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Dr. Yunus Turhan
May 25 is the anniversary of “African Liberation Day”, marking a momentous process of integration between 31 African leaders in 1963, which brought together a broad-front of African revitalization under the auspices of pax-Africa solidarity. This encouraging manifestation was a robust step of political reunification to help overcome the ever-present hurdles to achieving a lasting autonomy, thereby striving to challenge the core-periphery relations between colony and metropole. This was a period when African states were becoming more and more fragile and dependent on intrusive economics of the former colonial powers, which created an unbearable foreign debt for African nations, rising from $14.8 billion in 1974 to $150 billion in 1992, and skyrocketing to $726.55 billion as of 2021.
Coincidently May 25 is also the anniversary of Turkey’s economic independence in 1954, when the final payment of hire-purchases of Ottoman Public Debt, that had led Turkey to fall into a debt trap burden in 1854, was completed. Thus, May 25 not only signifies two actors moving in different directions, the decade from 1954 to 1963 was also a period when the level of relations between Turkey and Africa were at their lowest. Turkey’s reluctant stance to support many African state’s hard-earned independence poured fuel on the fire of Turkey’s negative image in those states, earning Turkey the label of ‘Satellite of the USA’ and ‘Police of the Western Imperialism’. The decline of bilateral relations wrought a profound sense of pessimism in the following three decades.
However, from the early 2000s, the peripheralization of Africa in Turkish foreign policy began to fade. Under Turkey’s fresh ‘Opening to Africa Policy’, the newly elected Justice and Development Party (JDP)’s unorthodox Turkish foreign policy ushered in the timely process of building new relationships. Furthermore, Turkey’s regional power aspirations which stimulated its Africa policy, are motivated by a responsive and normative pursuit of available opportunities
Turkey’s Africa policy bore its fruit with the appointment of Turkey to ‘observer status’ in the African Union on 12 April 2005, followed by it being included as a ‘Strategic partner’ in the 10th African Union Summit in January 2008.
From 2008 onward, a sustainable cooperation was set in place whereby relations were institutionalised. Compared to 2008, when there was only 12 Turkish embassies in Africa (with five of them located in Northern Africa), the number currently stands at 43, which gives Turkey the 4th highest number of diplomatic representatives in Africa. Simultaneously, African embassies in Ankara jumped from 10 in 2015 to 37 as of 2022.
This has developed alongside high-level diplomatic visits by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has spearheaded tours of 32 different African nations with more than 50 trips during his tenure as both prime minister and president, while there were only three official visits by Turkish leaders to Africa from 1923 to 1998.
Turkey’s Africa policy is further advanced with the export-based embeddedness of Turkish firms in Africa. Its trade volume with African countries has increased from only $5.4 billion in 2003, to $25.3 billion in 2021, and Turkish companies have undertaken more than 1,150 projects in Africa with a total value exceeding nearly $70 billion. The most important leap forward has come in addressing a much broader geographical coverage, as such trade volume with Sub-Saharan Africa jumped 24.8% year-on-year from $1.35 billion in 2003 to hit record high of $10.7 billion in 2021.
Inevitably, Turkey’s effort would have remained intangible if it were not for the facilitation of Turkish Airlines (THY) which has played a game changer role in enabling Turkey’s outreach to previously remote regions through connecting the continent to the world, with flights to 60 destinations in 38 African countries as of May 2022.
Turkish philanthropical organisations have also been using participatory and cooperation-friendly aid activities in the remote and hard-to-reach part of the continent through working hand-in-hand with the state, to further advance Turkey’s Africa policy on a continental scale.
In less than two decades, the Turko-African marriage that was consummated with the Africa Opening policy in rejuvenating its age-old ties to former Ottoman lands, has reached a mature enough level with solid achievements. Being an Afro-Asian state with the lack of colonial history in Africa, through this process Turkey has set itself apart from the traditional and non-traditional players found in African geopolitics in both practice and policy.
First and foremost, Turkey does not speak to Africa with a proverbial forked tongue, avoiding the risk of appearing to engage in “a new scramble for Africa” or “old wine in new bottles,” a common criticism of neo-colonial power, by emphasizing its benevolence and altruism. Given the premises of “win-win” based relationships among equals, Ankara delegitimises the role of former colonial powers in the region while simultaneously pursuing the catchall phrase “African solutions to African problems”.
Most western powers assume “Africa-as-a problem” due to the sources of most of the travails. China on the other hand replicates neo-colonial practice in the continent, oscillating between tepid engagement and “debt-trap diplomacy” as a part of its broad strategy. Above all, Turkey offers the horizontal patterns of economic interaction based on importing manufactured goods by selling commodities to African countries which aim to annihilate once-exclusive economic ties with erstwhile colonizers to nullify African domains as a veritable ‘chasse gardée’ for them.
To summarise, Africa is blessed with natural and mineral resources, and indeed plays a vital role in aiding the world, not the other way round. All it needs is fair, sincere, non-hierarchical, and solidarity-based support to stand on its own merit to chip away at the entrenched ‘Africa pessimism’ establishment. Turkey stands by all means to facilitate unhindered independence of the post-colonial states in Africa, leading to a nuanced path of economic diversification towards external actors in seeking to be influential both in the present geopolitical and beyond. In with the words of veteran scholar Ali Mazrui who stated that: “Africa has to conquer itself, if it is to avoid further colonization by others, thus it needs to establish a Pax-Africana, an African peace promoted and maintained by Africans themselves.”
Dr. Yunus Turhan is lecturer on “Africa in World Politics” and “Political History” at Osmaniye Korkut Ata University. During his doctorate at Middle East Technical University (METU), he was also affiliated to Oxford University, as visiting research fellow from 2017 to 2018. He has previously published several articles in various prestigious journals