Turkey’s Outreach To Africa

flickr_8429965194_8d1e86894c_k_Daniel Snelson

Fifty African heads of state and government, or their representatives, participated in the first Turkish-African Summit held in Istanbul from 18-20 August 2008.

Hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gül and attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Jean Ping, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, South Africa was represented by Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ncuka. In her address to the summit, the South African deputy president spoke in very positive terms of Turkey and the role it can play in Africa’s development.

The summit was intended to demonstrate to Africa, Turkey’s commitment and outreach to the continent. Ancillary events were a Turkish-Africa Civil Society Forum on 14-16 August and a Turkish-Africa Economic Forum held concurrently with the summit.

Turkey has had a long engagement with Africa, going back to the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the first Turkish honorary consul was appointed in Cape Town in 1861 and two years later the Sultan sent an Islamic scholar, Abubakr Effendi, to Cape Town to teach and guide local Muslims.

It is, however, only recently that Turkey has recognised the importance of expanding and developing its diplomatic and economic relations with the countries of Africa. After consultations with domestic stakeholders in 1998, a policy of outreach to Africa was launched in 2003 and ratcheted up further in 2005, when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, paid a visit to South Africa, a first for a Turkish head of government. He also visited Ethiopia during this African tour. Since this visit, Turkey has secured observer status at the African Union in Addis Ababa, while the AU has recently also declared Turkey a strategic partner.

The summit is a recognition by Turkey that, like Japan, China, India and the European Union, its political and commercial interests in Africa can contribute to the successful development of the region. Continuing poverty, with its resulting instability, outward migration, health problems, organised crime and drug trafficking are a potential threat to Turkey as a neighbour to Africa on the northern shore of the Mediterranean.

Africa also possesses many resources which are important for Turkey’s industries and countries in the region provide an important market for its exports. By helping to create wealth and stability in African countries in a responsible way, Turkey can advance its own interests.

This is significant because Turkish companies, many of them owned by highly entrepreneurial families, are less risk-averse than major multinationals from the industrialised world. They are prepared to establish manufacturing plants to supply goods to the local markets in countries that are seldom considered for foreign direct investment.  Turkish trade with Africa has grown from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $13 billion in 2007, while South Africa’s exports, including gold, reached $2.172 billion in 2007 and imports from Turkey totalled $654 million, according to Turkish statistics. During the first six months of 2008, the position was reversed and for the first time South African imports from Turkey exceeded exports by $922 million to $810 million.

In the political sphere, Turkey aspires to winning a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in 2009-2010 and the support of Africa’s 54 members of the UN General Assembly would make a major contribution towards the number of votes needed for its success.

There are already 12 Turkish embassies in African countries and in order to build its knowledge in and of Africa, Turkey has announced that it will open 15 new embassies to complement the existing missions. Together they will bring a direct Turkish presence and a greater awareness of Turkey to more than two-thirds of the countries of Africa. More African countries are also opening embassies in Ankara, the most recent being Somalia which has just placed one of its only four ambassadors in the Turkish capital.

Yet many policy analysts emphasise that Turkey and Africa suffer a mutual lack of knowledge of each other. The three concurrent high-level meetings taking place in mid-August 2008 will help close this information gap. Having visited the ancient and historic city of Istanbul that lies at the meeting point of Asia and Europe and but a short distance from the African shore, African leaders will return to their countries with a greater understanding and sympathy for a country that is at once a major and dynamic emerging economy, and a bridge between continents, the developed and the developing worlds and the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

For the Turkish leadership the summit and the two concurrent forums have also created an important opportunity to meet their African counterparts and to be exposed to the region’s views and sensitivities. They will come away warned not to take Africa and Africans for granted. If the outcomes of the meetings are followed up appropriately, much good can come for both sides from these historic meetings.

[1] The Summit had on its agenda intergovernmental co-operation; trade and industry; health; peace and security; infrastructure development in energy; transport and telecommunications; culture and education; media and communications.

[2] The civil society forum was attended by representatives of 88 CSOs from 36 African countries and 86 Turkish CSOs, which engage in a range of issues from consumer protection, gender and family, civil rights, water and sanitation, the diaspora, as well as trade unions and policy think-tanks. South Africa was represented by the Africa Institute, the South African Institute of International Affairs, the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the Mvula Trust, a water and sanitation organisation. The event was organised by the Africa Institute of the Turkish Asia Centre for Strategic Studies (TASAM).

[4] The economic forum was arranged by the Turkish Foreign Trade Board (DEIK) and was attended by several South African business leaders such as Bridget Radebe, who participated as a speaker, as well as representatives of the African Development Bank, the World Bank and other financial and trade institutions in Turkey and Africa.

[5] Wheeler, T, Turkey and South Africa: Development of Relations 1860 – 2005, SAIIA Report number 47, 2005.

[6] Figures from the Turkish Institute of Statistics, supplied by the South African embassy in Ankara.

[7] Gueli, R and Oguzhan Kase, ‘Turkey ready to befriend Africa’, Sunday Independent,  10 February 2008,