Turkey’s Africa strategy at a crossroad

Turkey’s Africa strategy at a crossroad

A fundamental change is looming in the horizon of Turkey’s “Opening up to Africa” strategy. This shift is not unexpected. Turkey is learning the African continent, not only its business opportunities, which it offers handsomely, but also its existing complexities. Africa is no longer perceived as a large continent with varying possibilities, as if it was a single country. As Turks deepen their knowledge of the continent, they also learn about the required skills to deal with these complexities, which they currently lack. Hence the need to establish co-ordination and co-operation with other interested parties, primarily with the governments of African partners, which pushes the Turks to adopt more detailed strategic thinking on the continent.

The Turkish government decided to celebrate the year 2005 as the “Africa year.” Since then, Turkey’s interest in the continent has grown exponentially. In 2008, Turkey hosted the first Turkish-Africa Summit, where 44 nations were represented at the highest official level. 

Turkish Airlines has increased its Africa flight destinations to over 30 cities within the last five years.
The number of Turkish embassies in the continent has now reached 34, and new embassies are expected to be opened. Turkey has become one of the largest donor countries with an aid volume nearing $1 billion, and Turkish aid agency TIKA now has nine offices in Africa. There exists a network of NGOs and schools representing Turkish soft power on the continent. Trade between Turkey and African countries is expected to exceed $20 billion in 2013, from $5 billion in 2003. Free Trade Agreements have been signed with some African countries and negotiated with others. The trade volume is expected to grow beyond $50 billion by 2023, reflecting Turkey’s fastest growing trading region.
Finally, Turkey became an “observer” to the African Union in 2005 and was declared the “strategic partner” of the continent in 2008. 

These developments show that the increased interest is there to stay, but the question of “what next” needs to be answered. 

Initially, Turkey’s Africa policy was shaped as a necessity to the economic success story of the 2000s. The growing Turkish electronics and manufacturing sectors increasingly became dependent on imported raw materials from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Africa’s energy resources. In return, Turkish investments in the continent, particularly by small and medium enterprises, started to grow. African oil and natural gas assumed an important place amongst Turkey’s import items.

However, it would be erroneous to tie recent Turkish involvement with Africa merely onto economic necessities. More bluntly, not all Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) generate positive returns; neither does aid always produce positive outcomes like employment creation and the introduction of new production techniques. In this respect, the humanitarian aspect is also important for the Turkish presence, particularly in the areas of education, food security and medical aid. The humanitarian discourse is one of the most important drivers of Turkey’s interest in Africa. Thus, a methodology based on establishing soft power was needed by the Turkish diplomacy to meet these humanitarian requirements.

In terms of building up soft power there have been some serious efforts and positive developments. However, it is too early to praise these as signs of success. We need to wait and see what kind of good these efforts will do. For instance, Somalia, a failed state, is an important case in point. It is a bridge-head for Turkish entry into sub-Saharan Africa, especially on the humanitarian grounds. Turkish Airlines flies to Mogadishu and TIKA provides food and medical aid, while the Turkish Ministry of Education gives university grants to Somali students to study in Turkey. In accordance with the U.N. Charter, Turkey provides naval input to police the Somali coastline. These are all positive contributions by Turkey and from Turkey’s point of view such overseas involvement, institutional co-ordination, aid and its underlying methodology has some novelty. If Turkey becomes successful in Somalia, this would help not only to Somalis but also to Turkey’s “natural and strategic allies” in the continent. It would also boost Turkey’s standing in terms of its capabilities in foreign set-up.

But, under the given circumstances, how far can Turkey go alone in Africa and in Somalia? The short answer is “not too far.” In order to achieve efficient aid donations and achieve useful returns on FDI, the Turkish presence in sub-Saharan Africa should be coordinated closely with EU partners and the U.S. On the other hand, Turkey might also benefit from the presence of other emerging market countries in Africa such as China, Brazil and India, as their economic interests provide Turkish investments with complementary sectoral inputs, especially in the ever neglected area of infrastructure buildings. This is particularly significant for the main Turkish orientation in the African market, namely of agricultural manufacturing. 

All in all, today the policy of “opening up to Africa” should tie in very much with the strategic place Turkey has drawn for herself as a global player in world affairs. The effectiveness of Africa policy will be judged on the basis of successful outcomes of the strategies developed to fulfill this global role. So far, Turkish diplomacy has been tested very harshly by recent events in Africa. But, with its ever dynamic and pragmatic entrepreneurial nature, Turkey is learning very rapidly to devise a new strategic approach to the needs of sectoral indivisibilities and complementarities. 

Sedat Aybar, Head of the Department of Economy, Kadir Has University.