The latest developments on the Turkish policy towards Ethiopia

addisThe first part of 2015 witnessed some relevant events in the framework of the Turkish Foreign Policy towards Ethiopia.

In the first instance, in January, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went to Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia for an official visit carried out to underline the importance for Turkey of the relationship with the countries of the Horn of Africa. During the visit, President Erdoğan pointed out that the African Union, which is the most important platform of discussion for regional issues, is based in Ethiopia and the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) is based in Djibouti1. He affirmed furthermore that the “Opening to Africa Policy”, implemented by the Turkish government during the last 10 years, has been successfully completed and will be now replaced by an “Africa Partnership Policy”.

Secondly, a groundbreaking ceremony for the Awash-Kombolcha-Hara Gebaya Railway Project took place in Kombolcha on 25 February. This project, one of the most important development projects of Ethiopia, is undertaken by the Turkish construction company Yapı Merkezi. It amounts to 1.7 billion USD and part of the financing comes from the Turkish Eximbank. The 389 km long railway will connect the northern railway line from Mekelle to Hara Gebeya to Tadjourah and the central railway line from Addis to Djibouti Port, which is the main transport corridor for both passengers and freight traffic, and for the transportation of imported and exported goods via Djibouti Port. The ceremony was attended by many representatives of both countries, such as the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Turkish Ambassador in Ethiopia Osman Rıza Yavuzalp, Yapı Merkezi Holding Chairman Ersin Arıoğlu, Yapı Merkezi Construction Chairman Başar Arıoğlu, representatives of Ministry of Economy of Turkey and creditor banks2.

Thirdly, the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) approved on April a highly regarded draft proclamation proposing the cooperation of Ethiopia and Turkey in the military sector. The agreement envisages the way for Ethiopia to produce military equipment and sell them to third parties. Namely, it was signed between the Ministries of Defense of the two countries in Istanbul in 2013 to «provide for cooperation in the field of defense industry, improving the defense industry capabilities of the countries, production and procurement of defense goods and services as well as related technical and logistic support in the field»3.

Lastly the Turkish agricultural Ziraat bank announced on 27 April that it will open a new branch in Addis Ababa, before the end of 20154. This will be the first foreign bank to operate in Ethiopia. The decision was anticipated by the Turkish Ambassador in Ethiopia Osman R. Yavuzalp during a press conference related to Turkish connection with Ethiopia and the African Union on December 2014. In that event H.E. Yavuzalp said that Ethiopia is the country Turkey is most keen to cooperate with in economic, political and social areas; he added moreover that Ethiopia and Turkey are undertaking various activities to sustain the age-long ties and therefore that there was a plan to open a bank which finances Turkish investors in Ethiopia and the proposal was already submitted to the government of Addis Ababa5.

All these events can be seen as part of a wider mutual interest of Turkey and Ethiopia to continue strengthening their ties in all fields.

As affirmed by Evren Doğan from DEİK (Dış Ekonomik İlişkiler Kurulu, Foreign Economic Relations Board): «Ethiopia is seen as a gate to enter the African market and a very important country. The reason of this is that they have stable government, stable democracy, and an economy that is a very promising one. In terms of trade and investments, we can say that definitely the beginning of this year [2015] with the visit of Mr. Erdoğan to Ethiopia is a new year for upcoming relations with Ethiopia.»6

This thought is additionally backed by the assertions of the Ethiopian part that is represented for this research by Goitom Kahsay Hagos which states that: «We have excellent political and diplomatic relations with Turkey. This excellent bilateral relation is supported by economic factors, like investment, trade, and some other cultural issues7.

Concerning the historical background of the relations between the two countries, it can be said that after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the first Turkish embassy in Africa was opened in Addis Ababa in 1926. Although the Ethio-Turkish relations remained restrained during the 20th Century, before the instauration of the DERG Regime in 1974, the Emperor Haile Selassie visited Turkey twice in 1967 and in 1971, and some commercial agreements where signed between the two countries.

However, as witnessed by Murat Bilhan who was Ambassador in Ethiopia from 1996 to 2000, when he started his duty in Addis Ababa in 1996, the activities of Turkish Embassies in sub-Saharan Africa were rather insignificant8.

This situation changed in the framework of the wider Turkey’s Africa Policy. It was initiated with the adoption by the Turkish Government of the “Africa Action Plan” in 1998 and continued with the implementation of the “Open to Africa Policy” by the AKP government since 2002.

The Turkish-Ethiopian Relations can thus be placed in the framework of this Turkish-Africa Policy.

Indeed Ethiopia has a considerable politically importance for Turkey, due to the fact that it hosts the headquarters of many relevant international institutions including the African Union headquarters and the regional office of the United Nations.

Attesting this particular attention to Ethiopia from Turkey, it can be mentioned that the first visit of a Turkish Prime Minister in Sub-Saharan Africa was made by Mr. Erdoğan in Addis Ababa in 2005. Moreover, the first African regional Office of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) was opened in Ethiopia in the same year. From that moment on the political and economic relationship have increased year-by-year until 2013. Among others, the actors who played a significant role in deepening these relations were both governmental, as for example the TIKA Agency; but also non-governmental, like Turkish NGOs9 such as TUSKON10 for the commercial and industrial sector, and İHH11, KYM,12 and the Turkish Red Crescent for the humanitarian field13. Namely on the occasion of the 2006 draught in the Horn of Africa, Turkey delivered to Ethiopia an amount of 300.000 USD of humanitarian aid through the UNICEF and WFP funds.

In 2007, President Erdoğan – who was Prime Minister at that time – visited the country for the second time while he was in Addis Ababa to attend the African Union (AU) Summit14. Other mutual visits marked the Turkey-Ethiopia partnership in the following years, such as for example the visit of the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – who was at that time Ministry of Foreign Affairs – in 2011 and 2012. On the occasion of the 18th Summit of the AU in Addis Ababa on 28-30 January 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ, in addition to his participation to the meeting, visited also the Ethiopia’s Christian ruler Ashama ibn Abjar (al-Najashi of Aksum) village in Mekelle. Following the visit of Mr. Bozdağ, it was announced the intention of TIKA to restore the Najashi’s Tomb. This project, of an amount of 4 million USD, is expected to be completed in 2016.

In June 2013, Yapı Merkezi construction company signed the above mentioned contract for the Awash-Woldia/Hara Gebeya Railway Project with Ethiopia Railway Company (ERC) in Addis Ababa, event that marked also an important economic step in the relations with Ethiopia.

However it is an umdeniable fact that in the aftermath of the Arab Springs the Turkish Foreign Policy in general has become more uncertain and this sort of dithering has inevitably had an effect on the Africa Policy.

An evidence of this is the lack of support from the African countries for the re-election of Turkish non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council for the period 2014-2015.15 The second evidence is a drop in the trade volume since 2012.16 Even in the first months on 2015 a decline in the trade volume with Ethiopia is attested.17

Another adverse factor can be seen in the breakup of the relations between the AKP government and the faith-based Gülen movement since 2013. The various organizations linked to this movement, as for example TUSKON and KYM, along with Gülen affiliated schools in Ethiopia18, played an important role during all the decade of the implementation of the Africa Policy. Especially the Turkish International Schools represent a key factor in the frame of the Turkish Soft-Power. Indeed during his visit in January 2015, President Erdoğan stressed, with his Ethiopian counterpart, the necessity to close these schools and to replace them with governmental ones. This request however didn’t find a substantial application since as far as we know these schools cannot be easily closed and they are still pursuing their activity. Moreover as affirmed by Goitom Kahsay Hagos: « [the Ethiopian government] doesn’t have any problems with these schools. They were not established today, they were there some years ago and they are private schools. We became aware of the fact that these schools were from Gülen movement only last year when frictions raised between the government and the Gülen movement»19.

To conclude, it seems that the visit in January of President Erdoğan, in addition to the announcement of the opening of the Ziraat Bank in Addis Ababa in April are connected by the single idea of the intention of reaffirming the governmental presence of Turkey in Africa. Indeed, this happens in a period when Turkish Foreign Policy is facing regional problems in the Middle East and a slowdown of its influence on the African countries. This last fact is de facto attested by the weakening in the growth of trade volume with Africa and the lack of support of African countries for the Turkish second non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council.

Ankara seems to try to regain its position in Addis Ababa in light of the fact that in the recent period Ethiopia is facing one of the fastest economic growths in the world20, supported by the political stability assured by the recently re-elected government. Moreover, as stated above, Ethiopia can be seen as a key country not only economically but also politically due to the presence of the African Union and other important international organizations in Addis Ababa.

At present, in this framework, there are mainly three challenges for the Turkish government.

The first two concern the internal politics, and are namely: the political instability in Turkey which arose with the recent general election on 7 June, and the breakup with the Gülen movement since 2013. Lastly a third challenge is represented by the regional uncertainty in the Middle East area and North Africa by several factors. Among others: the Syrian Civil War, the Libyan conflict, the spread of the Islamic State and the subsequent instability in Iraq, as well as the emergence of various types of Islamic Militias in the Arab Peninsula and in some African regions (in North Africa, Sahel, Horn of Africa, and Central Africa). It is therefore highly probable that these factors will negatively affect the Ethio-Turkish diplomatic and commercial ties.

  1. see http://www.tccb.gov.tr/news/397/92010/president-erdogan-goes-to-ethiopia.html []
  2. see  http://www.raillynews.com/2015/yapi-merkezi-ceremony-in-ethiopia/ []
  3. see http://www.thereporterethiopia.com/index.php/news-headlines/item/3364-house-ratifies-ethio-turkey-major-military-deal []
  4. see http://www.worldbulletin.net/news/158413/ziraat-bank-to-open-branch-in-ethiopia []
  5. see http://www.ena.gov.et/en/index.php/politics/item/144-ethiopia-preferable-for-economic-political-cooperation-turkish-ambassador []
  6. Evren Doğan is the Turkish African Chamber Coordinator in DEİK – Interviewed in TOBB Plaza, Istanbul, on 21.05.2015. []
  7. Mr. Goitom Kahsay Hagos is Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Ankara – Interviewed in the Ethiopian Embassy in Ankara on 15.06.2015. []
  8. Murat Bilhan was Ambassador in Ethiopia in the period 1996-2000. He is now Vice-Chairman of the Turkish Think Thank TASAM and Professor of International Relations at the Istanbul Kültür University. Interviewed on 13.05.2015 and on 02.06.2015. []
  9. More than 30 Turkish NGOs operate in Ethiopia in various fields. []
  10. TUSKON is a non-governmental and non-profit umbrella organization representing seven business federations and 216 business associations with more than 50.000 businesspeople over 100.000 companies. It is the largest and most widespread non-governmental organization in Turkish business community. Its primary objective is to support both Turkish and international business people for coming together and forming a synergy between them. However its links with the faith-based Gülen Movement are now creating a major hurdle to their activities in Africa, attempting to undermine the successful result of the trade relations by them established. See http://www.todayszaman.com/business_government-oppression-of-confederation-hurts-turkish-exports-to-africa_374850.html []
  11. The Islamic NGO, İnsani Yardım Vakfı, which carries out humanitarian projects all over the world, included in Africa. In Ethiopia it is especially active with educational centers and orphanages. []
  12. Kimse Yok Mu, is a Gülen Movement affiliated humanitarian NGO that operates in Ethiopia mainly with domestic utensils distribution, food distribution, construction of orphanages and medical relief. []
  13. It must be said that the humanitarian field represented a major issue for the Turkish presence not only in Ethiopia but in all Africa in general. For this reason some analysts defined the Turkish one a “humanitarian diplomacy”. []
  14. In 2005 Turkey receive the “observer status” at the African Union. []
  15. While in 2008 Turkey succeeded on its non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council for the period 2009-2010 thanks to the support of 50 out of 53 African Countries, the same did not happened in 2013 for the 2014-2015 period’s Turkish membership. Source: Ufuk Tepebaş, “Turkey in Africa: achievements and challenges”. May 2015, Istanbul []
  16. The trade volume between Turkey and Ethiopia in 2012 was 441.726 USD, in 2013 it was 421.634 USD and 396.656 USD in 2014. Source: Ministry of Customs and Trade. http://risk.gtb.gov.tr/ []
  17. Source: Ministry of Customs and Trade. http://risk.gtb.gov.tr/ []
  18. see http://www.nejashiturkishschools.com/index.asp []
  19. Mr. Goitom Kahsay Hagos is Minister Counsellor at the Embassy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Ankara – Interviewed on 15.06.2015 []
  20. As Stated in the “2014 Ethiopia Report” by the African Economic Outlook (OECD), “In 2012/13, Ethiopia’s economy grew by 9.7%, which made Ethiopia one of Africa’s top performing economies”. []

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