"Turkey is now focusing mostly on trade, with only a small reference to politics"
Turkey makes inroads into Africa
Istanbul: As part of Turkey's opening to Africa, on Friday (December 16th) the ministers of 54 countries of the African Union and representatives of African institutions concluded the first Ministerial Review Conference of the Africa-Turkey Partnership to improve ties between the continent and Turkey, following a similar summit in 2008. Turkey began to take a serious interest in Africa during the mid-2000s, placing Africa within its multi-dimensional and dynamic foreign policy doctrine to diversify economic and political ties.
Having gained observer status in the African Union in 2005, Turkey has been acting as a voice for Africa and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) at international platforms such as the G20 and Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
In 2002, Turkey had 12 embassies in Africa. By early next year, it will have 33. Before the African opening, trade volume between Turkey and Africa was approximately $5.4 billion in 2003, while this number increased to $15.7 billion in 2010. By 2014, the government aims to increase bilateral trade to $50 billion.
"Turkey is now focusing mostly on trade, with only a small reference to politics, because the economy is much more important and urgent for African countries than political issues," explained Mehmet Ozkan, an Africa analyst at the SETA Foundation.
As elsewhere in the world, the Turkish contracting sector is showing its canny ability to operate in difficult environments in pursuit of business opportunities and new markets.
"The foreign direct investments of Turkey in the African continent are mainly greenfield investments by constructing new operational facilities from the ground up," explained Associate Professor Sedat Aybar, director of Middle East and Africa Studies Centre at Kadir Has University. "The leading sector is construction, followed by manufacturing and agricultural vehicles. Complementarities between Turkey's export items and Africa's import items further increase the trade potential between the parties," he noted.
The Turkish economy's growth requires new markets and resources, making Africa's huge untapped resources and large market size a new centre of Turkish attention.
Abdi Aynte, a Somali journalist, says that part of Turkey's interest in Africa is a desire to acquire resources. "As a fast-growing economy, it would need raw materials to support that growth. It also needs new markets for its export-based economy. Africa is fertile ground for Turkey. Much of the world has shown its back to Africa, but Turkey seems to have appreciated the possibility," he added.
Questions remain whether Turkey's involvement will be strictly business or, over time, evolve to encompass issues like conflict prevention, human rights, democracy and the environment - issues competitors like China often turn a blind eye to.
According to Professor Emeritus John Weeks of Kadir Has University, "Since Turkey is less powerful than Africa's major trading partners, its role is likely to be less aggressive."
Overtime, however, as Turkey increases its economic relations on the continent it may become more politically involved, which can be seen most clearly in Turkish foreign policy towards Somalia.
"The fact that Turkey is not making too many political alliances now should not be interpreted as lack of political aspirations," Ozkan says, adding that both sides are just beginning to discover each other. "I think political relations will be much more important in coming years. There are also requests that Turkey become involved in conflict resolution issues in Africa, such as in Somalia and Sudan," he argues.
Building on budding economic and political relationships, Turkey has also tried to increase its footprint on the continent through aid projects and civil society initiatives.
The Turkish International Co-operation and Development Agency (TIKA) has permanent offices in Ethiopia, Dakar and Khartoum. The government has also been handing out scholarships for Africans to study in Turkey. And then there are the Islamist Gulenists, who are brandishing Turkey's moderate version of Islam with the establishment of over 60 high-quality modern schools in 30 African countries.
"In parallel with the political emergence of Turkey in the continent, the initiatives of civil society, mainly Fethullah Gulen schools, increased the visibility of Turkey by teaching Turkish to African students and drawing a positive image about Turkey," Ishak Alaton, a prominent Turkish businessman and South Africa's honourary consul in Istanbul, explained to SES Türkiye.
"This affective background formed by Gulen schools empowered the networks of Turkish businessmen when visiting African countries," Alaton added.