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How Turkey's approach to Africa differs from the West and China

  • Merve Ayşe Kızılaslan
  • 20 Oct 2021

Ankara offers a new opportunity to diversify and establish more humane, balanced, reasonable, and far from risky engagements to African countries

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right, 2) met with Togo President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe (left, 2), Burkina Faso President Christian Kabore (right) and Liberian President George Manneh Weah (left) at a working dinner. ( TCCB/Murat Çetinmühürdar / AA )

Since 2002, Turkey’s engagement with Africa has been one of the country's main pillars under its humanitarian and multi-dimensional foreign policy, focusing on enhancing ties on trade, military cooperation, education, diplomacy, infrastructure, civil society, and political relations in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Ties between Turkey and several African nations are fostering amidst a cut-throat competition between Western and Asian powers that are jostling for space to increase their influence in the continent and access its natural resources. 

According to Ibrahim Alegoz, a PhD candidate at Ibn Haldun University, the global competition in the continent comes from the belief that Africa will be a major player in the international system as of the second half of the 21st century while considering its increasing role on the global scene. 

In fact, the region has always been an area of political and economic struggle.

''When we consider the last 200 years of the African continent, we see that the region is sometimes a competition area, sometimes a place where its rich resources were plundered, social fabric and traditional institutions were undermined by the colonial powers,'' Alegoz told TRT World. 

And now, Japan, China and Russia have their increased interests over the region, along with Western powers.

Recently, China and Western countries such as France's ambitious policies over becoming dominant in the continent resulted in periodic summits such as the New Africa-France summit, massive strategic investments, trade plans and loans.  

Dr Serhat Orakci, Analyst on African politics at Insamer, emphasized China's role since it has significantly increased its influence over the region.

''For years, China has allocated financing to some mega projects in the region, and African countries pay this financing by selling their resources.''

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends meeting with Togo's President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe in Togo on October 19, 2021.(AA)

But the African countries have had difficulties in paying the heavy debts. Angola is one such example as it has at least 20 billion in debt. The country has struggled to clear its debt, and instead given concessions to China, it is inviting the Asian economic powerhouse to invest in its agriculture, animal husbandry and tourism sectors.  

In the meantime, Turkey has quadrupled its embassies all over the continent in 2009 from 12 to 42 by 2019 to enhance its diplomatic missions and make swift progress in trade, investment, cultural projects, security and military cooperation, development projects.

The total trade volume, on the other hand, has increased from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $25.3 billion in 2020. Turkey's successful response to the 2020 pandemic is also regarded as one of the crucial factors convincing many African nations about Ankara's courage and ability to resolve any crisis. 

Now, to leave more footprints in Africa, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his 4-day long diplomatic tour in Angolo, Togo and Nigeria with the purpose of win-win outcomes and equal partnership.

“As Turkey, we reject western-centred orientalist approaches to the African continent. We embrace the peoples of the African continent without discrimination.”

- President Erdogan to Angolan Parliament General Assembly

‘‘A fairer world is possible’’

Although Turkey has not been present and active in the region for a long time compared to Western countries, according to academics and analysts, Turkey has a natural advantage in increasing its influence and engagement with its humanitarian and self-interest free policies. 

According to Ortacli, one of the reasons lies in the problematic relations between the West and Africa through France and America.

''There is still racism and discrimination against Afro-Americans. Inevitably, this attitude is reflected in America's African politics. France, on the other hand, does not admit their mistakes and pay compensation to Algeria.''

The tension between France and Algeria due to the humanitarian crimes and massacres during the French colonial period still remains.  Hence, the troubled essence of relations between the West and Africa under the shadow of colonialism further strengthens the search for alternatives.

 That's where Turkey comes into play. Emerging as a strong alternative, Turkey does not have a colonial reputation like Western countries when it comes to engaging with African countries, says Alegoz from Ibn Haldun University, and adding that Ottoman's struggle against the colonial powers is well known and appreciated by the African people.

But, the country's fundamental Africa policy may be the main distinguishing feature of Turkey.

According to Alegoz, one of the basic viewpoints of Turkey's approach is based on the understanding of developing and winning together.

''We are talking about a system established on the fact that the development trend or resource transfer is not only directed towards one side but that all parties are granting a profit from the process.''

In this regard, Ahmet Kavas, Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Dakar, mentioned Turkey's win-win policy that grants fair cooperation for mutual development and humanitarian aid. 

''Turkey's win-win policy paves the way for mutual long-term interaction by signing the necessary agreements that follow investments and trade interaction in economic relations. Humanitarian aid can also be evaluated in this sense.'' Kavas told TRT World.

When Turkey's humanitarian aid is compared to other similar practices, Kavas indicated that Turkey strives for humanitarian assistance directly aimed at African people.

As an example of these efforts, Alegoz cites the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA)’s' efforts in Africa.  TIKA organizes Turkey's foreign aid through its overseas offices and initiated at least seven thousand projects in Africa.

''Turkey brings humanitarian and development aid directly to the African people in contact with the authorities,'' said Alegoz. 

Alegoz highlighted Turkey's robust support in providing healthcare systems to African countries to overcome their difficulties during the pandemic process, a period when humanitarian relations between states are being tested, as being one of the positive factors in the relationship. 

Apart from Ankara's contributions and other agreements, Turkey's ties with Africa are also shaped by personal contributions made by ordinary Turkish citizens. Many Turkish nonprofits are operating in African countries, building schools, wells, roads and other types of public infrastructure.  

''Since 2005, Turkey has become a safe and solid ally of many African countries. Instead of a country that only follows the developments on the continent from the news, Turkey became a country that immediately decides and implements whatever is necessary for the region,'' stated Kavas. 

In this sense, Ibrahim Bachir Abdoulaye, Researcher at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, said that Turkey meets Africa's actual demands, a need for an equitable partnership. 

According to Abdoulaye, the continent desires to establish a partnership based on trust, mutual respect, and a true win-win. And Turkey is seen as a beacon on building strong and long-term economic ties within the scope of trust and mutual interest which is embraced with enthusiasm by African people. 

''If Turkey succeeds in putting this discourse into practice in its relations, it can quickly get ahead of its competitors,'' Abdoulaye told TRT World. 

According to Abdinor Dahir, an African politics researcher at the University of Oxford, Turkey’s growing influence is a result of Turkey's evolving business model in Africa. 

Indeed, Kavas stresses that now, Turkish companies that invest in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe are also present in Africa with all their might. In fact, if Turkey had attempted to enter the African market in the middle of the 20th century, the neo-colonial monopoly would have been limited in the region.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari receives Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his official visit to Abuja, Nigeria. October 20, 2021.(AA)

''The Turkish products have superior qualities from Chinese commodities and are cheaper than those from Western products, therefore, becoming more popular among the African consumer markets,'' Dahir told TRT World, shedding light on the commercial gains for both parties as Turkish products enter the African market. 

Being solely dependent on the West or China brings serious risks for Africa. Therefore, they want to expand their relations to a wider spectrum, and Turkey can play a vital role.

Alegoz underlines that Turkey wants to meet with its African counterparts to jointly pursue their vision for the future. In this sense, Alegoz said, it is noteworthy to mention that President Erdogan's statement of "A fairer world is possible" has been welcomed by African leaders.

''When we look at the Western and rising actors' statements in Africa, there are no explanations about the functioning of the current status quo and alternative situations.''

''This vision, which was put forward in a setting where the current situation is difficult to find answers in solving problems or alleviating crises, enables Turkey to emerge as a strong alternative in Africa and differentiate it from traditional actors.''

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