Turkey is no salvation army, say Africans

Turkey is no salvation army, say Africans

As a regional power with an aspiration to become a world player, Turkey aims at being active on all issues of global importance. The crisis in Syria has shown however the limits of activism on many fronts. Turkey’s energy are being sucked up by the Syrian fire so much so that, Syria is practically the only issue on the foreign policy agenda.

I, however, as a journalist of a regional power with global aspirations(!) will not neglect my duties and will talk about Turkey’s presence in Africa. For that I should thank a think tank of a global player, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung foundation for organizing an annual conference on peace and security in the Horn of Africa in Istanbul, which provided me with some clues on how Africans perceive the Turkish presence in their continent.

Turkey’s increased presence and activism especially in Sub-Saharan Africa are a source of curiosity for Turkey watchers. “Why is Turkey in Africa?” is a question you hear very often. “Turkey is there probably for whatever reasons the Americans, Brits, French or Germans are in Africa,” is my rather rude answer. This reply obviously does not reflect the whole truth, and it stems from a personal frustration toward global players who think they are entitled to go anywhere in the world and don’t like the idea of seeing a “new kid” in the neighborhood.

Listening to the views from the region, one can observe several facts that make Turkey’s standing in the region different from the other players’. The first is the lack of a colonial legacy. While relations date back to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey enjoys a positive image. Another one is the way Turkey uses its soft power. It was extremely interesting to hear from Africans themselves the tremendous impact made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 2011 visit to Somalia, where he spend the night with his family. “The message was, I care so much about you that I will spend the night and will do that with my wife. This is not just soft power; this is humanity itself,” said one of the participants.

Turkey’s soft power approach seems to have so far won the hearts and minds of the Africans.

However, Turkey needs to be very careful with the rhetoric it uses. “Whatever we are doing in Africa, we are not expecting anything in return,” type of rhetoric that we keep hearing from the Turks is harmful because this type of rhetoric backfires as it assumes that Africans are naïve enough to believe such nonsense. Turkey’s presence in Africa is motivated by economic interest and by aspirations to be a global actor; and as such there is no problem with that; therefore there is no need to try to conceal real motivations which are perfectly legitimate.

“Turkey is no salvation army,” said an African participant. There is no need to pretend to be one.

Finally, Turkey’s “Islamic orientation is being watched carefully,” as another participant put it. “Turkey is welcomed by the Muslims; it is also welcomed by non-Muslims but with caution,” he said, adding that Turkey’s democracy was a safety valve against extremism. It seems that Turkey’s secular democracy is an important asset in this part of the world too, it should therefore be careful to avoid anything that could erode this asset.