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Erdogan in Africa

Antonio Cascais / mc June 2, 2016

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is on a two-nation tour of Africa as part of efforts to strengthen his country's influence on the continent. He is not just pursuing economic interests.

Afrka Uganda Erdogan
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Busomoke

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is being accompanied by a huge commercial delegation on his two-nation tour of Africa. Hundreds of business representatives have joined him on his trip to Uganda and Kenya to explore ways and means of intensifying economic ties with these two countries.

The meeting with his Ugandan opposition number Yoweri Museveni was even branded "historic" as it was the first official visit ever to Uganda by a Turkish president. The Turkish side appears to be bristling with self-confidence. "The political working visit to Africa by the president is gaining momentum," trumpeted the website of president's press office.

Afrka Uganda Erdogan
Analysts say Erdogan has a religious as well as an economic agendaImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Busomoke

The Sunni connection

Turkish involvement in Africa is not new, Christian Johannes Henrich, head of the Southeastern Europe and Caucasus Research Institute in Siegen, Germany, told DW. Moves towards closer ties with the continent began under Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz in 1998, four years before Erdogan and his AKP party came to power in a landslide election victory.

"Even in those days, Turkey had its own African agenda, which was never fully implemented because of internal problems in Turkey, but the perception that sub-Saharan Africa was a region of economic growth was already there," Henrich said.

Erdogan pursued the idea when he came to office, but with one distinct difference.

"Erdogan is not guided solely by economic concerns. He is focusing specifically on African countries with a strong Sunni presence. Both Uganda and Kenya have growing Sunni Muslim communities," Henrich said.

Kristian Brakel, who heads Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation in Istanbul, is also convinced that Erdogan's African policy is religiously motivated.

One example is Somalia. Erdogan never tires of emphasizing that Turkey is a role model in its relations with the failed state on the Horn of Africa. "While in Somalia, Erdogan told the Somalis 'the West has abandoned you, but now Turkey will step in. We are Muslims and we understand your country much better'," Brakel said.

Uganda Kampala Yoweri Museveni und Erdogan
After holding talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (left), Erdogan travels on to KenyaImage: picture-alliance/AA/K. Ozer

The Turkish military recently established a base in Somalia for the training of government troops.

Turkey is using foreign policy in Africa to try and bolster its influence globally. Its presence on the contintent brings it into direct competition with other external players such Brazil, India and China. Currently, however, Turkey is more interested in amassing support at the United Nations than in importing African natural resources, Henrich believes.

Critics have described the more active role that Erdogan and his AKP party are seeking in global affaris as neo-Ottoman. "I fear that Turkey wishes to become a moral protective power on the territory of the old Ottoman Empire and also extend its influence to Africa. I believes Turkey is striving for dominance in every region," Henrich said.

Brakel said Erdogan is fond of invoking a fictitious Ottoman past. "The truth is that in sub-Saharan Africa, the Ottoman presence was marginal, short-lived and not very successful. I think this is being used as a sort of veneer to cover up Turkey's real motives." Brakel believes they largely revolve around Turkey's economic interests.

Democracy and human rights not an issue

As long as Erdogan continues to pursue his critics and satirists, both at home and abroad, with punitive legal action, there can be little hope that he would think of raising issues such as human rights and press freedom in talks with Uganda's longtime president Yoweri Museveni.

Karikatur zu Erdogan in Uganda von Gado
Gado's cartoon show Erdogan bearing dubious gifts on his arrival in Uganda

"Turkey is not interested in spreading its ideas about standards of governance in Africa, neither in the positive nor the negative sense," Brakel said. Museveni or Kenyatta need not fear that Erdogan could criticize them for not keeping a tighter rein on their media. He also wouldn't inquire about the well-being of civil rights activists.

In a caricature sketched for DW, Kenyan cartoonist Gado shows the arrival in Africa of Erdogan, the neo-Ottoman leader, complete with turban. The gifts he brings with him are victims of persecution.

Turkey will continue to try and strengthen its influence in Africa almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, which remains focused on the war in Syria and the refugee crisis.

Turkey has already succeeded in more than doubling the number of its embassies in Africa to 20 since 2002. 15 are in sub-Saharan Africa. Trade between Turkey and African states has increased six-fold over the last 14 years.