Erdogan’s African adventures fit in Islamist party’s agenda
2018/01/07 Issue: 138 Page: 12
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent tour of Sudan, Chad and Tunisia raised questions about Ottoman aspirations in Africa as well as Ankara’s wish to compete with the Arab-Sunni axis in the continent.
New markets would be welcomed by Turkey, which is struggling with a serious economic crisis. This has been bad political news for Erdogan because he was counting on using a potential economic windfall as cover for his autocratic policies, especially after the failed coup against him in July 2016.
Erdogan’s dream of conquering Africa is not new. The idea has existed since 2002 when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power. Its agenda was predicated on reviving the Ottoman heritage because it was not confined to Turkey’s current borders. The party’s ideology is congruent with the Islamist project in the Arab world and Africa.
Previous governments in Turkey were fixated on Europe and Turkish secularism was tied to nationalism. Religious ideology became equated with expansionism. Turkish expansionism, however, will have to compete with the Arab world, hence the idea of replacing Arab nationalism with Turkish nationalism using, of course, the cover of religion. It is the common denominator of the two ideologies.
In 2001, Ahmet Davutoglu published his seminal work “Strategic Derinlik” (“Strategic Depth”) in which he outlined the major lines of the AKP’s foreign policy. Davutoglu proposed an innovative foreign agenda for Turkey, relying on breaking the confinement in which Turkey had been placed since the first world war. When the AKP rose to power, Davutoglu became minister of foreign affairs in 2009 in Erdogan’s cabinet.
Davutoglu’s ideas were discussed at length in the AKP. The party’s foreign policy approach has always relied on certain constants and on variables. Davutoglu had fixed the constants and left the variables up to the government because they were contingent on regional and international changes.
The AKP’s agenda in Africa took into consideration three axes: religious, diplomatic and economic. For the AKP, foreign policy is not just cold theories but also emphasises the symbolism involved.
To illustrate, in August 2011, Erdogan made a high-profile official visit to Somalia, which was being devastated by severe drought and famine. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter and made sure the visit was seen as essentially humanitarian. For Africans, the message was that Turkey feels for them and is ready to help. Before Erdogan left Mogadishu, Turkey had opened an embassy in the Somali capital.
Erdogan’s recent three-country African tour must be understood within the context of the AKP’s African policy and its competition with the Arab-Sunni axis. Perhaps the most important goal for Ankara was to lure Sudan to the Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir might believe that by offering Turkey Suakin Port he had secured significant Turkish aid. What he seems to have ignored is that he had thrown the gates open to Turkey’s geostrategic influence in the region. For a passing political fling, al-Bashir has mortgaged the future of the Sudanese.