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February 01, 2013, Friday

Engaging in Africa without challenging others

The president signed two agreements into law this week that have further expanded Turkish engagement in Africa. One is the agreement for Turkey to join the African Development Bank (AfDB), which was established in 1964 to promote economic and social development in the region through the investment of public and private funds. The second was the agreement to join in the African Development Fund (ADF), the concessional loan and grant provider on the continent for infrastructure development, technical assistance and capacity building. Both agreements were approved by the Foreign Relations Commission on Nov. 7, 2012, and by Parliament on Jan. 17, 2013.

The AfDB also approved the authorization of a special bank capital increase required to actualize Turkey's membership. According to the legislation that supported Turkish membership in the AfDB, Turkey committed funds in the amount of SDR 68 million. The AfDB uses Special Drawing Rights (SDR) as a unit of currency defined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce exchange volatility. SDR 41 million was committed to the ADF. In total, Turkey has committed approximately $168 million to the two institutions. The Turkish Cabinet is authorized to multiply both capital increases up to fivefold, according to the law.

Since both the AfDB and the ADF are managed through the African Development Bank Group, the relationships will help Turkey to tap into opportunities in the region that offer commercial return and political leverage while helping African countries develop their economic, social and educational infrastructure. During the debate in the commission, government representatives reasoned that Turkish companies and individuals would be eligible to compete in tenders financed by the AfDB and AFB when Turkey joins the AfDB.

This was especially welcome news for Turkish construction companies and contractors. Only those firms whose country of origin is a member of the bank can bid for projects financed by the African Development Bank. This is why up until now some Turkish companies barely managed to garner a share of the many big infrastructure and transportation projects.

Of course, Turkey worked with a number of African countries through bilateral and regional schemes long before it decided to participate in the AfDB and the ADF. Turkish governmental and nongovernmental organizations' contributions to Africa's economic, educational and cultural development have been steadily on the rise in the last decade or so. Participation in these premier financial institutions of the continent will add strong roots to these fast-growing ties between Turkey and Africa.

The AfDB Group approved Turkey's application to join the bank group in May 2008, making Turkey the 78th member and 26th non-regional member. The year 2008 was a turning point in Turkish-African relations because it was the year that the African Union (AU) declared Turkey a “strategic partner” and the year that Turkey hosted the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit, attended by 53 countries. The following year, the AfDB was the lead stakeholder representing Africa in the 5th World Water Forum (WWF) held in İstanbul that March. It seems there will be more and more interaction between Turkey and the AfDB down the road. The bank may even open a branch office in Turkey soon.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Gabon, Niger and Senegal with a large group of Turkish businessmen last month was a testament to the fact that Turkey means business when it comes to Africa. He announced that Turkey aims to increase its trade volume with Africa to $50 billion by 2015. That is a very ambitious figure and is not going to be easy to achieve -- trade volume with Africa was about $2 billion in 2002, and reached $17 billion by the end of 2012 -- but it shows the government's determination and commitment to diversifying its economic and political relations, with a special emphasis on Africa. The figures are hopeful, though; total Turkish exports to Africa increased 31.4 percent in 2012 compared to 2011, reaching $12.1 billion.

Diversification of Turkish foreign and trade policy was the main reason Ankara increased the number of its embassies on the African continent to 31, and there are three more on the way. Across Africa, 19 embassies were opened in the past three years alone. This led to reciprocal embassies from many African countries opening in Ankara. In addition, Turkey's national flag carrier, Turkish Airlines (THY), flies to more than 30 cities in 20 African countries and more destinations are lined up for the future.

The primary credit for the increase in trade and strengthened economic ties with Africa should go to a workhorse organization called the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the largest nongovernmental trade group in Turkey. The group has frequently organized business meetings and business delegation trips to and from a number of African countries. It helped increase Turkey's market share in Africa to 8.7 percent in 2012 from 7.5 percent in 2011.

The main question now becomes whether Turkey's development goals on the African continent will be complementary or competitive vis-à-vis other non-African countries involved in the region. Ankara will be vying for influence and jockeying for political leverage in a very complex environment. Turkey competes with France in some countries and complements the efforts of the US and Japan in others. It challenges Chinese involvement in some countries while at the same time coordinating with Chinese companies in other African countries. Turks definitely clash with Iranians in many countries in Africa, while working closely with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) donor countries on a project basis, despite some disagreements. These are just a few of many examples.

To reduce friction with other countries, I would suggest that Turkey synchronize its dealings in Africa with the US and other global and regional powers through organizations like the G-20, the AU, the UN and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This will help Turkey avoid overlap and conflict while finding mutual cooperation schemes. For example, Turkey hosted the 4th United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC) in 2011 and pledged funds and assistance to those countries for the next decade. Considering that 33 African countries are among the 50 in the LDC group, Turkey can channel some of its donor activities through the UN. Ankara can successfully build on that example, as it has done so in Somalia.

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