Strange New Bedfellows: Turkish – Ghanaian Bilateral Ties (AsokoNews)

August 6, 2014

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By Mark Hay
06 August 2014


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Ghanaian and Turkish flags above the Accra Furqan Mosque in the Kanda District of Accra, Ghana


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[av_dropcap1]O[/av_dropcap1]n the side of the Kanda Highway, one of the main thoroughfares of Accra — Ghana’s capital city — an iconic and long awaited construction project nears completion. Most of the actual building came together over the past two years, yet plans for Ghana’s first national mosque date back to 1979 when military ruler Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings tore down a mosque, alongside numerous other buildings, in central Accra to build a park. After becoming the first president of the Fourth Republic of Ghana in 1995, he granted the parcel of land in Kanda to Ghana’s Muslim community — 18% of the population according to census figures, to whom Rawlings had been sympathetic towards — to build a new Ghana National Mosque, apparently correcting his first administration’s oversight of the issue amidst the ongoing events of the coup 16 years prior. 

“At the time, Muslims in Ghana wanted a similar mosque in line with what is in Abuja, Nigeria,” Nathan Iddrisu Samwini, head of the Department of Religious Studies at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, told Asoko. Nigeria’s ambitious 1984 construction is based on Middle Eastern designs with a touch of African modernism. No Ghanaians could ever have imagined, though, that nine years later they’d wind up with a massive near-replica of Istanbul’s Blue (or Sultan Ahmet) Mosque flying a Turkish flag from the top of its 36 meter high main dome.

The Sadat Strategy

Muslim nations have invested in religious structures and non-profits in Ghana and the rest of West Africa for decades, according to Samwini. Egypt and Saudi Arabia each opened embassies in the 1960s, hoping to develop new political and economic relationships to redefine the postcolonial world away from a Western orientation. Over the next five decades Muslim countries from across the Middle East, as well as Muslim communities in the US and the UK, endowed scholarships and constructed mosques across the region to foster international friendships. But their engagement was limited. Professor Abdulai Iddrisu of St. Olaf College, who’s written on relations between Ghanaian and Arab Muslims, claims that most NGOs are left fallow, appointing scholarships and giving books but failing to engage with communities, while large, beautiful mosques built in the donor nation’s style sit empty.

“It is what we non-Muslim Islamic scholars call the Sadat strategy,” Samwini told Asoko. “Increase the mosque population to show the world that this is a Muslim country,” and build solidarity that is rarely capitalized.

“Turkey missed the wave of engagement during the decolonization era,” according to Mehmet Özkan, a Foreign Policy Researcher at the SETA Foundation for Political, Social and Economic Research in Ankara. Until 1998, their presence in Africa was minimal. So when a Turkish delegation arrived to co-launch construction on the Ghana National Mosque, now also known as the Accra Furqan, it seemed a bit puzzling, especially given previous overtures, recalled by Samwini, from the Emiratis, Iranians, Kuwaitis, Libyans, and Saudis to assist in funding the project. The project — reportedly supported by the religious Aziz Mahmud Hudayi Foundation, various national and local government entities in Turkey as well as local Ghanaian organizations headed by the Ghana Friendship and Solidarity Association (which declined to comment on the story) – is part and parcel of Turkey’s evolving geopolitical strategy towards the continent as a whole.

Turkey’s Push to Africa

In 2002, explains Özkan, when the newly-elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey, they codified plans to diversify their economic allies away from longstanding ties to Europe and Russia. Part of that involved a push into Africa, starting with the 2005 “Year of Africa,” when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first head of state of the Republican era to travel below the equator and gained African Union observer status. By 2008, Turkey had become a strategic partner to the African Development Bank, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in East Africa; it announced a plan to launch 15 new embassies in Africa (doubling its diplomatic presence); and it inaugurated the Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in Istanbul. Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2008 the Turkish Cooperation and Development Administration, Erdogan’s soft power engine, set up charitable operations in 37 African nations. During the same period, Turkey’s cumulative bilateral African trade rose from $5.4 billion to $16 billion per year.

Turkey likely moved into Ghana because it possesses prioritized commodities: gold, minerals, oil, and raw materials. In return, Ghana openly desires Turkish manufactured and consumer goods and has courted Turkish investment in drilling and construction, an invitation that TUSKON, Turkey’s confederation of business and industrial interests, seems eager to accept.

A Partner in Ghana 

Ghana is Turkey’s third largest trade partner in sub-Saharan Africa (after South Africa and Nigeria). According to the Turkish government, there are five major projects and 41 Turkish firms are operating in Ghana as of 2013 (the Ghana Investment Promotion Council cites 42 Turkish projects). Such figures are impressive considering most of Turkey’s Ghanaian engagement has developed since the July 2010 reopening of the Turkish embassy in Ghana, which had been closed in 1981 due to political turmoil in Turkey following a military coup the year before. Within weeks of the embassy’s opening, Turkish businessmen and journalists were on the ground exploring investment opportunities. 

In 2011, the Ghana-Turkey Cooperation and Development Association was founded to facilitate both commercial and humanitarian exchanges and shuttling scholars and entrepreneurs back and forth between Turkey and Ghana each year. In the same year, the Turkish-Ghanaian Business Council announced its intentions to raise bilateral trade to $1 billion per year by 2016. Trade only rose by 3.3% between 2011 and 2012, reaching $526 million per year, yet the 2012 figures are still a 369% increase on 2004’s bilateral trade. And as of last year, the Ghana Turkey Trade and Investment Forum, organized by TUSKON, launched to facilitate Turkish business penetration in Ghana, while the latter’s President John Mahama increasingly invited Turkish construction expertise to help in the development of Ghana’s urban infrastructure.

“Turkey aims to reach $50 billion in trade with Africa by 2015,” Özkan told Asoko. “And Ghana intends to be a significant partner as such trade increases.” New investments and development efforts complement growing trade. While the Ghana National Mosque is a very visible and (by the dictum of the Sadat strategy) classic form of Turkish engagement, the few million squired into that project pale in comparison to the $300 million Turkey provided Accra for its Sewer and Stormwater Drainage Alleviation Project in 2013, or the $400 million it pledged to the construction of new hospitals in 2014. In return, Accra has pledged to expand its ginger, mango, pineapple, and pepper exports to Turkey.

Due to the Turkey’s sudden, recent engagement, its relationships are not firm, and some individuals in Ghana are not even aware of its humanitarian and development projects. “Some African countries express confusion about their involvement,” Özkan told Asoko. “But [their] lack of colonial background has been good.” And they’ve put good money in sincere projects on the barrelhead, so they’re likely to continue to barrel towards their 2015-16 trade goals.

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Mark Hay is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and a freelance writer whose work is featured in Roads & Kingdoms, Slate, and VICE. He has significant research experience on the ground in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. 


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