The Turkish government has been actively cracking down on African schools run by the controversial Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. Now, Gulen schools in Ethiopia have changed hands. Due to pressure from Ankara?
Everything is the same on the Nejashi Ethio-Turkish International Schools' website. The top of the page reads: "Registration Starts for 2016-17 Academic Year." Photos feature children playing basketball in front of a school building, and high-end technology in the classroom is emphasized. But the most important news about the school is missing: According to media reports, all six Nejashi schools in Ethiopia have been sold. The news agency AP quoted school administrator Cecil Aydin as saying the decision had been made "for economic reasons."
Some 2,000 students attend the six educational institutions, which offer complete K-12 schooling. Yearly tuition is more than $2,500 per student (2,353 euros). Most parents in Ethiopia cannot afford the cost, but the country's elite like to send their children there.
Schools said to belong to Fethullah Gulen's Hizmet Movement can be found in more than 160 countries around the world. But the Turkish government is no longer a fan. Ankara now claims that the Islamic preacher was behind last July's failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey accuses Gulen of using the schools as an instrument to attract new supporters. The Gulen Movement denies the accusations.
Turkish influence in Ethiopia
Last year, Turkey's ambassador to Nigeria insisted that the country close all 17 of its Gulen schools. President Erdogan is said to have expressed criticism of the schools while in Africa, traveling in Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar. He also discussed the schools when he met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
"I told him that he should show us a new path to keeping the schools open if there was something wrong with them," Desalegn told AP.
It has yet to be confirmed that pressure from Turkey led to the sale of the schools. But the fact remains that Turkey wields great influence in Ethiopia. The country has seen double-digit economic growth over the last several years and "that has led to a lot of Turkish investment," says Ludger Schadomsky, head of Deutsche Welle's Amharic Services. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, some 150 Turkish companies, employing 30,000 people, are active in Ethiopia. The Ministry's website claims that Turkey has invested more than $2.5 billion dollars in the country on the Horn of Africa. That cooperation extends to other sectors as well: "The countries have also had an agreement on military cooperation since 2013," says Schadomsky.
The schools themselves are said to have been bought by a group of German investors, but that claim has not been substantiated. And there are no further details about the investors. A Deutsche Welle interview request submitted to school administrators went unanswered. The German embassy also declined to answer AP questions about the sale of the schools.
Gulen schools in other countries closed as well
Last December the Senegalese government closed all of that country's Gulen schools. A newly founded Turkish foundation is said to have taken over school sponsorship. Angola followed suit in February when the government closed down the Colegio Esperanca Internacional (COESPI) in the capitol, Luanda. The decision affected some 750 students. Sixty-six people – Turkish employees of the school and their families – were forced to leave the country.
A decree from President José Eduardo dos Santos stated that it was necessary to close the school in order to "guarantee the safety and welfare of the people." Interior Minister Angelo de Barros Veiga Tavares declined to comment on the exact reason for the closing. He simply said that, "the Angolan government's decision was in no way influenced by pressure from other countries," while speaking on state television.
Not everyone in the country sees things that way. "We believe that there is an obscure agenda that has led the president and his underlings to acquiesce to the caprices of the Turkish president," Angolan legal expert, Domingos Chipilika, told DW's Portuguese department.
Nelson Sul contributed to this article.