By Audrey Williams
Over the last decade, Turkey has been steadily strengthening its ties with Sub-Saharan Africa, where the country is increasingly seen as a viable military, development, and economic partner. But much of this new influence was built in alliance with the Fethullah Gülen Movement, which Ankara now considers to be a terrorist organization.
The followers of Gülen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric, are closely linked to business groups like TUSKON and charities like Kimse Yok Mu, who were once key participants in Turkey’s drive to build relationships in the region. Yet perhaps the most well-known symbol of Gülen’s influence in Sub-Saharan Africa is the sprawling network of schools that have opened under his auspices across the region, just as they have done in Turkey, Central Asia, Europe.
The former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and current academic David Shinn’s research into Gülen-affiliated activities in Sub-Saharan Africa has found that these schools are often private institutions providing high quality education financed by Gülen inspired businessmen. The schools maintain close links to their Turkish sponsors, and while they follow the curricula of their host countries, students also have access to education in the Turkish language.
While the majority of Gülen-affiliated schools are known for their STEM focus and follow a secular curriculum, in Islamic countries they occasionally veer into religious education and promotion. The New York Times reported that in Pakistan, Islam is encouraged in Gülen-affiliated dormitories. In research exploring the reach of Gülen-affiliated organizations in the Balkans, Dr. Kerem Öktem found that the Gülen-affiliated Sema Foundation took over administration of all of the religious high schools in the Albania’s Islamic community.
Turkey pivots to Africa
The now discontinued AKP-Gülen cooperation in Sub-Saharan Africa grew out of a wider effort launched in the late 1990s to reestablish and expand Turkey’s foreign policy on the African continent, with a particular focus on increasing ties with countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Historically, the Ottoman empire’s reach in Africa included the majority of northern Africa (excluding Morocco) and extended as far south as Sudan and parts of the Horn of Africa’s coast. However, the empire maintained few connections with the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa beyond occasional trade and diplomatic relations with kingdoms and states in the Sahel region.
From the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 to the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s foreign relations were European focused. As a result, its foreign policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa was limited. By the 1990s however, a shift in the global balance of power led to a reconsideration of Turkish foreign policy as a whole. The “Opening Up to Africa Policy” of 1998 introduced the first detailed plan for greater Turkish diplomatic and economic engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa. Implementation of the plan did not begin fully until the mid-2000s under the newly-elected AKP government, but since then it has accelerated rapidly.
According to the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Turkey currently has 39 embassies in Africa – up from just 12 in 2009. African embassies in Ankara now number 32. While the country’s bilateral trade volume with Africa is hardly staggering, standing at 17.5 billion USD, it represents a three-fold increase from 2003. The bilateral trade volume with Sub-Saharan Africa is just 6 billion USD, reflecting the still-nascent nature of relations between Turkey and its Sub-Saharan African partners.
Once allies, now enemies
As the Turkish government under the AKP built diplomatic relations in Sub-Saharan Africa, the ruling party’s close ties with the Gülen movement allowed for a robust friendship to develop between the people of Turkey and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The followers of Gülen call their movement Hizmet, and they are also known as Cemaat (community). During the period of alliance with the AKP, the Gülen movement was known for its interfaith message, its role in business and civil society across the globe, and its network of schools both inside and outside of Turkey.
In December 2013, cracks that had begun to form in the AKP-Gülen alliance developed into a full-blown split when alleged Gülen followers in the police and judiciary opened a corruption investigation into AKP officials and their families. In the two years that followed, the Turkish government declared the Gülen movement to be a terrorist organization, specifically referring to it as the Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization (FETÖ).
The enmity between the former allies reached its peak on July 15th, 2016, when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to overthrow Turkey’s government. Though the coup failed, it left more than 200 dead and traumatized the nation. The AKP government accused the Gülen movement of having orchestrated the coup attempt, a narrative accepted by much of the Turkish public. The followers of the movement and Gülen himself have vehemently denied any role in the putsch.
Whereas the AKP-Gülen alliance helped Turkey realize a more dynamic foreign policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, the split between the two groups now threatens Turkey’s newfound relationships with its African partners.
As part of a larger crackdown on the movement’s activities globally, the government began calling on its allies in Africa to close their Gülen-linked schools as early as 2014. In March of that year, Gambia responded with the closure of Yavuz Selim Anatolian School due to alleged ties to Gülen.
Other Sub-Saharan African countries have responded in kind following the July 15th coup attempt. On October 18th, the government of Guinea completed an administrative transfer of five schools previously administered by Gülen’s followers. The schools will now be run by the Turkish Education Foundation (TMV).
While Guinea’s transfer of its Gülen-linked schools comes three months after the coup attempt, Turkey’s most strategic partner in Sub-Saharan Africa, Somalia, moved quickly on July 16th to condemn the failed coup and ordered the closure of organizations linked to Gülen.
Turkey and Somalia have become close allies since then Prime Minister Erdoğan became the first non-African leader to visit Mogadishu in almost 20 years. His 2011 visit came after a nation-wide call for donations during the holy month of Ramadan in Turkey raised 300 million USD to remedy the drought and food crisis in Somalia.
Since then, Turkey has become one of Somalia’s most robust development partners across the public and private sector. Turkish actors have built hospitals, administered refugee camps, and improved infrastructure in Mogadishu. However, while Turkey continues to engage in Somalia’s development, it is increasingly becoming a critical military partner. Turkey has chosen to open one of its first overseas military bases in Mogadishu, where it will begin training Somali soldiers in 2017.
In a comment to Anadolu Agency, Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamed said that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that “the historic visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Somalia in 2011 was a turning point in the evolution of security and stability in the country.”
Not all of Turkey’s allies in Sub-Saharan Africa have been as eager as Somalia to crackdown on Gülen-linked activities. Following the coup attempt, Nigeria’s government refused to close down allegedly Gülen-linked schools, which “don’t violate Nigerian laws and cannot be shut down with regards to international law” according to Sola Enikanolaiye, a Nigerian Foreign Ministry official who spoke with Hurriyet Daily News.
Turkey-Africa ties beyond the Gülen movement
The split between the AKP and Gülen has not necessarily doomed Turkey’s flourishing relations with Sub-Saharan Africa to stagnation or reversal. Since relations gained momentum after 2005 – declared the “Year of Africa” in Turkey – the wider Turkish public has jumped at opportunities to establish ties with its African counterparts.
Multiple universities in Turkey, including Ankara University and Istanbul Aydın University, are home to dedicated centers for African studies. In the case of Ankara University, graduate students can now also pursue a degree in African studies. Additionally, multiple think tanks – such as the Association of Researchers on the Middle East and Africa (ORDAF), the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BILGESAM), and the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM) – have growing programs and research portfolios related to Africa.
The state international development coordination and cooperation agency, TIKA, has 12 offices in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a variety of semi- and non-governmental aid organizations – from well-known players like Turkish Red Crescent, IHH, and Doctors Worldwide to smaller shops like Sen De Gel and the All the Friends of Africa Association (TADD) – are playing a role in making Turkey one of the most recognized humanitarian actors not just in Sub-Saharan Africa but across the globe. In the business world, Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEİK) maintains active business councils with 28 Sub-Saharan African countries and is currently gearing up for the first Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum in early November.
Despite the proliferation of Gülen-affiliated organizations and activities in Sub-Saharan Africa since Turkey’s Africa policy launched in 1998, there are more than enough Turkish actors not affiliated with the movement to advance Turkey’s relations with Sub-Saharan Africa going forward.
However, the years of work done by the Gülen-affiliated organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa make them by far the most experienced Turkish actors with the deepest links to communities on the ground. Once a critical ally in the AKP’s drive to see stronger relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, the Gülen movement is now seen as a potent enemy with enough experience and connections to threaten Turkey’s newfound friendships on the African continent.