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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Turkey's increasing engagement in Africa

Turkey’s increased presence in Africa, using its Somalian military base (its first in the continent), which opened in September, is increasingly driving discussion of the state's aims - and increasing influence - in Africa.

The debate tends to focus on business and economics, and notes the effect on trade as well as that Turkish firms are winning major contracts, such as one project to build a railway across Ethiopia and Tanzania.

But it is also about more than trade. First, because Turkey under Erdogan believes the state should be proud of its heritage as the heart of the former Ottoman Empire, which once stretched across large parts of Africa.

The legacy of empire remains in states such as Sudan, where Turkish restaurants massively outnumber any other ‘foreign’ food sellers, where Lebne is sold in all supermarkets and where, despite the majority of the Muslim world dismissing them as either foolish or dangerous magic, evil eyes are sold almost as much as in Greece and Turkey itself.

At present, there is no suggestion that he believes Turkey should re-invade any states, but Erdogan is certainly eager to make Turkey a leading ‘partner’ of African nations.

Second, because Turkey has, for almost all of its 1,000 year history, suffered from claims of what it is not – specifically and for the longest period, from Arab states that it is not Arab, despite being a majority Muslim nation (Iran also receives this criticism from the Arab world). This applied even when it was, as the Ottoman Empire, undeniably the world’s greatest Muslim power.

Equally, though it is in part Erdogan’s fault, and in part overplayed by the Turkish President,

Turkey’s relationship with Europe has seldom been worse since the modern state’s creation in 1920: certainly, it achieving its long-held aim of joining the EU is less likely than at any recent point. And Europe has always been Turkey’s ‘go-to’ because its Arab neighbours refuse to accept its aims and ambitions.

In Africa – particularly the North and East – Turkey effectively has ‘ready-made’ contemporaries; Muslims but not Arabs, and never quite a part of the wider ‘pan-Arabic’ umbrella. Not only that, but as by far the wealthiest and best connected of those states, Turkey would certainly lead such a group.

Finally, however, and as noted here previously, while statements that Africa ‘is on the brink’ of some sparkling and enormous success always prove to be optimistic, there is no escaping the fact that it is a vast and populous region of the world, with immense mineral and biological wealth, and that at some point (sooner if the global economic system is altered to be less weighted in favour of the already obscenely rich) it will, as a continent, gain in strength, influence, wealth and power.

The US, China and Russia are already building influence there, and have been for decades (China in particular through trade, Russia through its fuel and other giant businesses, the US at present largely through military ‘assistance’). Turkey is attempting the same thing – spotting a ‘market’ and trying to enter it early.

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