The geographical importance and the role of Turkiye in global politics, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has increased. The role and significance of Turkiye as a member of NATO has also gained prominence. After Turkiye’s green light, NATO has expanded to include Finland. Sweden is likely to follow once negotiations between NATO and Turkiye are concluded. All NATO decisions are made by consensus, after discussion and consultation among member countries.
The forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey on 14 May are important for the region and for Africa. There are several socio-political issues that have been raised as part of their respective election campaign by both presidential candidates. The foremost of these has been the state of the economy and refugees and immigrants, particularly Syrians. Moreover, the election takes place as Turkiye prepares itself for the 100th anniversary of the Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set a national target for Turkiye to become one of the world’s ten largest economies. The elections, therefore, carry with them a great sense of nationalism which will be key in deciding the winner. As the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan is facing a fierce challenge from Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), part of the National Alliance for these elections.
The Turkish elections are also important for Sub-Saharan African countries, where Turkiye has been aggressive in re-establishing relations. Over the past 20 years, Turkiye has increased the number of its embassies across Africa from 12 to 42. Erdogan has underlined that a total of 10,480 African students who graduated from Turkish universities serve their countries as Turkey’s “peace ambassadors”. In South Africa, in particular, social engagements between the two nations have experienced a dramatic increase.
The current ambassador of Turkiye to South Africa, Aysegul Kandas, is regarded as the most engaging Turkish ambassador in Pretoria for decades. The earthquake tragedy which had an impact on millions of lives and property in south-east Turkiye has added to the country’s general interaction and visibility in South Africa. Tourism and business have also increased tremendously over the years. According to Turkiye’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, “South Africa is our largest trade partner in Sub-Saharan Africa. While the trade volume between our countries stood at only $457 million in 2003, it reached a record high of$3 billion by the end of 2022.”
Africans will thus be observing the Turkish elections with a great deal of interest. Turkiye has embraced multiple approaches in how it deals with Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of Africans doing business in Turkiye at all levels. Moreover, there is also a growing Sub-Saharan African diaspora in Turkey, especially in Istanbul.
There is a desire by most Africans in Turkiye and beyond for the political status quo to be maintained. Turkiye has been careful not to apply a blanket foreign policy in dealing with Africa. Unlike many countries in the region, it recognises that Africa is not a country, but a continent consisting of 54 countries. Consequently, it has applied country-specific approaches in engaging Africa. According to Ahmed Vall, a researcher based in Qatar, this strategy has worked, and has “placed Turkiye on a different political pedestal in many countries in Africa.”
Turkiye has also used its geopolitical positioning to lobby on behalf of Africa; the renewed grain deal signed between Moscow and Ankara continues to be praised around the world. Under the deal, Russia will allow Ukraine to export twenty-five million additional tons of grain, including foodstuffs, to underdeveloped countries, including some in Africa.
Turkiye’s rapprochement with Africa is important, particularly now, as the political space in Africa becomes more polarised. The competitive nature of politics in Russia and the US continue to have an impact on African politics, which could fracture the political consensus in the African Union in the long run.
The voting patterns of African countries at the UN regarding the war in Ukraine is one case in point. The division within the African body politic on various matters could also impede economic growth.
China, meanwhile, has embraced a “see no evil, hear no evil” political approach with Africa. Hence, said Vall, Turkiye’s presence in Africa presents an alternative to US and Russian hegemony across the continent. The current government in Turkiye has played a crucial balancing act in Africa; without Turkiye it could be argued that Africa could be thrown back into the days of the Cold War, forced to choose between Russia and the US. For this reason alone, Turkiye should continues its rapprochement with Africa after the elections.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.