ISTANBUL – On August 14, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received Guinean President Alpha Conde at the Vahdettin mansion perched on top of a hill in Istanbul.
One of the former residences of the last Ottoman Sultan is currently used as Erdogan’s main office for the Asian part of Turkey’s largest city.
Overlooking the blue waters of the Bosphorus Strait which separates the Asian and European continents, the two leaders spoke of the possibilities that await the two countries.
Twenty-two days after the meeting, Condé was arrested in a military coup.
Speaking on September 7, two days after the takeover, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu condemned the coup and indirectly accused the former colonial powers of being behind the event.
“In the past, the old colonial vision was to exploit African countries. Now they are using different ways to bring governments they love to power, or to change governments they don’t want.
“Hands off Africa,” Cavusoglu said, before calling on the Guinean people: “Know that those who try to support you are the ones who want to use you.
This was symbolic of Turkey’s forays into Africa – an effort that saw the country increase the number of embassies in Africa to 43, from just 12 in 2002.
During his tenure in power since 2003 – both as prime minister and president – Erdogan has visited 28 different African countries for a total of 38 times, making him the most frequent world leader on the continent.
Calling Turkey “an Afro-Eurasian state,” Erdogan used every tool in his kit to engage with African states. In Muslim African countries, Turkey has built mosques. In North Africa, Erdogan used the Ottoman map, speaking of historical links. In countries discontented with the former colonial powers exploiting oil and minerals, Erdogan uses his favorite move: to serve as the “voice of the oppressed people”.
Turkey’s network of relations is not well understood in the West. Richard Outzen, geopolitical consultant and former member of the US State Department’s political planning team, says that of all the misconceptions in Washington about Turkey, the idea that Ankara is diplomatically isolated is “perhaps the most distorted of all lenses ”.
“Turkey actually has a very sophisticated diplomatic approach, and they’ve worked well in Africa, they’ve worked well in Asia, they have balanced relations with many countries in Central and East Asia. Turkish-Japanese relations are pretty good, they also have a very strong historical relationship with South Korea, ”he said.
A relatively untapped frontier, Africa offers new markets to Turkish exporters with less rivalry. The same goes for construction companies in Turkey, as Western companies often stay on the sidelines due to business risks.
Erdogan has led a coordinated strategy of opening embassies, direct air links and deployment of business advisers so that businessmen can smoothly enter the new market.
But when it comes to the scale and scope of projects in Africa, Turkey falls short of China.
According to the ranking of the 250 best international entrepreneurs of the Engineering News Record, based on the income generated abroad, Turkish entrepreneurs ranked third with 40 companies in 2020, after 41 entrepreneurs in the United States.
The top, by far, is China with 78 companies.
Erdal Eren, president of the Turkish Entrepreneurs Association, recounted his dealings in Africa and how he saw China’s massive influence with his own eyes.
He recalled a conservation with a leader of a country in the Horn of Africa. When Eren complained that Turkey cannot compete with Chinese prices, if it were to maintain the quality standards of the projects, the leader said sternly, “You cannot speak negatively about China in my presence. China is our ally, providing all kinds of help. my country to stand up. “
Eren recalled another example of how China keeps prices very low.
Several years ago, Eren visited a port in Libya. Two ships serving a Chinese company building a road were moored at the port. One served as accommodation for Chinese workers – in difficult living conditions – and the other contained vast supplies, including even rice imported from China. The team had nothing to buy from the local community.
“We cannot compete with such cost advantages,” Eren said. “With the support of the Chinese state, they offered very low prices with almost interest-free funding attached to the projects.”
For Turkey, the new target is penetration into sub-Saharan Africa, using newly established embassies, trade advisers and direct flights.
In June, Turkish entrepreneurs had undertaken 1,666 projects in 43 African countries worth $ 76 billion since 1972, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for just 305 projects worth $ 18.3 billion, with the rest in North Africa, where Turkey has traditionally had close ties.
But if sub-Saharan Africa offers Turkey expansion potential, this is where China has an even greater advantage.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, most countries do not have the oil or gas wealth like the North African states and they lack financial strength,” Eren said. “In this region, we are trying to push the resources of the Turkish Eximbank, but we have hit the Great Wall of China.”
Turk Eximbank is Turkey’s official export credit agency, which helps facilitate trade credit, guarantee and insurance programs. However, it is overshadowed by the massive financial capacities of the Chinese state, which supports African countries in building infrastructure without seeking the collaboration of a third country.
But Turkey sees some avenues it can explore to gain ground on Beijing. In July, some 250 Turkish and Angolan businessmen gathered for a forum in the Turkish capital of Ankara.
On the sidelines, participants from both countries seemed optimistic. “Now that direct flights have started, along with skyrocketing shipping costs from China, we have a chance to compete with Beijing, due to our proximity to Angola,” said Abdullah Anil Altunkaya, director of the Turkish manufacturer of Samsun Makina machines.
Meanwhile, a representative of an Angolan law firm that advises foreign investors, said: “The Chinese footprint is all over Angola, but a lot of the infrastructure they have built, like the roads, is being built. are quickly worn out. Better quality Turkish companies have a business chance. ”
A major obstacle to Turkey’s ambitious campaign is its dwindling financial strength, which has been hit by a collapse of the local currency pound as well as the pandemic.
Turkey’s response to China may be to team up with partners. “Where we have competed and won projects against China, such as Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal, Turkish entrepreneurs have managed to use funds from international institutions like the World Bank and the African Investment Bank,” Eren said.
Selim Bora, chairman of Turkish construction company Summa, which has completed 20 large projects in Africa ranging from airports to sports centers, noted that Chinese companies have recently shown less appetite for the build-operate-transfer (BOT ) and public-private partnership. projects.
African companies prefer these programs to government-guaranteed borrowing models, “which gives Turkish companies an advantage in competition with the Chinese,” he said.
Bora said Summa will soon start construction of a new international airport in Khartoum, Sudan, which will be built according to a BOT model.
Japan is closely monitoring Turkey’s advance in Africa, hoping to find ways for the two countries to combine forces and gain influence. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) opened a regional office in Istanbul last year, with a not-so-low-key mandate to seek Turkish cooperation in Africa, counter Chinese influence.
“We will make more efforts to further develop cooperation between Turkish and Japanese companies in Africa where Turkish companies already have a strong presence,” said Suzuki Ryuta, chief representative of the bank in Istanbul.
Steelmaker Tosyali Holding, which has a $ 650 million joint venture with Japanese steel giant Toyo Kohan in Turkey, is Turkey’s largest investor in Africa.
In Angola, Tosyali signed an agreement with the government to redevelop the Cassinga mine in the south of the country. The iron ore mined from Cassinga will be exported through a terminal developed by Toyota Tsusho and funded by JBIC and Nippon Export and Investment Insurance.
Turkish company Calik Energy, in which Japanese trading house Mitsubishi Corporation has a stake, recently completed an expansion of a small hydropower plant in Malawi with funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Speaking exclusively to Nikkei Asia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month: “Africa has the youngest population, the fastest rate of urbanization and the fastest growing economies in the world. The continent has great challenges but also great opportunities.
“When we look at Africa, we don’t see any gold mines or oil fields. Instead, we see a common history, a friendship and an opportunity to develop our ties on an equal partnership,” he said. he declared.