As American, European, and Asian governments and markets nervously contemplate the economic chaos of the past month, Turkey is quietly pressing forward with plans to increase its presence in the world’s most distressed continent—Africa.
On September 22 while attending the 63rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York, President Abdullah Gul participated in the opening session of a high-level meeting on Africa’s development needs. Later, Gul told participants at a round table meeting that Ankara was committed to expanding its African presence, opening 15 new embassies, which would increase the number of Turkish embassies in Africa to 37 (Aksam, September 23). Boldly espousing a vision for Africa at a time when many Western governments are considering economic retrenchment, Gul told his audience that Africa’s fate was inextricably linked with the rest of the world and emphasized that shortcomings of African development could be remedied and that steps undertaken by African nations to resolve these difficulties should be encouraged with a global initiative, especially in the key areas where Africa needed help most: “health, education, agriculture, environment, infrastructure, and capacity building” (Anadolu Ajansi, September 22). Gul arrived in New York well prepared, as earlier in the year he had participated in several Turkish forums promoting increased trade with Africa.
Turkish interest in Africa is underwritten by soaring bilateral trade: while Turkey’s trade volume with the entire African continent was $5 billion in 2003, Gul noted that with government encouragement, Turkish-African trade had been increasing annually by double digit figures since 2004 and exceeded $12 billion last year, a figure that his government hoped to increase to $30 billion by 2010 (Aksam, September 23). Turkey’s Africa outreach policy dates back a decade to 1998, when the government developed its “Africa action plan” through 2003. Ankara launched its “Africa Strategy” in 2003 and subsequently declared 2005 “the year of Africa.” Increasing Turkish investment in Africa represents a smooth meshing of both governmental and business policies.
The UN meetings followed a number of Turkish business initiatives toward Africa earlier this year. In Istanbul in May the Turkiye Isadamlari ve Sanayiciler Konfederasyonu (Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists, TUSKON) hosted the Turkey-Africa Foreign Trade Bridge meeting, which was attended by nearly 1,000 businessmen from 45 countries (Anadolu Ajansi, August 20). TUSKON executive board chairman Rizanur Meral, after noting that the Turkish economy was surging, with exports expected to reach nearly $135 billion by the end of the year and total trade volume totaling $325 billion, underpinned the importance for Turkey’s future economic prosperity of increasing trade with Africa. He said, “the relationship between Turkey and African countries should be boosted in the areas of trade, diplomacy, culture, education, and tourism” (Anadolu Ajansi, August 20).
The Turkey-Africa Foreign Trade Bridge meeting was followed in August by the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit, hosted by the private sector, Dik Ekonomik Iliskiler Kurulu (Foreign Economic Relations Board, DEIK), and TUSKON in Istanbul, where Gul observed, “I had bilateral talks with heads of delegations of 42 countries,” adding, “Turkey’s assistance to African countries’ efforts for economic and social development has been welcomed by our African friends. Turk Isbirligi ve Kalkynma Idaresi Baskanlygy (Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency, TIKA) activities were especially appreciated in Africa” (Anadolu Ajansi, August 19). Addressing the Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit on the role of Turkish business in Africa, DEIK executive board chairman Rona Yircali said that Turkey’s launching new initiatives in Africa was a state policy that the private sector was eager to support, adding that earlier this year DEIK had established business councils in Sudan and Ethiopia, bringing the total number of DEIK business councils in Africa to eight and that DEIK planned to open its ninth business council in Nigeria soon (Anadolu Ajansi, August 20).
If Turkey’s primary interest in Africa encompasses its wealth of raw materials, African nations are particularly interested in Turkey’s agricultural expertise. During the Istanbul summit of the Union of African Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Agriculture, and Professions (UACCIAP), President Mohamed El Masry noted that the causes of Africa’s current food crisis were not well understood in many Western nations; but as Turkey’s agriculture sector had experience in raising food under adverse conditions, cooperation utilizing Turkish agricultural expertise could prove invaluable.
At the Istanbul summit the Turkiye Odalar ve Borsalar Birligi (Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, TOBB) and UACCIAP declared their intention to work together to establish a Turkish-African Chamber (TAC) (www.tkbb.org.tr/). At the end of the summit a “Turkey-Africa Partnership Istanbul Declaration” was released, as well as a Cooperation Frame Document for Turkey-Africa Partnership, which included cooperation targets in “intergovernmental cooperation”; “trade and investment”; “agriculture, rural development, management of water supplies, small and medium enterprises”; “health”; “peace and security”; “infrastructure, energy, and transportation”; “culture, tourism, and education”; “media, information, and communications systems”; and “environment.” The document noted that further Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summits would be organized once every five years, with the next summit to be held in an African country in 2013 (Anadolu Ajansi, August 19).
Turkey’s approach to developing trade with African nations differs fundamentally from that of a number of nations seeking business opportunities on the continent, most notably the U.S. and China, whose overriding interests are Africa’s oil resources. As a midsized nation with a developing economy, Turkey carries none of the free market capitalist baggage aimed at securing the best deal at any cost that Africans so resent. Furthermore, by concentrating on lower profile development issues such as agriculture, Turkish initiatives carry the promise of affecting genuine change in the lives of masses of Africans rather than merely enriching a tiny, corrupt elite. Finally, as some sources, including the Encyclopedia Britannica, estimate the Muslim population of Africa as high as 45 percent, Turkish traders arrive with a religious and cultural affinity that Chinese and American businessmen lack.
Turkey’s interest in Africa extends beyond mere economic ties, however, as Ankara has sought African support in its quest for a U.N. Security Council non-permanent seat, for which elections will be held in October. Ankara evidently achieved its goal of enlisting African support for its initiative, as after the Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that he believed that almost all African countries would support Turkey’s candidacy (Anadolu Ajansi, August 20).
In a sobering reminder that commercial dealings with Africa sometimes involve relationships with questionable governments, Ankara’s judgment was questioned when Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir attended the August Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in Istanbul, his first trip abroad since the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo alleged that al-Bashir bore personal responsibility for atrocities in Darfur and submitted evidence to ICC judges to be considered for issuing an arrest warrant (See EDM, January 22, 2008). Although Turkey is not a party in the case filed with the ICC, Al-Bashir’s presence in Turkey was criticized by one progressive newspaper as “as a step backward by the Turkish government in terms of democratization reforms and of its efforts to become a member of the ICC” (Radikal, August 19). If Turkey is successful in its quest for a UN Security Council position, then, like Security Council permanent member China, Turkish government officials had better brace themselves for more criticism of their dealings with Khartoum, however profitable they may be.