India and China are not the only new entries in the rush towards Africa. Turkey is also trying to cash in the dividends of the Arab spring, and become one of the centres of reference for African countries south of the Sahara. Supported by an economic renaissance, the government of Ankara is pursuing an aggressive diplomatic tactic to gain influence – political and economic – in many countries. Since the Justice and Development Party’s rise to power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – prime minister – and Abdullah Gull – president – have led a battle to reconcile tradition with modernity, Islam with business, and the business of the so called free market. The Turkish democracy is still in its infancy, fragile and often at odds with itself, yet able to attract the interest of the Arab world, and beyond.
After years of friendship with Israel, Turkey demonstrated against the attacks in the Gaza Strip. The support given to the Palestinian cause has been well received in Egypt. The Arab world was also pleased of the support given to the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Turkey was more cautious with Libya. Yet, as soon as Erdogan understood that Turkey’s investments there (20 billion euros) were not safe, he sided with the insurgents. After the death of the Colonel, Erdogan visited Libya with 170 entrepreneurs. Libya’s oil fuels Turkey’s industry, and north African gas could become another important source of energy in the next few years, when the Arab Gas Pipeline that today serves Jordan, Syria and Israel from the terminal at Al-Arish, in the Sinai, will have a new line towards Istanbul on its way to eastern Europe. The opening towards the Middle East and the Maghreb is due to the opposition found to join the European Union. Ankara seems determined to close the door to the north and develop ties with the Arab and African worlds.
Trade with Sub Saharan Africa is now worth 10 billion Euros, the fastest growing market for Turkey. Many companies are now involved in the development of infrastructures. Eser Construction is busy building roads in Osun State, Nigeria, and will soon start working on the railways of the African giant. Turkish are the companies building the new Abuja Hospital, and the Nigerian-Turkish Nile University of Abuja is the result of a bi-lateral project.
The most important partner remains South Africa. Gold, coal and weapons find their way to Turkey. South African armoured turrets are mounted on Turkish vehicles and then sold to countries in the Far East; a contract worth in excess of 600 million Euros. Turkey sells weapons also to African partners, as well as electrical and mechanical parts, small appliances, textile and foodstuff.
African leaders like their Turkish counterpart. Erdogan and his ministers talk business, do not put their noses in domestic issues and have no demands on human rights or democratic choices. Instead, when needed, they are happy to show religious interests. Islam is seen as a powerful force that binds together likeminded peoples. In 2010 Ankara hosted a meeting of African Islamic scholars and leaders, and 300 African students have been invited to study Islamic theology in Turkey. The humanitarian crisis in Somalia has seen the prompt response of Ankara. Last August, Erdogan and his wife visited Mogadishu and pledged their support for the people hardest hit by the famine. A gesture much appreciated in the Muslim world. The IHH – a Turkish foundation for human rights, freedom and humanitarian aid – has been active since 1995 and is now present in 41 African countries. The Gulen movement, a powerful Islamic organization founded by the charismatic Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen which supports Erdogan in parliament but pursues a different political agenda, is active in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania with projects and schools supported by Turkish entrepreneurs.
In a few years, Erdogan and his government have been able to weave a fine net in Africa, mixing politics with business and a soft version of Islam. Some analysts believe that the use of religious identity should not be overlooked. “Geostrategic implications – says Peter Pham, of the National committee for foreign relations of the USA – cannot be ignored when we see growing such power and influence in Africa, especially because they are oriented by Islamic views”. Will Erdogan be able to cash in from this religious expansionism in Sub Saharan Africa, becoming a new Nasser, or will his vision be shattered by greater interests? The question is not easy to answer, even though Turkey seems ready to remain a major player in Africa.