Zülfikar Doğan
Feb 27 2018

Turkey looks to Africa

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on a five-day, four-country visit to Africa this week to look for alternative trading partners to make up for losses in the Middle East and persuade African countries to close down or hand over schools run by U.S.–based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen.

“Erdoğan is the world leader who visits Africa the most," Erdoğan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın said ahead of the trip to Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali. The visit will bring to 32 the number of African countries Erdoğan has visited out of the 54 states on the continent.

Turkey has been trying to expand its economic presence in Africa since it adopted its African Expansion Plan in 1998 and has held two cooperation summits to promote trade and is to host another next year.

Plans to expand business with Africa have received new impetus due to trade losses Turkey has incurred from war or political disputes with Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt in particular, as well as with the Gulf countries, and North Africa.

A member of the African Development Bank, Turkey’s total trade volume with Africa rose from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $16.7 billion in 2016, and to nearly $20 billion at the end of 2017. Some $13 billion of this was in exports, while the remaining $7 billion was in imports. Turkey has a trade deficit with the European Union, the United States, Russia, and China, but even so, exports to Africa do not even make up 10% of its total of $157 billion.

Algeria, the first stop on Erdoğan’s tour, made up $5 million of Turkey’s export trade in January, Mauritania $324,000, Mali $80,000, and Senegal $855,000, according to Turkish Exporters Assembly data.

Algeria decided to stop importing textiles, food, and some plastic products from Turkey in August last year. Erdoğan will try to solve that problem first. Turkey’s diplomatic ties with North African countries under Egyptian influence such as Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria have suffered due to Erdoğan’s support for the deposed Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi and Islamist rebels in Libya.

Another priority for Erdoğan in Africa is the presence of hundreds of schools across the continent run by the Gülen movement that Turkey blames for the 2016 failed coup.

With his trips to three or four African countries every few months, Erdoğan’s goal is to purge what Turkey calls the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ) from education, from the diplomatic and political relationships, and from the economic and trade arenas of those nations.

The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), a Gülen-affiliated business group comprising 120,000 firms, was very active in Africa up to the 2016 coup attempt and used some of the profits to help build Gülen schools.

One of Erdoğan’s top demands is to either close the schools affiliated with Gülen or to turn them over to the Turkish state-run educational organisation, the Maarif Foundation. So far, 11 of 113 schools have agreed to the administrative changes. After Erdoğan’s visits to Senegal, Mauritania, Chad, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Sao Tome, Somalia, Guinea, and Niger, those countries also agreed to his request to turn over the schools. Outside of Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan have made the same agreement.

Two years ago, when the Maarif Foundation’s Board of Trustees was first formed, Erdoğan gave instructions in a speech at its opening ceremony: “If they (FETÖ) say ‘we are established in 170 countries,’ you then have to be established in all 193 member countries of the UN.”

Professor Birol Akgün, Chair of the Board of Trustees, replied: “This foundation has the power of the people and the state behind it. We will enter the countries of the world like a dervish, like a raider.”

The Maarif Foundation’s goal is to open schools in 20 countries each year, take over existing schools, and replace all educational staff. In addition to this, with the help of the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), which supports economic investment and foreign aid projects, along with the newly-founded Yunus Emre Institute to promote culture, education and art, Turkey is looking to project both economic and cultural power. TİKA has opened offices in 11 countries, and the Yunus Emre Institute has opened cultural centres in six countries. Together with these two foundations, the Diyanet Vakfı, an affiliate of the state Directorate of Religious Affairs, has also increased its presence and activities in Africa.

Alongside its economic expansion into Africa, Turkey has also increased its military presence on the continent, opening a military base in Somalia, signing a deal to restore a naval port in Sudan and agreeing to open another base in Djibouti. With its military cooperation agreement with Qatar and plans to expand its base there, Turkey will have an established military presence in the Red Sea–Indian Ocean–Gulf triangle.

As political disputes with its Middle Eastern neighbours sour trade and full EU membership becomes an increasingly distant prospect, it remains to be seen whether Turkey will be able to make that up with its quest for new markets in Africa.