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African Aviation: Turkey, Erdogan and Turkish Airlines in Africa

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When Turkey’s formidable soft power was taking shape in the late 2000s, Africa was a natural market for influence. Nearly a decade of strong economic growth under the AKP’s platform of neo-liberalism resulted in the global emergence of the country’s construction sector and the expansion of Turkish legacy brands such as the national airline. The combination of the two, along with Turkey’s emerging diplomatic clout, helped propel Africa-focused foreign policy in Ankara. There is another wrinkle to Turkey’s outsize interest in Africa, and it was clearly on display last week.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just concluded his 10th official trip to sub-Saharan Africa with a visit to Uganda and Kenya. Given the infrastructure needs of these countries, Turkish construction companies have been busy over the last decade taking market share from the Chinese in East Africa.

Writing for Al Jazeera last week, Mr Erdogan said the trip was to promote “closer cooperation with regional allies, develop solutions to shared challenges and explore mutually beneficial opportunities”. The Turkish leader also noted that Turkey’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa has grown “eight-fold to reach $6 billion” since 2000. Fast growing markets such as South Africa and Kenya have been fertile for Turkish exporters selling everything from cheap hairdryers to microwaves.

The emergence of Turkish influence in Africa is most evident in the dramatic growth of Turkish Airlines on the continent. Destinations in Africa have jumped from 13 in 2009 to 51 in 2016, including often-ignored countries like Zambia and Benin. Istanbul has become an African aviation hub because of Turkish Airlines investment in the continent.

Since 2009, Turkey has also expanded its diplomatic influence with the opening of 25 new embassies. Underpinning this growth is a network of schools operated by Mr Erdogan’s ally-turned-arch-rival Fethullah Gulen.

Before the trip, the Turkish government designated the Hizmet (Turkish for service) organisation run by Mr Gulen as a terrorist organisation. Mr Gulen, an Islamic preacher who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States for two decades, operates a global network of Islamic schools, preparatory institutions, think tanks and media outlets.

He is estimated to have millions of followers from Kenya to former Soviet Union countries like Kazakhstan. In Turkey, many of Mr Gulen’s followers have graduated from his schools into the ranks of the police force, judiciary and media. Providing education has allowed the Gulenists to establish influence across the world.

In 2013, Gulenist loyalists in the Turkish police released several wiretap recordings purporting to reveal widespread corruption among Mr Erdogan’s close confidants, including the president’s own son.

Since then, the Turkish government has launched an all-out assault on the Gulen movement inside Turkey by firing thousands of police officers, shutting down media outlets and declaring the organisation a terrorist “parallel state” keen to overthrow the Turkish government. Having thoroughly flushed out Gulen in Turkey for the moment, Mr Erdogan has set his sights on Gulenist operations in Africa.

Ironically, Gulenist schools in Sub-Saharan Africa – numbering close to 100 – were a critical component for the development of Turkish soft power in Africa. Many of the sons and daughters of political elites in countries like Kenya have been educated in Gulenist schools.

Back when Mr Gulen and Mr Erdogan were on good terms, the school network was seen as a critical driver of Turkish interests and way of establishing deep roots in society. Now, the schools are a liability. One aide travelling with Mr Erdogan in Africa told the Financial Times that the Gulenists were “running a parallel structure [in Africa], pretending to represent the Turkish government”.

Source: thenational.ae

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