Opening up to Africa is not a new idea in Turkish foreign policy, and its origin certainly does not lie with the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The action plan to improve ties with Africa was formulated in 1988 but was never realized due to domestic woes throughout the ’90s, amid the political bickering of government coalition partners.
It was only in 2003, after the AK Party government was able to form a single-party cabinet in the November 2002 election, that the shelved action plan was brought back to life. The year 2005 was declared the Year of Africa, which prompted a series of exchanges between Turkey and a number of African countries. From there, relations have rapidly gained in intensity, with dozens of summits involving Africa being held in İstanbul.
The policy has worked out. Turkey’s growing ties with African countries, especially the ones in the long-neglected sub-Saharan part, have started to bear fruit in economic and political terms. From Ankara’s perspective, this strategic shift has more to do with the long-term vision that recognized the opportunities Africa would offer in the second half of the 21st century. However, even in the short run, the benefits of Turkish engagement in Africa can be witnessed today in many areas.
Today, Africa’s share in Turkey’s overall trade volume is only 5 percent. But there is huge potential to increase it. Numbers speak for themselves: In 2002, trade volume with all of Africa was $2.9 billion, while it had reached $15.8 billion as of last year, an increase of 445 percent. Turkish exports to the continent were worth $10.3 billion in 2011 as compared with $6.8 billion in imports in 2002, heavily favoring Turkey. In the last nine months of this year, Turkish exports have risen to $9.8 billion, up from $7.4 billion in the same period of last year, corresponding to a 32 percent jump.
The number of African travelers choosing Turkey as a holiday destination is also on the rise. Just 181,000 African tourists visited Turkey in 2001; a decade later this has increased to 446,000 people, an increase of 146 percent. The student population from Africa in Turkish universities and colleges is also on the rise.
That is why the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is busy opening new embassies all over Africa. The ministry has launched new embassies in 22 additional countries on the continent in the last three years, with more planned in the coming years. Today Turkey is among the five most represented nations on the African continent. In return, 15 African countries have opened embassies in Ankara, with 19 lined up to do so in the near future.
Turkey secured the endorsement of all states in Africa, with the exception of South Africa, when it applied for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council in the 2009/10 period. It has announced its bid for another term in 2015/16. Seen as an honest broker, Turkey has started to play an increasing role in African conflicts. It has mediated between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as playing a substantial role in brokering a deal between Sudan and South Sudan. Turkey hosted the fourth United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries (LDC) — a group of 48 nations, mostly from Africa — and is leading discussions to address poverty reduction, capacity development and sustainable growth for LDCs in the next 10 years.
Among these countries, Somalia, which has been suffering a civil war for the past 20 years and has been considered a failed state by many, stands out from the rest. Turkey wants to turn the tide in Somalia, a country Ankara believes is a key state in the Horn of Africa that will grow in importance in the future. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told lawmakers during his ministry’s budget debate in Parliament’s Planning and Budget Commission this week that the Gulf of Aden, between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, would be the most strategically important location in Africa in the future. Stressing that almost 60 percent of world trade flows from that region, he noted that the region links the Middle East to Africa through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Turkey has already opened an embassy in Djibouti and plans to launch one in Eritrea soon.
Turkey is the only country with a fully fledged embassy in Mogadishu, operating with full staff. It has been building one of the largest embassy compounds in Africa, situated on some 20 acres of land, in Djibouti, and Ethiopian embassies are operating with a limited capacity in Mogadishu. Both the Turkish government and Turkish NGOs have poured aid into Somalia, establishing schools, medical facilities and rebuilding municipal services for the residents of Mogadishu. The aid efforts also extend to other parts of Somalia, including Putnam and Somaliland.
Turkey’s national carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) is the only international flight operator connecting Mogadishu to the rest of the world. The last destination added by THY in Africa was the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, in mid-September. This is the 24th destination to which THY operates flights on the African continent, following the commencement of flights to the Republic of Djibouti in early September. With the addition of new African destinations, THY climbed up the list of international operators in terms of its destination network. The carrier is expected to continue widening its flight network in Africa, with upcoming destinations in line with increasing Turkish integration with the region over the past decade both in economic and political terms.
The groundwork for passenger and cargo flight permissions was laid by the Transportation Ministry’s Civil Aviation General Directorate (SHGM), which signed deals to boost air traffic with 15 countries from Africa at a recent meeting. Mozambique was left out, but Turkish officials say they will sign an aviation agreement soon.
Turkish schools, known for excellence in science and technology, are very active in Africa, and have also played a significant role in contributing to the soft power of Turkey. Even in places where the Turkish government has no diplomatic representation, Turkish international schools, backed and funded by Turkish NGOs and business groups, established a presence a long time ago. For example, Turkey does not yet have an embassy in the Central African Republic (whose foreign minister has been teasing his Turkish counterpart for some time now over the lack of representation there) though Turkey opened embassies in its neighboring countries, but it has a Turkish school that was established in 2006 with some 750 students at present.
No doubt there is a lot that needs to be done in Turkey’s sincere efforts to contribute to the development of this beautiful continent. We need more resources and more manpower directed to this endeavor. But from what we have seen so far, there are certainly more reasons to be hopeful today.