Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa

ISTANBUL – While the rest of the world contemplates the economic tsunami that has devastated markets over the past few months, Turkey has turned its attention to Africa.

“For those seeking opportunities for investment, Africa is the new world, a place of opportunity,” said Serkan Alpman, a Turkish business owner in Nairobi, adding that this was mainly due to a lack of industrialization.

The global flight from anything but the safest investment has crippled emerging markets like Turkey. This January their imports fell by more than 40 percent year-on-year while exports fell by a quarter.

As global demand falters, with Europeans and Americans pinching pennies in an effort to ride out the crisis, Turkey’s small- and medium-size enterprises have been seeking alternatives to their export markets.

Turkey has increased its trade volume with African nations from around $5.4 billion to $13 billion in less then three years, and is targeting $30 billion by the end of 2010.

Historically, the Ottoman Empire had considerable relations with Africa — aided by the fact that African states such as Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Sudan were totally or partially subject to Ottoman rule. With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, however, contact between Turkey and Africa all but broke off.

Over the past decade and a half, Turkish policymakers have carefully shaped an African dimension to Turkey’s foreign policy that is increasingly involved in a dizzying range of sectors from trade to transport, health to humanitarian aid.

Turkey has made inroads into Africa’s transport sector with scheduled flights of flagship carrier Turkish Airlines to regional hubs of Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Lagos, Johannesburg and, most recently, Nairobi.

Ankara also plans to venture into Africa’s maritime sector, with investment in key facilities such as the Port of Mombasa.

Last month, Abdullah Gul visited Kenya and Tanzania — becoming the first Turkish president to pay an official visit to these sub-Saharan nations — to expand Turkey's relations with the two. During his trip Gul pointed out that all but two African countries had supported Turkey's candidacy in 2008 for a two-year, nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council.

"The Turkish Republic will be the spokesman for Africa at the UN,” Gul said. “It will support Africa on all of its issues.”

Gul's visit to sub-Saharan Africa is a continuation of Turkey's Africa initiative, which began when the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, declared 2005 the "Year of Africa." Increasing Turkish investment in Africa represents a smooth meshing of both governmental and business policies.

“Our businessmen came to us and told us about the great potential for investment in Africa,” said Ahmet Yucel, Head of the African Department within the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We said ‘Why not?’ and thus we began our African adventure.”

Closer ties with Africa are particularly critical to Turkey — a state with few natural resources whose economy is undergoing a transformation from heavy reliance on agriculture and manufacturing to a more globally inclined one driven by the services sector.

A steadily growing economy is also seen to be critical to the realization of Turkey’s ambition to become a member of the European Union — a goal it has been pursuing for nearly a decade.

Turkish initiatives in Africa extend beyond their commercial and economic relations. Turkish humanitarian and development assistance to Africa has also been growing steadily, with the Official Development Assistance totaling $700 million in the last three years.

“To this end, we have set up several dedicated funds for Africa. The latest initiative is the allocation of $50 million to finance development in Africa over the next five years,”  Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said.

As with most tales of ventures in Africa, however, there are difficult political questions tied to such expansive investment. Some of Turkey’s relationships with African states, most notably Sudan, have international observers worried that Turkey may not stand behind the U.S. in the UN Security Council.

Of particular importance is how Turkey will vote on the matter of the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. Last week Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for Sudan's campaign in Darfur, where up to 300,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million displaced since 2003. 

“Turkey is playing its cards with the Sudanese establishment … but problems of Sudan have some similarities to that of Turkey,” said Emrullah Uslu, a visiting fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation, in reference to Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds. “When it comes to voting against al-Bashir I do not think that Turkey would vote against him.”

The ruling AKP government hosted al-Bashir twice in 2008, for which it was heavily criticized by liberal intellectuals. In February, the Sudanese vice president, Ali Osman Taha, asked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to block any possible moves against al-Bashir that might appear on the Security Council agenda during an official visit to Ankara.

Despite the politics of the situation, however, many remain optimistic about the potential impact Turkey’s relationship with Africa will have.

“Given that there is no true voice of Africa in G-20 and other international organizations, Turkey could fill that gap to bring some of Africa's problems to the table,” Uslu said. “With its nonpartisan view toward the continent Turkey could get the job done.”

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