November 24, 2014

Erdoğan’s slight to Africa

Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkey's beleaguered President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan engaged in his typical antics once again during his African tour last week, confirming a long-held view that he has been on a self-destructive path since the massive corruption investigations incriminated him and his family members almost a year ago.

He asked Algerians not to allow foreigners to impose their own policies in solving the lingering problems in Algeria or neighboring countries, without stopping to think that Turkey is also an outsider in North Africa. Then he moved on to the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, where he delivered political and religious lectures in his usual self-aggrandizing manner.

Not surprisingly, Erdoğan also said he wants African leaders to shun Fethullah Gülen, the moderate Islamic scholar who has inspired a global educational and interfaith volunteer network called Hizmet (Service). Erdoğan was trying to drag Africans into his self-declared war against Gülen, who has exposed political Islamists including the chief Islamist Erdoğan for what they are: a bunch of ideological zealots who abuse religion for political purposes and hope to proselytize Africa with their own brand of ideology using overseas agencies and state aids as cover.

In his own naiveté, Erdoğan, an embattled leader who is struggling to find a successful way out of the legal troubles stemming from the dragnet that exposed alleged activities of corruption involving billions of dollars, thinks African leaders will jump on the bandwagon at his whistle. He thinks many African leaders will fight his losing war and appease his political agenda of forcibly incorporating religion into the government by acquiring political power. It is no wonder that Erdogan is often cast in such a negative light by the national and international media; his own actions allow him to be portrayed as such.

It was in fact Erdoğan's own failure to grasp the intricate nature of African politics that paved the way for Turkey's enthusiastic African initiative to stall and later fall into a nosedive. Last year, he skipped the funeral of the iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela when so many leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, participated. Perhaps failing to personally pay homage to Mandela topped off the series of missteps Turkey has taken with regard to sub-Saharan African politics under the political Islamist regime.

South Africa is not the only power slighted by Erdoğan. Similar problems can be detected in Ankara's policy with regard to Ethiopia, another heavyweight in Sub-Saharan Africa that can project power throughout the Horn of Africa. Turkey's engagement with the Sub-Sahara, especially in Somalia and in its provinces in the north, has by and large bypassed Ethiopia. Considering that Ethiopia is the oldest nation that has never been colonized, Addis Ababa's expertise and knowledge of the region is invaluable for Turkey. Yet Ankara behaves as if it can do without Ethiopia.

In short, Erdoğan and his band of brothers in ideology act without fully understanding the dynamics of the African continent. They are not hesitant to use African issues for domestic consumption when it suits their petty interests. Just as Erdoğan sees everything at home only in terms of votes without due regard for the ramifications of his actions on the nation in the future, he also looks at Africa as a big voting bloc that may help him gain back the international credibility he may have already lost. In fact, the same logic applied during Turkey's bid to secure a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 2009-2010.

As a newcomer to Africa with no historical baggage of a colonial past, Turkey was extended good credit at the outset. Yet political Islamists have squandered the windfall of goodwill displayed by most African countries as the credibility of Turkey's leaders has quickly faded, with Ankara seen as increasingly belligerent and interventionist in its foreign policy agenda. Turkey's worsening ties with the US, the EU and Arab world have also contributed to the negative perception of Turkey in Africa. As a result, a success story recorded only four years ago turned into a terrible defeat this year when Turkey lost the UNSC bid in a landslide.

The main weakness in the approach adopted by political Islamists is that they see Africa as merely a means to an end to accomplish their goals elsewhere, rather than being a true and sincere partner that would invest in a long-term relationship with a comprehensive and workable strategy. Instead of challenging others head on, Ankara should have worked with partners and allies in Africa. Yet Erdogan and his associates in the government, including the adventurist Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, have all been displaying a perceived pattern of imperialist behavior with a strong anti-Western narrative and condescending attitude.

In North Africa the outlook for Turkey does not seem to be promising, either. Turkey has troubles with the heavyweights in the north just because Erdoğan and his Islamist brethren do not like Egypt's new President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for ideological reasons. The constant bashing of Egypt by Erdoğan on every possible occasion, including at UN platforms, has led to worsening ties between Ankara and Cairo.

Sisi was not the only one subjected to Erdoğan's dartboard approach. He even insulted Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar and former president of al-Azhar University, in a public speech he delivered at a Turkish university that carries his name in the northeastern city of Rize in August. Erdoğan said history would curse men like Tayeb after criticizing Tayeb's alignment with Egypt's new president. Imam Tayeb responded by saying that offending Azhar, a leading institution in the Muslim world, means offending all Muslims and all Egyptians. However, Erdoğan did not seem to mind the repercussions of his vitriolic rhetoric.

Just like Imam Tayeb, Islamic scholar Gülen, who raised concerns about the behavior of Islamists that seem to be exploiting Islam for political purposes, was also viciously attacked by Erdoğan with a strong hateful narrative. The educational institutions that were built by Hizmet volunteers and that were present in many African countries long before the Turkish government decided to open embassies, have been defamed in a smear campaign run by Erdoğan and his ilk. This is a full-frontal assault that is totally unjustified and uncalled for; yet, Erdoğan relentlessly seeks to have his political ideology dominate Turkey's overwhelming Sufi-oriented Islamic tradition.

Erdoğan's self-declared war against Gülen, who is a well-respected Islamic scholar with a strong commitment to building human resources capacity and who has encouraged Turkish volunteers to invest in education, health, trade and charitable work where needed in Africa, has backfired. This futile attempt has rather reinforced feelings across Africa that Turkey, while under a political Islamist government, is not a full and trusted partner. The conclusion is that African leaders will maintain a friendship with Erdoğan's Turkey and continue to engage with the government in Ankara to the extent possible, but they will remain uncommitted to his campaign and unsure about whether building a true partnership is achievable given that their relationship with Erdoğan can fall apart when the going gets rough for Turkey's Islamists.

As a result Erdoğan's efforts to convince African leaders that Gülen is the enemy are in vain. South Africa rebuffed Erdoğan's overtures privately, while Kenyan President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome publicly declared during their visits to Ankara that they would welcome Turkish schools affiliated with Gülen. Egypt has restricted the activities of Turkish government institutions in Cairo, such as the offices of the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) and the Yunus Emre Institute, and shut down the government broadcasting agency Turkish Radio and Television Corporation's (TRT) bureau. Yet Cairo's government did not interfere in the operations of the Selahaddin International School in Egypt, which is affiliated with Gülen.

This contrast can be seen in other places as well. The uneasiness on the part of host governments over the activities of the Turkish government's development, cultural and media arms are understandable given that the staff are mostly appointed from political Islamist backgrounds and even some pro-Iranian figures. They appear to have been quietly mandated to propagate the ideology of the current Turkish government as well.

In extreme cases, questions even arose about the support of radical groups in host countries. For example, the liberal Turkish daily Taraf reported in September that most of the associations backed by TİKA and the Yunus Emre Institute in Kosovo have been closed down for allegedly offering support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front. This recalls the audio leak on YouTube in March in which Mehmet Karataş, executive assistant to the chief executive officer of Turkish Airlines (THY), is heard telling Erdoğan's chief advisor, Mustafa Varank, that he feels guilty about the transfer of weapons to Nigeria. Karataş is heard saying in the recording, “I don't know whether these [weapons] will kill Muslims or Christians.” Of course, Prime Minister Davutoğlu's government denies such involvement with radical groups and just like Erdoğan, Davutoğlu blames others for his own mistakes and shortcomings.

When challenged about this rather worrying pattern of behavior, Turkey's political Islamists even try to turn the exposé to their favor by invoking all kinds of conspiracy theories. Yet nobody in Africa seems to be buying Erdoğan's story. Turkey's president simply wasted his time and energy on travel, as the meetings he attended didn't produce any results in his favor. I think African diplomats in Ankara have come to realize that Erdoğan has a big appetite and the ability to twist any reasonable criticism from opposition parties, media and civil society at home as well as from Turkey's partners and allies abroad, for his own propaganda. For that, Africans see through Erdoğan, perhaps better than Turks themselves. Africa can't be fooled by Erdoğan's the games and tricks that have played out in dozens of government-subsidized media outlets in Turkey.

Published on Today's Zaman, 24 November 2014, Monday