Turkey’s African Opening: Limits and Potential 1

Turkey scrambled for Africa, but will have to rethink its priorities after the Arab Spring

By: Fadime Gözde Çolak

The new scramble for Africa is a growing arena of competition among the great and rising powers in the emerging new world order. Nearly each and every regional actor strives to diversify its policies in order to reap political gains, both domestically and internationally. Turkey stands out in this regard. Ankara views Africa, with its geographical proximity, natural resources, and relatively not-yet-scrambled market, as an excellent opportunity to realize Turkey’s domestic, regional, and international aims.

The end of the Cold War and the events of September 11th have changed the foreign policy environments of states, and Turkey was inevitably influenced by that trend. The transformation started in 1998 with the ‘Opening to Africa,’ and gained momentum through 2005. Beyond a doubt, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government took nearly all the steps for the de-securitization of Turkey’s foreign policy and created an environment to develop trade-based relations with the rest of the world, especially regions Turkey had not previously taken into consideration. The most important dimension of that policy was to strengthen its position in the region and on a global scale, both politically and financially. But as important, the AKP frequently highlighted the foreign policy change, making it an integral part of domestic politics. This policy change allowed the AKP to make domestic political gains via its success in the international arena.

Trade, religion, politics, and non-governmental sectors are the main elements of Turkey’s Africa policy. Like all rising powers, Turkey uses the language of win-win for relations and emphasizes trade instead of aid. Islam is another important leverage to generate and deepen the relations. Turkey has diversified its relations in relevant multilateral organizations; it has observer status in the African Union, non-region membership in the African Development Bank, and has taken initiative at the United Nations on African issues. Turkey has been quite active with regard to humanitarian concerns, a fact especially evident in the case of Somalia, where the rest of the world remains silent. The existence of non-governmental institutions in the continent, on the other hand, is the strongest pillar of Turkey’s position due to its broad, multifaceted efforts in health, education, and security cooperation.

Although Turkey declared 2005 as the ‘Year of Africa,’ important steps were taken in the beginning of 2009 with its non-permanent membership to the U.N. Security Council. The visits of many high-ranking officials focused on themes of trade and cooperation, while the only exceptions were efforts to enhance the situation in Darfur. During its Security Council membership, Turkey developed its engagement with the continent day by day, opening embassies and maintaining active commitments with the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) and military support for peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations. In reflection of this, observers have noted that the number of direct flights from Turkey to Africa have increased.

The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) is another agency that spreads Turkey’s influence. Ankara’s increasing interest has resulted in an export-import boom. Turkey’s exports increased from $3.632 billion in 2005 to $9.283 billion in 2010. A similar increase took place in import figures. These trends suffered a hiccup from the Arab Spring; export numbers decreased to $7.913 billion and import numbers decreased from $4.823 billion to $3.420 billion, mostly because of the unrest in North Africa. Despite the decline in trading volume, Turkey is resolved to maintain relations with the continent and the cases of Somalia and Libya have proven great opportunities to contribute to peacemaking and peacekeeping in Africa. The drought in the Great Lakes Region, specifically in Somalia, has been another case in which Turkey has made significant contributions.

Several questions arise from the 10-year transformation of Turkey’s Africa policy: “What do all those openings mean?” “What are the limits?” “What are the pros and cons for Turkey?” “How realistic are the means and the ends?” Turkey could not resist the intensifying impact of globalization, nor should it have. It has strong motives for regional leadership, and policies that have de-emphasized security and territorial disputes in Africa policy mark initial steps by which Turkey has created a sphere of influence in Africa. Turkey is not alone: China, India, Brazil, among other rising powers have deep interests, and especially China and India have greater potentials for engagement with the continent. In contrast to China or India, Turkey, with its limited capacity, is only able to affect a few countries. For that reason, Turkey has positioned itself as a mid-scale actor on the continent, focused on humanitarian aid and cooperation in health, telecommunications, construction, and education.

Despite Turkey’s limited capacity and some problematic issues, like supporting Sudanese president Omar al Bashir (who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes) in the international arena, it has crafted remarkable influence over African politics and markets and has used win-win rhetoric in a successful soft power campaign. Turkey aims to be a permanent actor in the region, despite the distractions of the Arab uprisings that have refocused the AKP government’s attention. Turkey’s Africa initiative will likely continue, but as the foreign ministry puts its energy toward the pressing issues of its neighboring countries, the Africa policies will fall to individual entrepreneurs and business-persons. After a forward-thinking start, this diversion of resources may handicap Turkey’s engagement, limiting its competition with Chinese, Indian, and American rivals for influence in the scramble for Africa.

Fadime Gözde Çolak is a research assistant at Ankara University focusing on Turkish involvement in Africa. She has been featured in several Turkish journals and holds a Masters in International Relations from Ankara University.

Photo credit: Turkish Contact Point

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