Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, African affairs were regarded as a secondary issue in the new state’s foreign policy. Until relatively recently, that is, when Cold War dynamics compelled the Turkish government to align itself with the West.
Having good relations and alliances with the West was one of the main pillars of Turkish foreign policy. Indeed, Turkey paid such special attention to its relations with Western countries that its stance at the historic Asian-African Conference of 1955 – the Bandung Conference in Indonesia aiming to counter imperialism and colonialism and protect the rights of Asian and African countries – caused the Turkish government to be defined as “the spokesperson of American imperialism”.
After the adoption of the Action Plan for Opening up to Africa in the late 1990s, Turkish politicians started to assign a higher priority to relations with the continent. This proactive foreign policy arose under the leadership of Turgut Ozal, who as both Prime Minister (1983-1989) and President (1989-1993) sought to liberalise the Turkish economy. However, Turkey’s financial crisis, political instability and lack of political will impeded the implementation of the plan until Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party came to power in 2002.
Turkey announced 2005 as “the year of Africa” and in 2008 the first ever Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit was held in Istanbul with the participation of representatives from fifty African countries. Again in 2008, Turkey’s then Foreign Minister Ali Babacan declared that Africa had special importance to his country within the context of its new foreign policy, and thus it was decided to open 15 new embassies in Africa over the following few years.
With no colonial past in the continent (although parts of North Africa, including Egypt, were once part of the Ottoman Empire), the then Prime Minister (now President) Erdogan declared in Gabon in 2013: “Africa belongs to Africans; we are not here for your gold.”
For more than a decade, Erdoğan has devoted a lot of his time to cultivating friendly relations with African countries. On Monday, he started his latest tour of Africa in Algeria. Then he went to Senegal and Gambia. What makes Erdogan’s first such tour of 2020 so significant?
For a start, it centred on the Libya crisis as the conflict in the North African country deepened further in 2019 after renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s advance on the capital Tripoli. The Turkish President’s visit was also significant because Ankara signed a maritime agreement late last year with Libya’s Government of National Accord to counter the member states of the East Mediterranean Forum, especially Greece.
Furthermore, Turkey’s intention in Africa is to boost economic cooperation. Its trade with Africa increased by 12 per cent last year, Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan reported last week while explaining that Turkey will further strengthen trade relations across the continent large in part due to its growing diplomatic contacts.
Erdogan’s visits to Africa can be read as a neo-Ottoman step. Does Turkey really need to re-establish the Ottoman Empire, or to follow a unique foreign policy? If Turkey follows a neo-Ottoman path without “nationalistic” aims, it will not be a threat to its global expansion efforts.
As Erdogan said at the UN last year during the African Business Forum, “The world is greater than five,” a reference to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. A new world order, he pointed out, must certainly be established, not only by the US, Russia, China, France and Britain, but also by Africa.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.