These are the type of connections and relationships that are often hard to research so I appreciate when they are published.
WPR: What is the history of Turkey's trade and diplomatic relations with sub-Saharan Africa?
Thomas Wheeler: Turkey had few relations with sub-Saharan Africa until the 1990s. Admittedly, the Ottoman sultan appointed honorary consuls in South Africa in the 19th century, but during the Republican era from 1922, Ankara's emphasis was on consolidating the new Turkish state and building good relations with neighboring countries. That was followed more recently by Turkey's attempts to become a member of the European Union. The subsequent stalling of Turkey's EU accession bid, combined with a strengthened Turkish economy and a political leadership eager to look beyond ties with Europe and the U.S., led to a policy of outreach to Africa during the 2000s.
This effort involved opening new embassies, scheduling presidential and prime ministerial visits, establishing new airline routes, promoting trade and investment, assisting with peacekeeping, providing scholarships and using all the various tools for projecting soft power. Turkey is also an out-of-region partner in the African Development Bank, through which it can channel financial assistance and gain a positive profile in Africa.
WPR: What are the most promising areas for trade and political cooperation, and what are the major obstacles to Turkey's involvement in Africa?
Wheeler: For Turkey, as for other countries, Africa represents both a market and a source of resources. Turkey's small family businesses, the so-called Anatolian tigers, are prepared to invest in factories in Africa, with more than 50 Turkish companies already active in South Africa alone. Turkish manufactures -- including household goods, gold jewelry, clothing and linen, and food products such as dried fruits and nuts -- sell well in Africa on the basis of price and quality, allowing Turkish trade with Africa to grow from $5 billion in 2003 to an estimated $30 billion in 2010. In the Muslim countries, especially in West Africa, the religious link is also being exploited, through offers to train imams, for instance.
Among the wide range of products Turkey has imported from South Africa, in particular, "clean" coal has topped the list for at least the past 15 years. There are two Turkish-owned coal mines operating in the country. Second in terms of import value from South Africa is gold, and several other minerals are also high on the list of commodity imports.
In its political relations with Africa, Turkey actively seeks to exploit its identity as a country that straddles the divide between the developed and the developing world. The fact that Turkey does not have a history of being a colonial power in sub-Saharan Africa is also valuable to its outreach policy.
Among the obstacles to Turkey's African outreach policy is a mutual lack of knowledge, something that Ankara recognizes and is trying to overcome.
WPR: How does Turkey's potential involvement in Africa compare to efforts by other emerging powers, notably India and China, to play a larger role on the continent?
Wheeler: Although the Turkish economy has been growing rapidly since the early 2000s, Turkey is not in the league of China and India in terms of GDP, population size and area. Nevertheless, with regard to Africa, it is has the advantage of geographic proximity. Both governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations -- such as trade councils, charitable organizations and think tanks -- strengthen the Turkish presence and increase its visibility. The nongovernmental factor is not one that China, for instance, can employ. Given its status as a middle power that has recently been a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council (2009-2010), Turkey is making an impact in Africa that is probably out of proportion to its size as a stand-alone player.