Turkey's Africa diplomacy

AHMET KAVAS
Published
President Erdoğan (C), accompanied by first lady Emine Erdoğan, pose for a photograph with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and first lady Widad Babiker Ömer Modawi alongside local people holding the Sudanese and Turkish flags in Port Sudan, Dec. 25,
President Erdoğan (C), accompanied by first lady Emine Erdoğan, pose for a photograph with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and first lady Widad Babiker Ömer Modawi alongside local people holding the Sudanese and Turkish flags in Port Sudan, Dec. 25,

Diplomacy is one of the cornerstones of international relations. The most crucial aspect of this field and related missions is whether the officials appointed to a country are equipped with the necessary knowledge of the country, the region and even the continent. As veteran diplomats know very well, diplomats aspiring to become ambassadors but without much hope, used to say that they would be ready to serve any place in the world for the sake of becoming an ambassador. Currently, in the first quarter of the 21st century, the difficulty of opening an embassy in different regions is considered an obsolete phenomenon.

In late 2004, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government took action to mark new steps in diplomacy in the framework of enhancing Turkey's international ties. During the 1960s, Turkish missions were opened in only 10 African countries that had just recently declared independence at the time, and no developments were made in this field again, whereas missions in several countries, such as Ghana and Somali, were closed. In brief, Africa was always forgotten or ignored until the AK Party government came to power.

Since 2005 was declared as the year of making initiatives regarding Africa, various efforts addressing many countries were started months before the beginning of 2004, upon which African countries had certain expectations and hoped that they would be increasingly recognized. Turkey set a number of goals in this context and the Africa Initiative Action Plan, which was only vaguely hinted at in 1999 among diplomatic circles and reflected in several official documents, was considered to be put into practice. Nevertheless, the most important obstacle to this was the lack of human capital needed for every decision taken.

The Ottoman Era

The time when the Ottoman Empire sent navies to North African shores, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and African harbors passed long ago. Also, some public officials, including civilians and military, merchants, travelers and officials with diplomatic missions, headed to central Africa. Italy attempted to capture Tripolitania, the last Ottoman province in Africa, as the Tripolitania (Italo-Turkish) war brought international consequences after ending in 1912 – the harbinger of the end of the Ottoman Empire's presence in Africa. The Turkish presence on the continent started with the Tulunids in Egypt in 868 and continued with the Ikhshidid dynasty in 934, the Ayyubid dynasty in 1171, the Mamluk dynasty in 1250, and finally with the Ottoman Empire's landing on the continent in 1517. So, 1,050 years of Turkish history on the continent faded into oblivion as our ties with Africa ended in the 20th century.

How could the indifference of future generations caused by this negligence be compensated? For every Ottoman citizen with a basic educational background, Cairo, Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Sahara, Sudan and the Somali shores meant a lot. Moreover, the empire used to have captains and sailors navigating the 30,000-km-long shores that encircle Africa. For various reasons, the naval competence of the empire declined in time, and at some point, captains who could not even manage to sail from Tripolitania to Malta were assigned. Although Piri Reis provided detailed information about the Comoro Islands in his "Kitab-ı Bahriye" ("Book of Navigation"), a book that contains detailed information on navigation that guided all future generations, no one seemed to pay attention to the details he presented. Officials sent from the Comoro Islands to Istanbul on a mission in the 1860s were disappointed when they saw that no one knew about their community.

Western colonization

During the years in which Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordered the translation of all works concerning developments in remote regions of the world and read them, many of the people he sent to Europe so that the empire would have experts in every scientific field spent most of their lives issuing diatribes against the Ottoman Empire. Sources offering information about the past were stored in libraries and archives that were hard to reach. Although Africa was very well known in the Empire years, the continent was represented as solely consisting of virgin forests and impassable deserts to 20th century youth trying to build a mental picture of Africa. At the same time, European adventurers were discovering the continent, Christian missionaries spread their religion across Africa, and military forces seized lands they could not capture before. Scientists worked hard to discover raw material sources and find ways to transfer them to their own countries and global markets as of the 19th century. While we were wasting time with trivial things, they designed and accomplished action plans to rule the continent in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Today, in almost all the 54 countries of Africa, English and/or French is the official language, while Portuguese is the official language in five countries and Spanish in one country. But the locals are not disturbed by this situation. Contrarily, they regard it as an obligation to establish contact with the outside world. While a great deal of research provides hints on how to keep controlling the locals on the continent, we are already familiar with reports that are submitted to states and steer actual implementations.

Academic gap

The 20th century marks a great loss for Turks' experiences in Africa since all past information was put aside and forgotten. Except for a few academics, academic study focusing on Africa was not conducted, which is only natural since most of the academics did not aim to specialize in African studies. Currently, one of the leading problems of our diplomats is the absence of source materials to guide them on Africa. The majority of the books on Africa published in recent years are only superficial observations issued by non-specialists.

The Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit held in Turkey for the first time in 2008 was a milestone, initiating work to open new embassies on the continent. The number of Turkish embassies in Africa climbed from 11 to 41 in a decade, while our president wants Turkish missions in all 54 countries. Through the 21st century, no other country marked such a diplomatic initiation for Africa or any other continent. Given that ambassadors assigned to these countries rotate every two years at a minimum, dozens of names are supposed to be on the waiting list to begin their diplomatic missions on the continent. With regard to international relations, education in diplomacy is the most insufficient, and unfortunately, sources about Africa-related subject matter from a Turkish perspective and experts with enough experience and knowledge to lecture on Africa are very limited.

The 1960s marked the beginning of a new era for African nations, and even though Turkey recognized these newly independent nations immediately, no attention was given to some of these countries for almost half a century. Thus, when a new embassy was established, relations effectively began from zero and new interactions opened as if nothing had existed previously.

The traditional profile of Turkish diplomatic officers working in Europe greatly differs from that of diplomatic officers that agree to go to Africa. Officers that work in Africa should receive a comprehensive education concerning this continent. Working daily in an office without building familiarity with the continent does not accelerate bilateral relationships. Most Western diplomats in Africa work on the continent their entire careers and build extensive experience. They learn and internalize all details and traditions related to diplomacy regarding the country of their mission via years of work. On the other hand, ambassadors to the Arabian peninsula fail to familiarize themselves with local values, and only seek to finish their term of office, often leaving their work to acting ambassadors and staying in their own countries for a variety of reasons.

Currently, visa applications constitute the majority of work being done by our African embassies. The stance of an ambassador is measured by his attitude towards granting visas. Especially in recent years, visa applications of thousands of students coming to Turkey have become a massive portion of the daily work in our embassies. Visa applications of businesspeople, merchants and people coming to Turkey for medical tourism, which has greatly increased in recent years, come with serious consequences for our embassies. With a limited number of personnel, some of our embassies can't satisfy the amount of work required by visa applications even if they work day and night continuously. Thus, any embassy claiming that all visa applications will be answered within 45 days unintentionally opens the door for complications with its host country.

A hesitant attitude towards granting visas resulting from the reflex to shrink from responsibility leads to delay and sometimes cancellation of programs involving those invited to Turkey. In particular, with the number of flights Turkish Airlines has to Africa, its customers have to cancel their tickets or pay fines due to changes. These problems also reflect themselves in the attitude displayed by the ambassador of such a country in Ankara. Turkey must at once create divisions dedicated to helping with visa request overloads in countries where the demand requires it to help alleviate the amount of daily work done by the ambassadors. This situation will only become worse if a system that can resolve proper visa applications within days is not established. On the other hand, the longer ambassadors who would, without visa applications, be left with nothing to do due to their failure to improve bilateral relations stay in their positions to complete their term of office, the more relations between Turkey and Africa are rendered unproductive. This does not benefit bilateral relations but in fact severely worsens them.

The results we expect in the future cannot be achieved by portraying the relationships built between Turkey and African countries in line with the requirements of strategic partnerships in the last 10 years via meaningless chatter in the media or exaggerated bilateral visits. Our existence in the countries with our missions should lead to a feeling of contentedness among all levels of society, primarily among the public and also among top officials. On the other hand, projecting an image of being hard workers while declining a visa request from a person with an emergency can hurt the value of the representation there. Such an action that will not mean that all visa applications will be accepted can lead to further complications in case the applying party comes face to face with local officials.

Since diplomatic work often requires a level of privacy due to its nature, some of our work might have to be done "silently." Thus, an effort to portray each and every one of our steps in the local media may lead to unintended negative consequences. Thus in conclusion the efforts of our nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do not only concern the ones making such efforts. Whoever engages in humanitarian aid and other work with the idea that they're "representing Turkey" should do such work with the knowledge of local official representation to ensure that complications no matter how small can be resolved easily. Moreover, this will lead to such works being recognized by local authorities as part of a wider picture of national efforts.

What is currently being done?

In many African capitals, embassy buildings are no longer the only representation of Turkey's presence. Maarif schools,Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) offices, Yunus Emre Institutes in some countries, coordination centers of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and Anadolu Agency (AA) contact offices can also be found. Even Turkish NGOs are sometimes present with their local offices where they cooperate with domestic NGOs. Organizations given responsibility and authority in such areas work with primary responsibility to their parent organizations. An interaction where they are regarded as embassy personnel or local civil servants can have negative ramifications for their style of work.

There is a very fine distinction in the attitude that would be adopted towards them if they were directly put under the responsibility of the embassy by the state and their existing status. The results of an ambassador's direct interference in their field of work as well as the language an ambassador should use in communication with them should be beyond the relationship between a superior and a subordinate civil servant. Our embassies should be there to help them with any problems, work to ensure their success and increase their effectiveness by behaving in such a way to benefit our state in all situations. The responsible parties of such organizations should also follow the level of diplomatic respect required in such matters during their contacts with ambassadors, despite not being direct subordinates of them.

* Former Turkish Ambassador to Chad, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Istanbul Medeniyet University, Founding President of Istanbul-based Association of Researchers on Africa (AFAM)

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