Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Kenya and Tanzania to expand Turkey’s relations with the two African countries. With this visit, Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish president to pay an official visit to these sub-Saharan nations. Kenya and Turkey signed an agreement that envisages cooperation in the areas of civil aviation and health care. Turkish Airlines has now started flights between Istanbul and Nairobi (TRT, February 20).
On February 22, after his visit to Kenya, Gul went to Tanzania. During his trip Gul pointed out that all but two African countries had supported Turkey’s candidacy in 2008 for a two year, nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council. Gul said, "The Turkish Republic will be the spokesman for Africa at the UN. It will support Africa on all of its issues" (Today’s Zaman, February 24).
It appears that Turkish foreign policy makers have carefully created an African dimension to Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey would like to use its two-year UN Security Council position to extend its influence deep into the African continent. Gul noted, in fact, that "60 percent of the issues that are discussed in the UN Security Council are related to the African continent. In addition, Africa has become a center of attraction around the world" (Zaman, February 24).
Gul’s visit to sub-Saharan countries is a continuation of Turkey’s Africa initiative, which began in 2005, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government declared 2005 as the "Year of Africa." In February 2005 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited four African nations. Despite the fact that political observers at the time argued that the visit to African countries was merely to ensure their support for Turkey’s candidacy for the Security Council, Erdogan stressed on developing economic ties with the nations of Africa (Yeni Safak, Marc 3, 2005).
Since Turkey was elected the Security Council nonpermanent member for 2009 and 2010, political observers wonder whether Turkey will stand staunchly behind the United States in its votes. President Gul’s visit to African countries would indicate that Turkey will not follow the lead of the United States, at least on the issues related to Africa. After his return to Turkey, Gul said that "While new developments related to Somali and Sudan are looming, we obtained first-hand information during this visit. Turkey has become the voice of Africa and will continue to be the voice of Africa" (Zaman, February 24).
It is known that one of the issues before the Security Council in the coming months is "the appropriateness of a UN peacekeeping operation to support the Somali political, economic, and social development" (www.un.org, February 1). The most critical issue for Turkey in the Security Council is how it will vote on the matter of Sudan President Umar al-Bashir. In July 2008 the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused al-Bashir of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region. In February it was reported that the ICC could be close to issuing an arrest warrant for him on charges of war crimes (BBC News, February 16).
What makes Turkey’s role in this issue so critical is that the Security Council has the power to postpone the charges for up to one year, renewable indefinitely, if it sees fit. Sudanese Vice-President Ali Osman Taha met with Erdogan during an official visit to Ankara on February 3 and asked for Turkey to block any possible moves against al-Bashir that might appear on the Security Council agenda (Hurriyet Daily News, February 21). In a press conference with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said, "The leadership and cooperation of the Sudanese president is needed in order to overcome the problems in Darfur. Without this we do not believe the problems can be resolved" (Hurriyet Daily News, February 11). The AKP government hosted al-Bashir twice in 2008, for which it was criticized by liberal intellectuals.
The Arab League and the African Union have urged the Security Council to suspend the case against the Sudanese president. China and Russia support al-Bashir, but the United States and its European allies oppose a deferment of the case.
Turkey’s new foreign policy initiative toward Africa could bring new opportunities but also create risks in its relations with the West. Turkish business circles are very active in promoting Turkey’s African initiative, and the businessmen themselves have organized major events to promote investments in African countries. The Federation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), for example, organized a Turkey-Africa summit to bring businessmen and political leaders from both sides together to promote economic partnerships (www.tuskon.org, September 2, 2008).
Putting all these angles into perspective, Turkey’s foreign policy toward Africa could create a degree of confrontation with its traditional Western allies while securing some economic benefits domestically. It still remains to be seen how Turkey’s new foreign policy initiative toward Africa will ultimately contribute to its goal of becoming a key power in the region.