Sunday, February 25, 2024

Erdogan’s big game: Turkey enters Africa with aid, trade and soap

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This is the last part of a series exploring Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions. Previous installments include Erdogan’s Great Game: Turkey’s Soldiers, Spies, and Power, Erdogan’s big game: the Turkish problem at the gates of the EU and Erdogan’s big game: Turkish intrigue in the Balkans.

In a hotel bar in Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian couple struggles with the remote control, switching between US election results on CNN, war reports on a local TV news and a Turkish soap opera, The name is happiness (It’s called happiness).

In the end, they choose the Turkish drama, dubbed in Amharic. “The truth is that we both I love this show, ”echoed the couple.

The success of Turkish television shows in Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa’s powerhouse, is a small but telling sign of Ankara’s growing influence in a region that has become a magnet for foreign capitals. Soft power efforts, experts say, are aimed at countering the influence of Gulf rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as the United States, France, China and Russia.

A poster for the popular Turkish soap opera ‘Adi Mutluluk’ (‘It’s Called Happiness’)

The Turkish content has been a “constant big hit,” said Elias Schulze, co-founder, alongside three Ethiopians, of Kana Television, a private satellite channel. For Ankara, trade, development aid and even soap operas have helped strengthen Turkish influence on the continent. “Turkey has these soft power advantages that it can harness,” said Michael Tanchum, a Turkish foreign policy expert at the Spanish University of Navarre.

Pivot to Africa

In the decades following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey largely ignored Africa, its rulers choosing instead to focus on Europe. Yet for the past 15 years Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spearheaded a renaissance of ties with the continent. Since 2009 Turkey has increased the number of embassies in Africa from 12 to 42 and Mr. Erdogan is a frequent visitor, making trips to more than 20 capitals.

Turks and Africans were “meant to be partners,” Erdogan said in October. He has set a target of doubling Turkey’s trade volume with Africa to $ 50 billion in the coming years, or about a third of its current trade with the EU.

Ankara’s focus on major state infrastructure deals and contracts across Africa – from a Olympic swimming pool in Senegal to its largest military installation abroad in Somalia and to a large mosque in Djibouti – underlines the economic and geopolitical importance it attaches to the continent.

Line graph of $ 12 billion, rolling 12 months, showing Turkey's trade with Africa increased

In North Africa, Turkey has been involved militarily, providing support for the UN-backed administration in Libya. One year ago Mr. Erdogan – appointed Person of the year by an influential Senegalese non-governmental body – visited Senegal, annoying France, the former colonial power. “The former French colonial African countries are looking for alternatives to France. They don’t want to trade being a French neo-colony for a Chinese neo-colony. Turkey offers a third way, ”Tanchum said. In the Horn of Africa, Turkey and its ally Qatar have been pitted against the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in a regional power struggle centered on trade and influence.

“Erdogan sees that it is high time for Turkey to project its power beyond its borders – and what better place than the Horn where everyone worthy of the name claims real estate,” said Abdullahi Halakhe, an expert from the Horn of Africa. “And they are much more successful than others in putting their money where they want.”

‘Gateway to the Continent’

Turkey’s African policy centers on the idea that the continent “had not received enough attention, that there was enormous potential here for humanitarian and development efforts, first, and then also for economic ties, of course, ”said Yaprak Alp of Turkey. ambassador to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and the big prize for clashing powers in the Horn of Africa, an area to which the Ottomans sent regular naval missions in the 16th century. It is the “gateway to the continent,” Ms. Alp said. Over the past two decades, Turkey has been an important partner of Ethiopia, the third largest investor of operational capital in the African country after China and Saudi Arabia, according to the Ethiopian Investment Commission.

Turkish investors, fleeing economic hardship at home, have been drawn to Ethiopia economic boom, with an average growth of 10% between 2005 and the recent economic and political setbacks. Since coming to power in 2018, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopian Prime Minister, has sought to advance liberal economic reforms – including privatizations.

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency distributes food aid to an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in May 2020 © Minasse Wondimu Hailu / Anadolu Agency / Getty

Of a total of $ 6 billion already invested by Turkish companies in sub-Saharan Africa, $ 2.5 billion went to Ethiopia, Turkish officials said. In 2005, there were only three Turkish companies in Ethiopia. Today, there are 200, ranging from yarns and textiles to drinks. Even the rash of the conflict in the Tigray region did not deter Turkish investors.

Simge Yuksel Ozyigit, vice president of steel cable producer Demes Cable, which established a new $ 45 million plant near Addis Ababa last year, said production was “normal », Unaffected by the fighting. Cuneyt Coke, chairman of the Turkey-Ethiopia business council of Turkish trading group DEIK, said Turkish companies remain ready to invest in agriculture, health and energy. “Whoever is well prepared will benefit,” he added.


For Ankara, the fact that Addis Ababa is home to the African Union carries weight. “It has symbolic value,” said Mr. Halakhe. In addition, Turkey does not want to lose another regional ally after the ousting in 2019 of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, close to Ankara.

But Mr Abiy enjoys the backing of Turkey’s rivals the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which helped him negotiate peace with Eritrea. And there has been friction between Mr. Abiy and Mr. Erdogan, both strong-minded leaders with clear visions, according to a former diplomat.

Yet Turkey’s support for Ethiopia in its dispute with Egypt on the great Ethiopian Renaissance dam strengthened the friendship between the two countries. Last October, Addis Ababa criticized Donald Trump for “inciting war” between Ethiopia and Egypt, after the US president said Egypt would “blow up” the dam. “We want African solutions to African problems,” an Ethiopian official said, adding that Turkey, unlike other powers, “understands” this.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) is greeted by his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir (3rd-R) and diplomats upon his arrival in Khartoum on December 24, 2017, for a two-day official visit.  / AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY (Photo credit should read ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP via Getty Images)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, is greeted by then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, third from right, during an official visit to Khartoum in 2017

Turkey also maintains a presence in Somalia, where it has built roads and established a large military training camp. Last year, a Turkish company signed a 14-year contract to reorganize and operate a port in Mogadishu. Ankara has been a major source of aid to the country, paying over $ 1 billion since 2011and, in early November, it repaid $ 2.4 million in Somalia’s debts to the IMF. He built hospitals, schools and scholarships. This was the largesse that some parents named their baby boys Erdogan. Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur, Minister of Justice of Somalia, offered his “Deep gratitude” to Mr. Erdogan “for his continued support for Somalia”.

“Turkey is clearly a major player in Somalia, but above all it is a very important commercial player in Ethiopia,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent expert on the Horn of Africa. “Ethiopia is a huge, huge opportunity for Turkey because it’s a big market, it’s a vibrant economy. So this is the right border for Erdogan. It is clearly the Turks’ goal to win Ethiopia.

Radiating from the television screens, the actors of The name is happiness continue to win Ethiopian hearts at the Addis Ababa Lobby Bar – with the maids joining now. “They are addictive. I think we have learned to make them addictive, ”said Ms Alp, Turkish Ambassador to Addis Ababa, referring to the Turkish tragedies. “This is also the case with the Ethiopians who tell me that we are so similar that they recognize themselves in them culturally.”

Additional reporting by David Pilling in London


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