Turkey joins the ‘Struggle for Africa’

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Above all, the 7th Turkish-African Congress in Khartoum, organized by TASAM, a Turkish think tank, was yet another impressive sign of Turkey's assertive and dynamic new foreign policy, and its desire to establish a strong presence in Africa. Participants from many African countries - ranging from South Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, the DRC and Senegal - were full of praise for Turkey's newfound interest in their continent. Turkey's trade with Africa has recently exceeded the US$ 10 billion mark - slightly less than one tenth of China-Africa trade, but a tenfold increase since 2000 nonetheless.

Turkey’s opening to Africa began in 2005, when Turkey announced the "Year of Africa.” In 2008, Turkish President Abdullah Gül hosted the first ever Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in Istanbul with the participation of representatives from most African countries. The same year, the African Union (AU) declared Turkey as a "strategic partner". In 2010, Gül toured Africa, taking more than 100 Turkish businessmen with him, seeking to project the image of a benign country and an equal partner, in contrast to resource-hungry China, which many Africans feel ambiguious about. Turkish Airlines now has regular flights to Addis Ababa, Dakar, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos, seeking to turn Istanbul into a major hub for African travelers. By the end of the 2012, there will be 33 Turkish embassies in Africa, with several more to open in the coming years.

One of the most interesting presentations was that given by Abdi Jama Ghedi, Professor at Benadir University in Mogadishu (Somalia), who praised Turkey's courage to engage in his war-ravaged country, which has not had a functioning government since 1991. Turkey hosted the Istanbul Somalia Conference organized within the UN framework in 2010. Turkish Airlines has announced that it will begin to fly to Mogadishu regularly, and Turkey is about to open a functioning embassy in the Somali capital. "The guys from the international organizations fly in from Nairobi during the day, but they're too scared to live in Somalia", Prof. Ghedi says, stressing how much Turkey's gesture means to Somali society. When Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan traveled to Somalia in August 2011, even The Economist, "moved beyond cynicism", recognized that

Mr Erdogan is not the first head of state to visit Somalia's wrecked capital since central authority collapsed there in 1992. But the nature of his visit was different. It was not about regional security. He came with his wife and daughter, his cabinet ministers and their families. The trip was brief and choreographed to boost standing at home. But that should not diminish the courage shown. The Turkish plane scraped the runway on landing. Even though the Shabab had been forced out of the city, the visit was an extraordinary security risk.

Yet Mr Erdogan's presence was a statement of common humanity, a shared future, more eloquent soundbite. It was the message so many Somalis have longed to hear, but which have often sounded strangled from Western capitals, with their the generosity bound by security caveats. In bringing his family to Mogadishu, Mr Erdogan said he wanted to destroy the perception that it was impossible to travel to the city (it does, in fact, remain very dangerous). There was also a spiritual message: Muslims caring for fellow believers during the holy month of Ramadan. By some counts, Turkey has raised $115m for Somali famine victims during the fast.

Turkey is now wildly popular in most countries in Northern Africa, and most Egyptians identify Turkey as the ideal government model to emulate - even though they are unlikely to copy Turkey's rare achievement easily, as Turkey’s secular order has deep roots and goes back to the creation of a republic by Mustafa Kemal almost a century ago.

Yet thankfully, the conference provided space for real debate and critical voices, too. After the presentation by a former Turkish ambassador to Sudan, a South African participant questioned the narrative of Turkey's purely benign Africa strategy, pointing to the conference's title -"Multi-Dimensional Struggle for Africa" - which made Africa look like a helpless target rather than an active parter. He pointed out that Turkey's official rhetoric about Turkish-African friendship omitted Turkey's ambiguous past as a colonizer (in the form of the Ottoman Empire) which once ruled Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, the Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and even Niger and Chad.

The retired ambassador replied that Turkey had "reformed" itself long ago then and was no longer an imperial power - yet interestingly, a day earlier, Recai Kutan, a former Turkish Minister, had made particular reference to Turkey's Ottoman past as the basis of Turkey's quest for greater involvement in the region - a past that may one day come to haunt Turkey as it gains greater economic influence in the region.

While no African government is critical of Turkey's presence in Africa today, Turkey must - like Brazil - be careful not to overestimate the honeymoon it is currently experiencing with Africa - as the Chinese example shows, African societies can quickly turn hostile once they feel their growing ties with emerging powers do not provide the promised benefits.

In addition, it remains to be seen how long Turkey is able to walk the diplomatic tightrope between the West and the rest: Turkey, on good terms with Sudan, seeks admission to the European Union (EU), while the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's President, on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the ICC is not connected to the European Union, its decision found strong support among Europe's leaders, and it is often seen as a 'European institution' in Africa. Over lunch, an African participant muttered that one must not forget that Turkey was "essentially a Western power, economically and strategically tied to Europe and the United States".

Nonetheless, Turkey's engagement with Africa can be deemed a great success - and Turkey will certainly be a force to reckon with in Africa, as well as an important example to study for other emerging powers eager to strengthen ties with Africa.

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