Balkanalysis.com Editor’s note: almost five years since this website first isolated Turkey’s developing relationship with Africa, we are providing new insights into the current state of affairs in the relationship, in the context of the Arab Spring, Syrian refugee crisis and other political and security events that have recalibrated the dynamic.
The forays of developed Western countries into Africa, whether as slave merchants, colonizers or investors have constituted a ubiquitous trend for the past three centuries. Nonetheless, the dominant trend now, and particularly for the past decade or so, has been the phenomenon of large emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil staking their own claims to the continent. The motive of these countries has been a source of debate among experts working on Africa. However, a considerable number of scholars have assigned the current trend to largely economic motives.
The latest country to embark on African ventures is Turkey. Over the past decade, Turkey has steadily ramped up its diplomatic and foreign policy presence in Africa. This activism has led to the creation of diplomatic missions, expansion of economic activities and humanitarian diplomacy on the continent. This burgeoning relation between Africa and Turkey culminated in the declaration of 2005 as the “year of Africa.”
Recent Events Affecting Turkey’s Engagement
The sustainability of this partnership has been called into question in the wake of the Arab Spring, coupled with the Islamic State’s (ISIS) advances and terrorist attacks by the Kurdish PKK inside of Turkey in recent weeks. These attacks provoked the Turkish government to reverse course, and begin a series of air strikes inside Syria and against the PKK rebels in Iraq. The long negotiations with the US over American use of Turkish air bases, and the drama of the Iran nuclear program negotiations, have simultaneously distracted Turkish attention from events in Africa.
Indeed, the recent developments involving Turkey’s immediate periphery have brought about Turkey’s deepest form of engagement in the region in the last decade. For Africans and Turkish supporters of a strong Africa policy, it also has awakened fears about the long term prospect of the Turkey-Africa partnership and what these regional dynamics mean for its future.
The present evaluation thus considers the major aspects of the current Turkey-Africa partnership and the challenges facing it, and considers future prospects for the relationship within the contest of Turkey’s engagement within its neighborhood in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Reasons for a Concentration on Sub-Saharan Africa
Specifically, the present analysis focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, for two reasons. Firstly, Turkish society generally regards North Africa as part of its immediate surroundings, both in terms of geography and religion. Geographically, Turkey has always regarded North Africa as a part of its near-abroad, not a far-away region. The Ottoman legacy has played an instrumental role in this regard. For centuries, countries in North Africa were part of the empire especially for the most part of the 15th and 16th centuries. Secondly, about 98 percent of the population in North Africa is made up of Muslims, and this is not markedly different from the Muslim population in Turkey.
Hence, the political and economic relations that have been developed with North Africa have never been questioned and the region has always been seen as an important part of the general Turkish foreign policy drive. Sub-Sahara Africa, on the other hand, has always been regarded by Turkish society as distant, constantly wallowing in abject poverty and ravaged by war. The Ottoman Empire had a limited engagement with the eastern and western part of the continent in the 15th century; nonetheless, this involvement was not significant and never attracted real attention.
Roots of Modern Turkey’s Sub-Saharan Policy Development and Diplomatic Activities
Turkey’s enhanced presence in sub-Saharan Africa today, therefore, is something novel. It actually began in 1998, with the writing of the “Action Plan”- a document prepared by the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs, which constituted the framework of political and economic engagements between Turkey and the continent. Since foreign observers have tended to associate Turkey’s engagement with Africa as a unique initiative of the current AKP government, noting the engagement in the context of this diplomatic Action Plan indicates that Turkish policy-makers had already been eyeing Sub-Saharan Africa well before that government came to power in 2003.
To further enhance and broaden the scope of engagement envisioned by the 1998 plan, the “Improvement Strategy on Trade and Economic Relation with African States” paper was developed in 2003. The two documents laid the foundation for all of the progress that has been made in the partnership within the last decade.
At the same time, it is important to note that in the deeper history of the modern Turkish Republic, significant diplomatic engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa has been going on for decades. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of some Sub-Saharan African countries, when they were emerging from the shackles of British and French rule in the 1950s and 1960s. This led to the opening of embassies in these newly independent countries, notably Ghana and Nigeria.
Budgetary constrains due to economic crisis facing Turkey in the 1980s meant that some politically and economically unviable embassies (such as the one in Ghana) were closed down. The 1998 Action Plan, and the subsequent Turkey-Africa Summit in 2008 in Istanbul, however, ushered in a new era and gave impetus to the partnership. Since then, Turkey has more than doubled its diplomatic representation in Sub-Saharan Africa, bringing the total number of its embassies in the region to 33.
At the same time, Turkey has also joined six other countries at the African Union as an observer country, become a non-regional member of the African Development Bank, increased its trade and Foreign Direct Investment to more than $6 bn and increased humanitarian development assistance through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).
Humanitarian Development Aid and an Information Campaign
The Turkish government’s humanitarian and development assistance is channeled to and disbursed by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). Founded in the early 1990s with a focus on Central Asia, TIKA gradually expanded its area of activities to the Middle East, Caucasus, Balkans and then to Africa in 2005, when the year was declared the “Year of Africa.”
Since then, the agency has undertaken many development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, making it one of the largest international development donors to the continent. Since 2005, the agency has financed projects in Sudan, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia and Somalia. While Official Development Aid (ODA) from most DAC countries fell in 2011, Turkey’s net ODA increased from 770 million to $1.3 billion, representing about 38%.
About 50% of this funding was spent on projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, with Somalia being the largest beneficiary. Having been bedeviled by drought and famine, Turkey became the largest donor country to Somalia, when it extended a much-needed humanitarian aid package that came largely in the form of construction of road network, hospitals, schools, renovation of the airport and water wells, as well as scholarships for students to study in Turkish universities. This made Somalia the top recipient of Turkish development aid in the world in 2011, with Liberia, Kenya and Ethiopia making it into the top 20.
The period also saw a massive campaign and a number of conferences organized in Istanbul to mobilize the international community to channel funds to Sub-Saharan Africa and solve the crises in Somalia and Darfur. Huge billboards were mounted in the major cities of Istanbul and Ankara and in public transport, all in an attempt to galvanize and support the Turkish activities in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, discourse in the general Turkish society, both in the mosques and in donations to NGOs, was specifically requested to be sent to Sub-Sahara Africa.
A Wrench in the Works: the Fallout of the Arab Spring and the Re-Routing of Turkish Humanitarian Aid
In recent years, however, the picture has changed almost completely. All the pageantry that characterized the initial years of the partnership has dissipated. The Arab Spring and the war in Syria in particular have generated a refugee crisis for Turkey. The country currently accommodates about 2 million Syrian refugees. This makes Turkey the top host of refugees in the world. The Turkish government mobilized all the public agencies such as AFAD and the Turkish NGOs to channel their resources to alleviate the suffering people of Syria.
Thus, since 2012, over 55% of Turkish developmental aid has gone to the Middle East and Syria with the figures for Sub-Saharan Africa continuing to plummet. In 2012 alone, Turkey spent $1.02 billion out of the total ODA of $2.5 billion on Syrian refugees. This figure increased to $1.76 billion in 2013, out of an ODA of $3.3 billion that year. This figure is set to increase in 2014 and 2015 when the official report of TIKA is made available by the end of the year.
While donations to Syria alone accounted for over 50 percent of the ODA, the development aid figures for Sub-Sahara Africa are seeing a drastic decline and the number of beneficiary countries have also been reduced. The highest recipient of Turkish ODA in Sub-Sahara Africa during 2012 was Somalia, with $86.6 million. Sudan was the only other African country to make it into the list of top-20 recipients. But the year 2013 saw only Somalia make it into the top 20 recipients of Turkish ODA.
The Turkish government’s scholarships to Sub-Saharan countries have also declined since 2012. Preference and focus of attention is now on Syria and Palestine, with thousands of students coming every year to study in Turkey.
Developments in Turkey-Africa Economic and Political Relations
The private sector, however, has been less affected by geopolitical changes that have reoriented the path of state funding. The volume of trade and Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) to Sub-Saharan African countries have been steadily increasing since 2000.
In 2014, the volume of trade between Sub-Saharan Africa countries increased to $8.4 billion compared to about $750 million in the year 2000. Total Turkish FDI is also estimated at around $6 billion, with the major destination of these investments being Ethiopia, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. The Turkish schools and Turkish Airlines have been very instrumental in this regard. The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the business wing of the Gülen network of schools in Sub-Sahara Africa, organizes trade and investment delegations to and from potentially viable countries as part of their Trade Bridge Programs. TUSKON delegations to Africa have in past been led by the president of Turkey and the relevant Turkish cabinet members.
The delegations from Africa to Turkey have also been high-profile and led by the presidents’ of Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana.
Turkey has also started to implement visa facilitation to African countries’ businesspersons and other eligible citizens who have fulfilled valid passport and visa requirements, while increasing the number of visa exemption agreements for diplomatic and official passport holders with African countries.
Turkish Airlines’ Strategy in Africa
The Turkish national carrier, in addition, has aided Africa’s easy accessibility to Turkey, through its frequent flights to the region. Turkish Airlines commenced flights to Mogadishu, Kigali, Abidjan, Kinshasa, Djibouti, Nouakchott, Mombasa, Niamey, Ouagadougou and Libreville in Sub-Saharan Africa, bringing the total number of THY flights in the Continent to 34 destinations. In addition, THY is expected to reach 40 destinations in the next few years, with an aim to be the first airline out of the continent to have the highest number of flights in Africa.
Turkey’s Role in African Energy Projects and Potential Risks
With an impressive annual economic growth rate of five percent over the last decade, which is expected to continue in the coming years, Turkey looks set to continue its economic engagement with the region and the volume of trade is generally expected to increase. The energy sector has been the latest addition to the economic dimension.
In June 2014, the government of Ghana entered into a 10-year agreement with Karpowership, a subsidiary of Karadeniz Holding, to supply the country with 450 megawatts of electricity to supplement the national grid. This is expected to cost the government of Ghana about $1.2 billion. With a major power crisis facing the continent, the firm is already looking beyond Ghana. with sights set on the rest of the Sub-Sahara region.
Nonetheless, the current impasse between the AKP government and the Gülen movement poses a potential threat to the increasing volumes of trade and investments between Turkey and Africa. The December 17 corruption scandal, which brought the alliance of the AKP and the Gülen movement to an abrupt end, could potentially have a devastating effect on economic relations. The existence of the Turkish schools in Africa is under threat and TUSKON has a limited engagement and influence within the Turkish government and in Africa.
Conclusions: an Enhanced, though Somewhat Precarious Partnership
There are both challenges and opportunities for enhanced cooperation and partnership between the African continent and Turkey. As the foregoing has indicated, the relationship between the two is a historic one, and its revitalization in the last decade is also occurring at a historic time in modern history for the wider region, and indeed the world.
As has been seen, Turkey’s diplomatic involvement with Sub-Saharan Africa has waxed and waned, depending on domestic economic, security and other factors. At times of strength, Turkey has projected power more robustly, while it has retracted – though leaving the door open for future re-engagement – when domestic constraints have arisen.
Turkish diplomatic involvement, coupled with educational outreach, humanitarian activities and private-sector investments, have already given Turkey a deep footprint on the continent. Unlike other emerging economies like China and India, Turkey’s objectives in the country are not limited to business alone, which gives it a more sustainable future in the region, since it enables both a grassroots social presence and continuous political engagement.
However, as the recent internal turbulence in Turkey has shown, the close connection between the state, private sector and influential personalities can be as much a risk factor as a benefit. Time will tell how and to what extent Turkish actors will resolve their interests towards the greater good of deepening an African engagement. If they do not succeed in finding internal rapprochement, the country could risk losing the ground it has gained through so much time, effort and investment. Nevertheless, as the continual increase in FDI shows, the private sector is more impervious to political disruptions, and may in this respect keep relationships strong until that moment when Turkish leaders are on the same page.
At the same time, the eventual resolution of the crisis in Syria will free up more funds from the Turkish donors for Sub-Saharan Africa. It is thus more likely than not that the positive inroads Turkish leaders have made in recent years do in fact have long-term viability.