Turkey’s Africa opening initiative launched in 2005 gained new momentum this week with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s three-country visit to Africa.
Traveling to Gabon, Niger and Senegal with a large group of Turkish businessmen, Erdoğan stressed Africa’s strategic importance for Turkey. This is a result of the ongoing diversification of Turkey’s foreign policy. But it is also a testament to Africa’s rising significance in the 21st century.
Turkey is no stranger to Africa. It has a long history of relations with countries stretching from North Africa to the Sahel region. In a quiet but steady way, Turkey is again establishing strong relations with Africa. High-level visits, diplomatic relations, investment and trade, cultural and educational programs, scholarships and the work of the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), and Turkish NGOs have changed the old parameters of relations between Turkey and the African continent.
Until recently, Turkey had 12 diplomatic missions in Africa. It now has 31 and will soon open three more. Likewise, many African countries are opening embassies in Ankara. The African Union declared Turkey a “strategic partner” in 2008, the same year Turkey hosted the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit, attended by 53 countries. The second strategic forum will be held this year. Turkey was also the host of the fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC), to which it has dedicated considerable resources for the next 10 years. Thirty-three African countries are among the LDC.
TİKA has eight offices across Africa and will open a new one in Niger. Across Africa, TİKA implements projects in such areas as health, agriculture, animal husbandry, education and training, capacity-building, well-drilling, clean water, etc. Turkey has completed projects in over 30 countries in Africa.
Turkey, which supported the Arab revolutions in North Africa, has strong political and economic relations with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as other North African countries. But Turkey is also reaching out to countries beyond the northern rim.
In Somalia, Turkey led an international aid campaign to help Somalia in one of its worst moments in modern history. By mobilizing its resources to fight against famine and disease and calling on the international community for help, Turkey drew the world’s attention to the deepening crisis in Somalia. After a year and a half of work, Somalia still faces major challenges, including the effects of the civil war, the absence of a strong, central government and poor infrastructure. But it is certainly a better country compared to two years ago. As one journalist put it, Turkey is not simply aiding Somalia; it is “building a new country” there.
Turkish businesses are also increasing their investment and trade in Africa. In 2002, Turkey’s total trade with Africa was about $2 billion. By 2012, it exceeded $17 billion. Business associations such as the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSIAD) and the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM) have established strong economic relations with various African countries. They organize dozens of business meetings in Turkey and Africa every year, providing new opportunities for joint investment and economic cooperation.
The first Turkey-Africa Media Forum, held in May 2012 in Ankara, brought together over 300 African journalists from 54 African countries. The Anatolia news agency, Turkey’s official news agency, directly covers important events in all of the major capitals of Africa. Turkish Airlines (THY) flies to 30+ cities in more than 20 African countries.
It is not possible to talk about Africa without talking about political justice or, rather, the lack thereof. Africa has been colonized, exploited, enslaved, violated. New manifestations of colonialism, brute capitalism, home-grown civil wars provoked by outsiders, deep corruption, underdevelopment, poverty, epidemics and a host of other problems are ravaging Africa. While sleeping on vast natural resources and a young, dynamic population, African countries are performing way below their true potential. But none of these is a reason to brush off Africa as a strategic and economic partner.
Many parts of Africa were once centers of trade, production, culture and art. It can rise again as a land of peace and prosperity. Some African countries are already embracing political stability, pluralism and sustainable development. Yes, Africans themselves need to do more, but the rich countries of the world, the UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international agencies can help Africa stand on its feet. Instead, political and economic exploitation continues in new forms and at various levels.
What Africa needs is not pity, but fairness and opportunity. Developing partnerships based on respect, equality and mutual interest will go a long way in overcoming the vicious circle of exploitation, poverty and underdevelopment in Africa.