, and dealing with widespread instability such as the recent killings in Ivory Coast are not high on the Western agenda. That said, do you feel that there could be possible cases in which Turkey would push for military intervention in African disputes?

BA: Turkey’s willingness to act as the voice of Africa is true when it comes to humanitarian and developmental issues, not so much in security matters. For instance, Turkey in the UN Security Council and in other platforms, such as the G-20 and UNDP, always consulted with African nations and defended their priorities in the official meetings- as was the case in the UN Millennium Development Goals meeting in September 2010. The fact that Turkey in May 2011 will also hold a large LDCs meeting in Istanbul is also an indication of its commitment to African issues.

However, when it comes to political and security matters, Turkey has always been cautious about involvement in foreign countries’ domestic conflicts; rather, it has always acted with the international community, paying utmost attention to international law and legitimacy. It may take part in peace-building missions in Africa, such was the case in Somalia in the early 1990s, but it never unilaterally considers sending troops to any country. But diplomatically speaking, we expect, Turkey will always be willing to help friendly countries in Africa.

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