Though not as striking and visible as some other foreign policy developments, meetings such as the Second Somalia Conference in İstanbul on May 31 and June 1, 2012, show a deep current of transformation in Turkish foreign policy. That conference was Turkey’s most recent step in its steadily increasing and expanding Africa drive of latter years. Another example in the same context from recent years is the Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit, held on Aug. 18-21, 2008. Those meetings, which turned İstanbul into a center for African summits, are in fact signs of a strengthening process in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. These developments, which we can dub Turkey’s silent revolution, reveal a process of opening to Africa.
Turkey and Turkish foreign policy have traditionally perceived the world and international politics from the Western perspective. Westernization and collaboration with the West has been the basic target for Turkey. Turkey’s goal of Westernization, the roots of which go as far back as the Ottoman Empire, has been partly a rational struggle and partly a romantic ideal. Since the proclamation of the republic, Turkey has been part of the Western system. That process has assumed a structural dimension with Turkey’s membership of and integration into organizations such as the Council of Europe and NATO since World War II. This close-knit relationship began to relax, stage by stage, as of the 1960s, with Turkey’s inchoate interest in a world outside the West. While its policy from the 1960s to the 1980s was limited to relations with the US, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union, as of the 1980s this vision expanded to include Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and China.
This process has forged only modest or weak relations with Africa. Turkey distanced itself from the African process of decolonization and Third World movements launched by African nations. However, partly because of the Cyprus problem and partly through diplomatic considerations, as of the 1960s Turkey started showing a greater interest in Africa and other developing nations. Until recently this interest has not been strong, serious or solid, as Turkey perceives itself as part of the West and has viewed the world from the perspective of Westernization. It has generally approached Africa pragmatically and obliquely.
An important factor in this distant attitude to Africa concerns the demographics of Turkish society. Having no colonial ties with Africa, neither during the Ottoman era nor in the republican period, Turkey has never had a significant population of African descent. Despite its long presence in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire did not transport Africans to mainland Anatolia, a major reason for the near total absence of African people in the population. We can say that Turkey’s drive to open out to Africa is the byproduct of the diversification in its domestic policy, social structure and perception of the world. The multicultural and multinational structure of society during the Ottoman era, as well as the figure of Prophet Bilal in Islam, have strengthened Turkey’s opening to the African continent. The Prophet Muhammad tasking Bilal, who was of African origin, to call the first prayers and his later becoming a muezzin has contributed favorably to a different image of Africa and its people among Muslims in Turkey.
It was in 1988 that Turkey’s relations with Africa gained momentum. At that time Turkey formed an action plan to improve ties with Africa; a plan, however, that was not implemented until the 2000s, as the chaotic atmosphere of the 1990s rendered Turkey a politically introverted country. The major steps in the Africa drive that occurred throughout the 2000s are as follows: The strategy of developing relations with African nations was prepared in 2003 and new trade consultancy services were opened. The year 2005 was declared the Year of Africa, during which multilateral and multidimensional relations were forged with the entire continent. The ensuing years saw tangible improvements between Turkey and Africa in many areas, such as economy, trade, diplomacy, air transport, construction, industry, education, tourism, infrastructural services and sports.
The most attention-grabbing of these areas in terms of symbolism, image promotion and level of success was sports, given the many Turkish sportspeople of African origin. These athletes earned Turkey important medals and records in the 2000s. Elvan Ebeylegesse, of Ethiopian origin, set a world record for the 5,000 meters and was the most significant of them all. I believe that Ebeylegesse has been a turning point not only for Turkish sports but also society, politics and foreign policy. You could say that Ebeylegesse in her Turkish jersey, under the Turkish flag, is a symbol of Turkey’s opening to Africa.
*Dr. Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Yıldırım Beyazıt University.