President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's three-nation Africa tour, which includes Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, led to renewed media interest in the Turkish government's activities in the world's poorest and most underdeveloped continent. Traveling with a large group of journalists and investors, the Turkish president has been in the limelight and on the front pages of all major newspapers. He received honorary doctorates from local universities, inaugurated a new airport and opened a number of hospitals in East Africa. More than a few local journalists recalled the memory of Mr. Erdoğan, then serving as prime minister, visiting Somalia back in 2011 at a time when few world leaders would dare set foot on that part of the world. The question, however, remains what the future holds for Turkey in the African continent.
It is no secret that a number of countries are interested in developing stronger ties with Africa – a continent crumbling under major challenges yet has the potential of becoming one of the world's largest consumer markets. Over the past decade, the Turkish government has aggressively pursued a policy of opening with African nations. Nowadays, the country aims to take the next step and adopt a policy of partnership. What, however, does Turkey have to offer that others, including China, cannot? What factors contribute to Turkey's success in Africa?
First and foremost, African audiences continue to view Turkey's presence inside the continent favorably since the Turkish government has successfully presented a combination of humanitarian diplomacy and vocal criticism of colonial legacy. At once, Turkish leaders praise the efforts of government agencies and private companies to promote economic development and create jobs across the continent. Meanwhile, Turkish leaders skillfully criticize the legacy of Western colonialism within a broader discourse of inequality. "What Africa needs today is not exploitation, but fairness and opportunity," İbrahim Kalın posited in his latest column for Daily Sabah.
Another key point is that Turkey, unlike China, has a strong tradition of electoral democracy. The country holds local and national elections on a regular basis. Constitutionalism dates back to the mid-19th century and a multi-party democracy has been in place for over six decades. Most recently, Turkish voters have directly elected their president for the first time in the nation's history. Although there is always room for improvement, Turkey nonetheless has the potential to serve as a role model for African nations suffering from a democratic deficit.
Finally, the Turkish economy's strong performance and growing tax base makes it possible for the government to provide humanitarian and development aid to impoverished African nations while encouraging Turkish entrepreneurs to expand their business into new markets. Back in 2011, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – then serving as foreign minister – had publicly asked Turkish businesses to invest in countries like Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia in order to promote economic growth and help tackle pressing problems including nutrition-related deaths. "Turkey's approach to developing trade with African nations seems to differ from [other] nations whose overriding interests are Africa's oil resources. By concentrating on lower profile development issues such as agriculture, Turkish initiatives arguably carry the promise of effecting genuine change in the lives of masses of Africans," Mehmet Özkan claims.
Much has changed since the Turkish government announced 2005 as "the year of Africa." What started out as a modest diplomatic effort has blossomed into long-term political and economic partnerships with a number of African nations. In order to take the next step, however, the country must tap into its greatest strength: the Turkish way of life.