Erdogan's Islamist Agenda in Africa

The President is said to have used pro-government foundations and NGOs to promote his policies on the continent
The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

PHOTO/PAVEL GOLOVKIN  -   The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Aziz Mahmûd Hüdâyi Foundation describes itself as a non-governmental organization established in 1985 in Turkey to provide "charitable services in the fields of education, social and humanitarian services". Its motto is "Fighting Against Poverty and Ignorance". They claim that "we try to alleviate the material and spiritual hardships of people around the world through various projects and contribute the efforts of meeting the need for qualified people both in Turkey and around the Muslim World".

However, recent research published by Nordic Monitor, a Stockholm-based think tank, has revealed that the Eurasian nation's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used the Foundation to "reclaim its Islamic leadership" in Africa, where he is trying to expand his agenda. As Javier Fernández Arribas, director of Atalayar, recalls in one of his last articles, "the Turkish government paved the way for its Islamic project in Africa years ago, both through white power stratagems and by establishing links with radical groups through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). Since then, Erdogan has shown interest not only in Libya, where he actively participates in the civil war on the side of the Government of National Accord (GNA), but also in the rest of the African continent, in states such as Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan, where he already has military bases and succulent economic cooperation agreements - fundamentally in the area of hydrocarbons - all aimed at establishing himself as the regional power par excellence in the Mediterranean and Red Sea basins, in order to control the flow of resources so abundant in those areas.  

Un voluntario de la Agencia de Cooperación y Coordinación de Turquía (TIKA)
PHOTO/TIKA - A volunteer from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA)

Now, Nordic Monitor reveals one of those "soft power stratagems" used in Africa through the Foundation. Specifically, the Swedish study explains how "President Erdoğan, to this end, has urged African leaders to back Hudayi Foundation projects on the continent in accordance with his Islamist policies". The evidence on which the research is based is a classified wiretap obtained by Nordic Monitor which records the private conversation of President Erdoğan and Mustafa Latif Topbaş, a businessman close to Erdoğan and Yasin al-Qadi’s partner in secret dealings in Turkey. Al-Qadi is an Egyptian-born Saudi national and was at one time flagged by the US Treasury and the UN al-Qaida sanction committee for his alleged links to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, although he was later removed from the "black lists". It should also be mentioned at this point that Mustafa Latif Topbas was a cousin of the former chairman of the Foundation, Ahmed Hamdi Topbas. Thus, the family is known "as one of the main financial supporters of the Islamist policies of President Erdogan and his ruling party," the Justice and Development party (AKP). Along these lines, the investigation has also revealed that the latter figure, the NGO's leader, was among the well-known Turkish names found in the Panama Papers, which discovered that donations collected by the foundation had been transferred to Swiss bank accounts and also found two offshore shell companies registered to the Topbaş family.

The conversation took place when Erdogan was still Prime Minister - he became President in 2014 - specifically on January 8, 2013, when he was touring Africa visiting the countries of Gabon, Niger and Senegal. He then visited the programs organized by the Foundation in the different nations. During the phone call recorded, the now Turkish president asked Topbas what the Foundation needed in Niger, as he would ask the country's president, Mahamadou Issoufu, to provide him with new land or a new building for the Foundation, with a clear objective: to spread its program through the activities developed by the NGO, both in primary schools and in mosques, in a gesture that sought, likewise, a favorable treatment from African governments. 

El presidente de Senegal, Macky Sall, recibe a su homólogo turco Erdogan en Dakar, Senegal, el 28 de enero de 2020
REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA - Senegal's President Macky Sall receives his Turkish counterpart Erdogan in Dakar, Senegal, on January 28, 2020

Furthermore, the call coincided with the investigation by the Turkish Public Prosecutor's Office into a corruption network involving senior government officials, including Erdogan and his familiy. Al-Qadi and Topbas were then engaged in a joint strategy to move large sums of money into Turkey, in order to "commit fraud on valuable public property in Istanbul using the influence of powerful figures in government. Erdogan's son Bilal was involved in the operation. Another investigation opened by the Prosecutor's Office in 2013 showed that Ilker Ayci, former president of the Turkish Investment Support and Promotion Agency (ISPAT) and current chairman of the Board of Directors of the Turkish flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY), promoted Al-Qadi's private investments and business.  

On June 12, Nordic Monitor revealed that NGOs supported by the Ankara government were building schools in Africa "to promote Erdogan's Islamist political ideology", including the Aziz Mahmûd Hüdâyi Foundation, which had built two schools and a mosque complex in Ghana by 2019. Educational institutions founded on the continent by Turkish agencies and foundations linked to the government "are educating students in accordance with Turkey's Islamist political agenda", which would enable the Eurasian nation "to achieve its political goals in a couple of years". To this end, the The National Turkish Student Union (MTTB), which promotes an Islamic state in Turkey, is used as an educational guide. 

It should be recalled at this point that after the 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan, Ankara began to take control of "the formerly private Gulenist schools [of cleric Fethullah Gülen, who he accuses of being behind the rebellion] in Africa by establishing a new public institution [the Maarif Foundation, a Turkish brand of global education] and placing the schools under its administration," as analyst Yusuf Kenan Küçük explains in Africa Up Close. In addition, he put pressure on the various African governments to close down the establishments that were allegedly linked to Gülen's "terrorist" network. This was the case in Nigeria, Somalia, Senegal and Tanzania.

Miembros de la Red de Solidaridad con Turquía (TSN) se manifiestan frente a la recién inaugurada embajada turca en Pretoria, Sudáfrica, el 26 de julio de 2018
AFP/WIKUS DE WET - Members of the Turkey Solidarity Network (TSN) demonstrate in front of the newly opened Turkish Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, on 26 July 2018

The Aziz Mahmûd Hüdâyi Foundation is currently present in 17 African countries, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.  

On Africa Day, May 25, the Director General of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nur Sagman, praised the links between the two regions, a diplomatic action carried out through 42 embassies. Sagman described Turkey's policy towards Africa as "effective, beneficial and most importantly sincere for this continent", in a statement collected by the state agency Anadolu. But nothing could be further from the truth. "It is still yet to be seen to what degree these new partnerships can assist in forging a sustainable and commonly beneficial collaboration for both parts – positively impacting on ordinary peoples’ livelihoods, or whether Turkey’s new approach to Africa reinforces the same old rule of business as usual," explains analyst Zakariya Hussein in the Middle East Monitor. Moreover, as expert François Vreÿ of the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa notes in The Conversation, "Turkey's involvement in Africa is intricately linked to its complex relations with countries in the Middle East. One example is its ties with Qatar", a country with which it maintains a solid partnership in various conflicts in the region, such as Libya. In the case of the Horn of Africa, "one factor driving Turkey’s interests in the Horn of Africa in particular stem from perceptions of a new economic zone of interest accentuated by the intense clustering of foreign powers in the Red Sea region, including a good crop of Arab states," Vreÿ says. 

"Africa can be said to be a favorite destination for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At least from the look of the foreign trips the Turkish President has made in the last years. In 2015 he visited Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti, in 2016 it was Uganda and Kenya on the line. He stopped by six African countries in 2017" and in 2018 "the Turkish president is visiting Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali" according to the Deutsche Welle.  "On Erdogan's trips it's mainly about one thing, political and economical influence" they add, because Ankara "has been trying to consolidate its influence on the continent, not only through development aid and economic cooperation".

El presidente de Turquía, Erdogan y el presidente de Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keita el 2 de marzo de 2018 en Bamako
AFP/MICHELE CATTANI - Turkish President Erdogan and Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on 2 March 2018 in Bamako
Opposition complaints

Turkish opposition political parties have repeatedly denounced these practices undertaken by the Erdogan Administration. In August last year, criticism took on a new level when it turned into a major blow against the president's expansionist interests, when the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, cancelled the transfer of 350 million lire to some pro-government foundations, including Aziz Mahmûd Hüdâyi. The mayor, a member of the Republican People's Party (CHP), managed to win back the city's Eurasian town hall after 25 years of AKP rule. Other foundations that also saw their links with the public body end after Imamoglu's decision were the Turkish Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGUEV), whose board includes Erdogan's daughter; the Turkish Youth Foundation (TUGVA); the Ensar Foundation and the Daru'l Funun Theology Foundation.