Libreville — In an unlikely Francophone country, Gabon, in central western Africa, Turkey has found a partner that is willing to work with Ankara on a number of regional and international issues despite the approximate 5,000 kilometer distance between the two. Sharing the same platform — the 57-member Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — both countries have overlapping interests on the African continent. Promoting stability as a sine qua non for development, investment and economic cooperation is the main theme bringing Turkey and Gabon together in this part of the world. In a way, as an emerging power and a G-20 member, Turkey — with the world’s fastest growing economy after China — has recently paired nicely with “emerging Gabon” as described by President Ali Bongo Ondimba himself.
While covering the ninth session of the Islamic Conference of Information Ministers of the member states of the OIC in Gabon this week, held at the large Cité de la Démocratie compound in downtown Libreville, I had a chance to reflect on what the two countries can achieve together on the African continent. As Turkey has started to weigh in on a number of hot conflict spots in Africa to support stability and security and possibly help mediate in the region to resolve outstanding issues to facilitate market penetration, Gabon has emerged as the ideal business partner in central Africa for Turkey. Both countries worked together in 2010 as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and together dealt with some of the tough issues.
Understandably, Gabon fears that problems in neighboring countries and other parts of Africa may spill over to Gabon, possibly having a destabilizing impact on the country of 1.6 million people. Thus, it welcomes Turkish involvement in a number of African countries such as Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Somalia. Ondimba also believes that it can use Turkish experience in a number of areas to enhance the capacity of Gabonese institutions that are notorious for lackluster performance.
Thanks to speedy implementation of major reforms it has adopted since 2001, Turkey continues to grow despite the crisis in the eurozone where some of its largest trading partners are located. Both the World Bank and IMF describe Turkey as one of the success stories in recent years and invite Ankara to share best practices with other countries. As bold economic reforms have always been a priority for Gabon’s president since he assumed power in 2009, Ankara can help Bongo enhance his government’s capacity to absorb reforms by offering these best practices and sharing experiences, such as consolidation of public finances and the establishment of good governance, with Gabonese authorities.
Ondimba also seeks Turkish assistance in supporting the development of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in Gabon as a backbone for sustainable stability in the country. He does not want the economy to rely on big, mostly foreign firms, operating in a couple of industries, such as oil and the mining sector. That is why he invited the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the largest business advocacy group in Turkey, which is known world wide for boosting SMEs, to come to Gabon. TUSKON organized business meeting in Gabon last year and has regularly invited Gabonese SMEs to business summits held in Turkey and in other countries since then.
Ondimba was defense minister for 10 years before his father, who was Africa’s longest serving head of state, passed away in 2009. He knows and appreciates the value of having a strong military presence in a tough neighborhood. He thinks cooperating closely with Turkey on defense technology, military training and cadet exchanges can help modernize his army, especially the elite Presidential Guards. Both countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2011 on defense cooperation. Ondimba sent Minister of Defense Rufin Pacôme Ondzounga to Turkey in May 2011 to attend the 10th International Defense Fair in İstanbul; there are already some Turkish proposals on the table concerning the procurement of defense contracts from Gabon.
President Abdullah Gül’s visit to Gabon in March 2011, the first official Turkish visit at this level, was certainly a turning point in lifting bilateral ties to a new level. It was hardly a new start, however, as a Turkish international school in Libreville, capital of Gabon, opened in 2008, four years before the opening of a Turkish embassy. The school is very popular among the Gabonese and operates at full capacity with 106 students, gaining the respect and praise of Gabonese people, including Ondimba. OIC head Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu dropped by the school on Thursday to congratulate the school administrators for promoting quality education in a member country.
From an investment perspective, Gabon, a very stable and safe country in Africa, represents one of the safest bets for Turkish businesses in opening up to the vast African market. The fact that Gabon has managed to attract over $4 billion of foreign direct investment for the oil and extraction industries since 2010 is significant evidence that international businesses are increasingly lured to this country thanks to President Ondimba’s comprehensive reforms. There are a lot of opportunities for Turkish businesses in Gabon in the tourism, mining, food and timber industries. Considering that Gabon is drawing up plans for major infrastructure investments ranging from road improvements to mass housing development projects, Turkish companies, known as among the best in these fields, may participate in the government tenders.
Industrialization and the service sector are two important areas Gabon greatly emphasizes for development. Turkey is a leading manufacturing base in Europe and major player in world’s hospitality and tourism industry. It can offer much to Gabon. On the other hand, Gabon can also be a gateway for Turkey to enter into regional organizations like the 11-member Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC), which is headquartered in Libreville, or the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC). Though connectivity issues like poor roads and inadequate ports may pose some problems, this does not mean it will stay like that forever.
The trade volume between the two countries is currently very negligible, and there is room to improve. It has increased from $24 million in 2010 to $33.5 million in 2011, an increase of 40 percent. In the Jan-Feb 2012 period, the volume increased by 5 percent compared to the same period last year. The legal framework for business cooperation was partially laid down during the Turkish president’s visit last year, which covered five intergovernmental agreements, with more to follow during the projected visit of Ondimba to Turkey in July. Talks on lifting visas mutually and the launch of direct Turkish Airlines (THY) flights from İstanbul to Libreville are still under review.
Another common cultural trait I notice here is that Turkey and Gabon are successful examples of harmonizing multi-religious elements in their respective populations. Turks have, for centuries, advocated a mystical Sufi interpretation of Islam instead of a radical obscured version of Islam, which has nothing to do with the religion’s principles.
The moderation and tradition of acceptance for diversity acted as a bulwark against fundamentalist movements taking root in Turkey. In Gabon, three quarters of the population is Christian, while 12 percent is Muslim including Ondimba. There are no radical ideologies nestled in this West African country.
That does not mean, however, that radical terror organizations like al-Qaida are not thinking about using the Gulf of Guinea in the future as a base to pit different religious groups against each other. We have to learn from the bitter Somali experience where radical groups turned the Horn of Africa into a pirate bay and wreaked havoc in the country. To prevent that remote possibility, Turkey and Gabon can and should work together on promoting religious education that values a culture of diversity, pluralism and tolerance as a strong foundation for a harmonious, stable and secure nation.
I would say both Turkey and Gabon discovered each other very late but seem to be covering a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time. As Gabon tries to diversify its international partners to counter the influence of France in this former colony and to limit Chinese penetration, Turkey, among others, emerges as one of the strong candidate countries Gabonese leaders feel comfortable doing business with. One thing is sure: The strong political will to explore potentials exists on both sides.