What is Turkey doing in Africa?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Somalia in January 2015, four years after a visit to the country at the height of its worst famine in 2011. (Photo: Cihan)



In late May, The Guardian shared a video in its Comment is Free section, featuring freelance writer Eliza Anyangwe, who tried to dispel myths about Africa in view of how the continent is often covered by Western media. The message was simple: “Africa is just like anywhere else, although we know you think there is only death, destruction and disease.”

The approach taken to Africa by Western media outlets has long been a matter of debate. There has been extensive criticism of the continent’s underrepresentation, as well as massive misrepresentation. There are, of course, many elephants, having survived the attacks of poachers and wealthy white hunters, in the room. These include the massive amounts of looting, rape and exploitation of the continent in the colonial era, and the unspeakable horrors natives of Africa were subjected to at the hands of the barbaric colonizers.

Some argue that the exploitation of Africa by white Westerners is still going on, and that the “humanitarian aid” industry actually facilitates this. Judging by reports from human rights groups and UN statistics on levels of education, it can be argued that African countries in general are not benefitting from all their dealings with Westerners as much as they should, and most corporations still see Africa as a source that can be pillaged for natural resources. Conflict diamonds and other minerals have helped finance civil wars, resulting in the loss of millions of African lives, and the continent still remains a place from which to extract wealth for many multinational companies, both major and small.

Turkey has always prided itself on not being an “evil colonizer.” The Turkish public knows that the Europeans did “horrible things” in Africa, and even when engaging in small talk, people frequently accuse the West of having risen on the blood of Africans. Could it be, however, that Turkey’s own legacy concerning Africa is worse than the perfect image of the Ottoman protector that Turkish writers of history often portray it to be? Could it be that, perhaps, the recently revived relations between Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa have a more sinister side?

Starting in the early 2000s, Turkey, previously not much of a player in Africa, launched a policy to create new ties with the continent. Between 2005 and 2008, the government seriously implemented these policies.

The most important Turkish actor in Africa for the past decade, though, has been the Fethullah Gülen community, whose members opened many schools in African countries. Before the previously strong alliance between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the Gülen community collapsed, Turkey made a comeback to the continent in a harmonized approach between Gülen-inspired civil society organizations and diplomats. Trade with Africa soared during this period. Turkish Airlines (THY) began sending flights to the capitals of many sub-Saharan African countries shortly after diplomatic missions were established in those nations.

The tale of Turkey’s “rediscovery” of Africa and its emerging influence made many headlines in both the domestic and international press. In particular, Turkey’s intervention in Somalia in 2011 during a drought was much lauded. Turkey donated more than 400 million dollars to Somalia in 2011, most of it coming from private donations. Turkish aid organizations have been highly active in Mogadishu and other places.

After the tide turned, the Recep Tayyip Eroğdan-led government tried to undermine the Gülen community’s presence in Africa, following the emergence of a major corruption investigation against the government, and this will decidedly have consequences on Turkey’s blossoming relations with sub-saharan African countries. However, Turkey’s recent engagement in the continent has mostly been reviewed positively.

The problem is, though, there is not much critical reporting on Turkey’s relationship with Africa. Even in terms of history, not much information is accessible to the general public about Ottoman dealings in northern Africa, regions of which were once part of Turkey.

Most of the books, publications and articles written on Ottoman history in Africa, be they by academics or journalists, come from researchers and reporters with religious backgrounds who use a romantic tone in their writings, glorifying Ottoman rule in northern Africa. There is not much reporting on how Ottomans — who were then too weak to show any interest in Africa — viewed European colonialism in Africa during the late 19th century. We know that slavery was legal in the Ottoman era, and that state officials hardly showed any interest in the harrowing violence inflicted upon African natives, but could the Ottomans have contributed to Africa’s plight, at least by supporting European slavers?

There are two books written by Mustafa Olpak, a descendant of a Kenyan slave who was sold at Crete’s Köle Kıyısı (slave coast) in 1890 to an İstanbul merchant, which include biographies of Africans who were sold as slaves. Sabancı University historian Y. Hakan Erdem’s “Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and its Demise, 1800-1909” (Osmanlı’da Köleliğin Sonu 1800 – 1909) includes records of African slaves as part of the broader slavery culture of the Ottomans, and gives voice to the descendants of African slaves in Turkey. These people are never talked about in Turkey, and not because the issue is taboo, but simply because nobody thinks it was significant. But shouldn’t it be important to confront slavery if it existed in one’s own history?

All in all, Turkey’s past role regarding Africa needs to be examined further by independent researchers.

The question of whether Turkey’s current engagement in Africa is exploitative in nature, or whether Turkish businessmen and government officials truly see their African counterparts as equal trade partners, still needs to be understood and reviewed critically by more impartial scholars or writers who don’t benefit from the newly burgeoning business ties with Africa. More importantly, the patterns of trade and business conducted by Turkish companies should be examined.

Finally, there is the harrowing claim that Turkey has armed jihadist groups in Nigeria. A voice recording of a phone conversation allegedly between a chief Prime Ministry advisor and a THY official released in 2014 suggests that the airlines shipped weapons to Nigeria. Given the pro-Sunni Turkish government’s adventures in Syria and its veiled support for jihadists groups in that country, allegedly including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), coupled with a lack of transparency and a general tendency to romanticize relations with Sub-Saharan Africa on the part of the few scholars and journalists who cover Turkish-African ties, we can’t be certain that Turkey’s recent engagement in Africa is purely a good thing.

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