Turkey and France in Africa

Turkey and France in Africa

Ahmet Kavas was among the first Justice and Development Party’s (Ak Party) political appointees to represent Turkey at its diplomatic missions. He started working as Turkey’s ambassador to Chad in the early days of 2013. And one of the first things he did was to post tweets against France.

In his tweets Kavas expressed his anger over France’s intervention in Mali, saying, among other things, “The word terrorism is a French invention. It cannot be the work of Muslims,” and adding “Al-Qaeda is different from terror.”

These tweets did not go well with the French obviously and he had to close his twitter account. But even if the content were to be less critical and less provocative, posting negative tweets about a strong actor that has been in that geography for a very long time at a time when you are at the early stages of increasing your presence and activities in the same geography was not exactly a smart move. At least not a move that a career diplomat would have made. At the end of the day, if you are the new kid in the neighborhood (even if your grand grandparents had lived there some time ago), a new player looking to grab from the share of the others, you don’t start by kicking the big guys in the neighborhood to say “watch out.”

You don’t do it especially at the early stages when you are still vulnerable. Turkey has been the target of terror attacks in Africa and I would be curious to know to what degree Turkey was able to benefit from intelligence sharing with its allies even if they were its potential rivals in the continent.

Turkey has obviously registered a lot of progress in terms of increasing its activities and presence in Africa. But there is still room for learning and taking lessons. A case to watch is the Chinese; whose silent but increasing presence in the continent is of course far from being a success story, as criticism against them are on the rise as the new colonialist. Still.

I was surprised to hear about the linguistic connection between France and China in terms of African issues. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Institut de Bosphore (Bosphorus Institute) which provides a platform of dialogue between France and Turkey, French parliamentarian Laurence Dumont said French was a language spoken by 275 million …today but will be spoken by 750 million in 2050 adding that 85 percent of the 750 million will be those living in Africa.

“Why do I say it? Because I know that Turkey invest massively in Africa and every opening of the embassy has been followed by an opening of the new line to İstanbul with Turkish Airlines,” she told the audience adding Turkey might have an interest in investing in learning French as much as investing in airlines in Africa.

According to Dumont France received 324 thousand foreign students and of those 13.000 thousand are from China. “Guess why. They come to learn French to do then business with Africa.”

“Indeed,” told me French economist Laurence Daziano. “The Chinese first started with English speaking East Africa; and now they want to move to French speaking West Africa.”

Obviously Turkish readers would react by saying that each country should have its own strategy and that instead of learning French, Turks are teaching Turkish to Africans. Indeed that is what Turkey had been doing for some time. But the two need not be mutually exclusive and there is nothing wrong by knowing better your “competitor” and learning from your “competitor.”

After all diplomacy is a sophisticated tool you can use to maximize your benefits, if your intention is not to act like an elephant in a china shop. The AK Party governments have since 2013 increased the number of political appointees to diplomatic missions, to more than 15 and to critical capitals like Tehran. While it takes years to internalize the art of diplomacy, one hope they will succeed in their crash course.