Re-bonding through business, culture, history: Developing story of Turkey's ties with Africa

Turkish footprints in Africa may be hard to trace in history, but their future is easier to guess because both sides are willing to improve political and economic relations as repetitively stressed during President Erdoğan’s recent visit to the continent

Turkey’s centuries-old rapport with Africa has once again been cherished with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Sudan, Chad and Tunisia. Resulting in 33 agreements in total, last week’s trip emphasized Turkey’s determination to reinforce its ties with the country via an approach that attains the status of partnership with both sides. The iterative call on Turkish investors to expand their operations in Africa aims to both boost bilateral economic ties and capitalize on the common cultural heritage that has formed a brotherly friendship between Turkey and Africa, as Turkish businesspeople emphasized.

It has been more than 500 years since the continent of Africa saw the first Turkish conquest when the Turkish state of the time, the Ottoman Empire, which reigned for more than 600 years across Europe, Asia, and Africa, sent its two prominent privateers Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, born Khizr, and his brother Oruç Reis to take Algiers in 1516 from the Spanish expansion after the conquest of Al-Andalus in 1492. What was the motive behind the expansion to Africa? The official historiography claims that the Ottomans wanted to protect their rule over the Mediterranean against the Spanish and to prevent the Christianization of North Africa. And so, the Ottomans made their ways into the continent.

In the same year Algiers was conquered, Selim I also made an excursion into Egypt and took the caliphate from the Mamluks. Over the centuries, their reign extended into Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Morocco, Eastern Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Kenya and Uganda. The Ottoman rule in most of these territories was in the form of suzerainty, in which the local ruler accepted the caliphate and paid a tax to the central government and in which the tributary state or person is technically independent and enjoyed self-rule. From the 19th century on, the Ottomans started to lose territories to the French and British. But the last fall came with the Treaty of Ouchy by which Tripoli and Benghazi were lost to the Italians when the Balkan Wars started in 1912.

The Ottoman rule in Africa, covering a large portion of land, inevitably raises a couple of questions regarding the main activities and intentions of the central government in Istanbul. The state to a large extent was present in the tributary states through civil society engagements, namely foundations and madrasahs. The economic impact as in establishing large-scale plantations for agricultural activities and trading produce was not recorded or remained very limited. They, in fact, controlled the Spice Routes, also known as Maritime Silk Roads, starting in Europe and passing through the eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean.

After a period of nearly 90 years since 1912, the contact of Turks with the continent remained relatively limited, both politically and economically. It was not until 1998 when relations started to revive with the approval of the Africa Action Plan to expand bilateral trade volume and economic relations.

In 2005, the Africa year, Turkey officially started its initiative for Africa and prepared the Strategy for the Development of Relations with African Nations. After holding the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in 2008, the relations were sealed as a partnership under the Turkey-Africa Partnership and a new phase was launched in 2010.

Another summit in 2014 formalized the reinforced status of bilateral relations under the canopy of partnership by instituting a new partnership model for sustainable development and reinforcement of integration under a Joint Implementation Plan covering the period of 2015-2019.

Particularly since the declaration of the Africa year, high-level visits between Turkey and African nations gained momentum and the number of Turkish embassies in the continent rose to 41 from 12 in 2009. The development of political ties over the last decade has certainly turned out lucrative for commercial and economic relations. In 2003, Turkey’s trade with the continent stood at $5.4 billion while this figure was recorded at $23.4 billion in 2014 and $16.7 billion in 2016.

Apart from bilateral trade, Turkish companies also operate in the continent in miscellaneous areas including textile, energy, construction, tourism, and manufacturing. One of Turkey’s leading airport construction firms and operators, TAV, constructed two airports in Tunisia and currently operates them. Other Turkish contractors Limak and Summa successfully accomplished the construction of Aéroport International Blaise-Diagne Airport in Senegal’s capital Dakar with a 575-million-euro investment.

Another Turkish contractor actively undertaking infrastructure projects in Africa is Yapı Merkezi, which over the last 10 years completed the El Mek Nimir Bridge in Sudan over the Nile and the Al Halfaia Bridge, then the Al Wahat Shopping Mall in Khartoum, Sudan. The company undertook a $1.2-billion high-speed train project with its Portuguese partner in February 2016 in Tanzania and single-handedly won the contract for the second stage of the same project. A number of other Turkish firms have also constructed and continue the construction of infrastructure, house development, and transportation projects across the continent.

Since the development of strong rapports required convenient transportation, traveling to Africa from Turkey has been a lot easier over the years with increased frequencies and destinations of Turkey’s flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY). Adopting a bullish expansion on the continent with 1 billion people, THY increased the number of routes from Istanbul across the continent to 51 while it only flew to 14 African cities in 2011. From January to June in 2017, just under one-tenth of total passenger and cargo revenues came from Africa, according to the results for the first half of 2017.

These projects have been of course facilitated by the joint resolution of the heads of states and a political and economic understanding of bilateral ties that encompass the benefit of both sides. The high-level political support, in the case of Africa, proves the outcome of the maximum economic efficiency of economic relations. For instance, Yapı Merkezi won the contract for a subway project during President Erdoğan’s visit to Tanzania last year.

Having paid quite a number of visits both during his prime ministry and presidency, President Erdoğan had voiced his support for Turkish businesspeople to invest in Ankara. In his recent visit to Sudan, Chad, and Tunisia, where business forums were held in each country, he reiterated the urge for Turkish business circles to increase their investments in these countries while underscoring the government’s support.

Turkey and Sudan sealed 22 cooperation agreements within the framework of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, including 13 deals signed by ministers and nine by private sector representatives. According to the data of Sudan’s Ministry of Investment, the Turkish investments from 2000 to 2017 in the country exceeded $2 billion while the Turkish companies completed 288 projects. Turkey was also assigned the renovation of Suakin Island, a port city in northeastern Sudan on the west coast of the Red Sea, and the island is only 261 nautical miles away from Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and close to Mecca.

The chairman of the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MÜSİAD), Abdurrahman Kaan, particularly underscored the importance of the Sudan visit in an exchange with Daily Sabah. With regard to 22 agreements signed between Turkey and Sudan, Kaan highlighted that these agreements resolved many unconcluded issues.

“The establishment of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council that will oversee the course of future projects will open an entirely different path for Turkish-Sudanese partnership,” the MÜSİAD chair said. The most concrete example of this new period will be seen in the Turkish General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises’ (TİGEM) project in the country on 780,000 hectares leased land to run agricultural operations. MÜSİAD will actively participate in these projects since its members will undertake responsibilities at every stage including production, packaging, and sales, Kaan informed.

“Sudan’s positive approach toward Turkey proves that it has chosen Turkey as a partner. Accordingly, Turkish businesspeople and MÜSİAD members will conveniently run their business operations in the country, including industrial, commercial and cultural activities,” he said.

MÜSİAD declared 2018 the “Year of Africa,” Kaan announced and the organization is devising a cultural and trade center project in Sudan. After clarification of the land allocation with the Sudanese authorities, he said, the construction of the center will begin. He also informed that MÜSİAD will accompany Turkish businesspeople on a visit to Sudan and discuss the ways to expand bilateral trade.

Mehmet Büyükekşi, the deputy chairman of the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK) and the head of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM), also emphasized the importance of the Sudan visit, drawing attention to the establishment of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Büyükekşi pointed out the cultural importance of the Suakin Island as it was considered an Ottoman heritage, adding that, “In addition to representing a great cultural heritage, new tourism investments will redefine Suakin.”

Büyükekşi also recalled the agricultural project that will be run by the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises (TİGEM), remarking that the project is a great initiative. But ensuring agricultural productivity is essential and Turkey will work in the best way to share its experience in agricultural technology with Sudan, he said, expressing his belief that Turkish entrepreneurs will assume a greater role to help Sudan and Chad utilize their natural resources.

“In order for the successful and smooth accomplishment of all these investments and expansion of trade, the improvement of banking and payment methods, as well as the activation of the office of a commercial attaché, are compulsory,” he said in a bid to indicate the banking problems Turkish businesspeople face in Sudan as correspondent banking relations are limited.

Moreover, another seven deals were signed in Chad and one of the most important aspects of these agreements was the energy cooperation. Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak signed an energy cooperation deal with his Chadian counterpart Bechir Madet. Chad has been reported to welcome Turkish companies to extract oil and energy resources.

The country has crude oil reserves that were estimated at 900 million barrels in 2004 and it also has plentiful sunshine, offering opportunities for solar energy projects. In Tunisia, where the value of projects carried out by Turkish companies has totaled to $6 billion, four agreements were signed. President Erdoğan and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci urged the Turkish private sector to boost the bilateral economic ties and underscored that Turkey and Tunisia will follow a more balanced bilateral trade. In 2016, the bilateral trade volume between Turkey and Tunisia reached $1.1 billion. Turkish exports to the country were $910 million and imports were $214 million.

Speaking on the Turkey-Tunisian bilateral ties, TİM Chairman Büyükekşi informed that Tunisia is trying to introduce protective measures through customs on Turkish goods to balance trade.

“As our economy minister put in the Tunisia-Turkey Business Forum, hindering imports from Turkey will only increase imports from other countries, if a good is produced in Turkey, but not in Tunisia. This will only shift Tunisia’s current account deficit,” he said.

The total value of the Tunisian companies’ investments in Turkey was $1 billion while Turkish companies have invested $6 billion in the country. In relation to trade and investment disequilibrium, Büyükekşi said, “Turkey and Tunisia are obliged to balance out bilateral investments and trade. But this cannot be ensured via protective measures but through incentives. New balance point must boost economic ties.”

Referring to the 2016 bilateral trade volume of $1.2 billion, the TİM chair stressed the economic dynamism of both Turkey and Tunisia demonstrates that the figure can quickly increase.

“However, we hope that the high customs rates that Tunisia will impose on certain products imported from Turkey as of Jan. 1, 2018 will not decelerate,” he remarked.

Informing that MÜSİAD’s plans for Chad and Tunisia also continue, Kaan highlighted another dimension in Turkey’s centuries-long rapport with Africa. Both the government of the Republic of Turkey and Turkish businesspeople do not see the countries with which they establish ties as mere destinations to sell goods, he said.

“Our greatest goal is to develop cooperation in a brotherly manner by mutually engaging in cultural projects,” the chairman noted, pointing out Turkey’s relation with Africa.

Turkey, he opined, sets a good example for African nations for its economic stability and development story, therefore both Turkish politicians and business circles are willing to share their experience with the continent. He also added that Turkish companies want to establish joint ventures with local firms and share their know-how.

“Countries around the world have only a colonial agenda when they came to Africa. But as Turkish industrialists, we openheartedly express that our aim is to operate in the continent in a brotherly manner while ameliorating commercial and cultural ties,” Kaan emphasized.

In reference to Turkey’s Africa initiative, based on a win-win principle aiming to benefit both Turkey and its partners in Africa, TİM Chairman Büyükekşi emphasized that working with Turks has become more attractive for Africans because there is an African market that trusts in Turkish people and goods.

“The trust-based relation is of the utmost importance to operating in the African market, which has been exploited for centuries. As Turkish businesspeople, we have to operate in the continent by building a relationship of strong trust,” he said, underscoring Turkey’s humanitarian and brotherly ties with the continent, built on the common cultural heritage and history.

With another Africa tour concluded, the Turkish and African public now looks to deepen their friendship with strong political and economic ties fostered by mutual benefits. Therefore, for the time being, Turkish-African ties remain only a centuries-old developing story with a happy scenario.

Leave a Reply