The Scalar Politics of Turkey’s Pivot to Africa

Ezgi Guner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Turkey’s recent interest in sub-Saharan Africa has been the subject of alarmist media reports resonating with the frenzy about “China’s rise in Africa”, long noted by scholars.[i] Besides the shared concerns over resource extraction, investment, foreign aid, land grabs, and military bases, Turkey has triggered specific concerns about neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism.[ii] Saturated with an aura of secrecy,[iii] and centered on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,[iv] these accounts have portrayed Turkey as a curious actor in the “new scramble for Africa.” What is missing in these discussions is the politics of scale that undergird Turkey’s pivot to Africa. In order to understand the construction and contestation of Turkish presence in sub-Saharan Africa, we need to pay attention to the scalar practices of the state, business and civil society. This paper focuses on three scale-making projects: the construction of a “legitimate” Turkish presence on the continent, the making of a multiracial Muslim world, and the conjuring of Turkish-African “partnership.” In thinking the different scales of the nation, umma (community of believers), and global capitalism together, this discussion aims to provide a framework for analyzing how value is created and extracted at their conjunction.[v]

Rescaling national representation

Since its adoption of a vague Africa strategy in the mid-2000s, Turkey became part of the biggest embassy building boom unfolding on the African continent,[vi] by rapidly increasing the number of its embassies from 12 to 42.[vii] Offices representing other public institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA)[viii] and Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) complemented the embassies in conjuring the Turkish state on the continent.[ix]The importance of raising the Turkish flag in these highly securitized spaces has been only partly about the declaration of Turkey’s emergence as a new global actor in Africa. Equally important, at least since the dissolution of the political alliance between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen network, with strong roots on the continent, since 2013, [x] has been monopolizing the privileges of officiality and reclaiming the right to speak on behalf of the Turkish nation and state.

Formed around the Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who is now blacklisted by the Turkish government for plotting the 2016 coup attempt, the Gülen network expanded its schools to the African continent in the late 1990s as a precursor to Turkey’s pivot to Africa. Initially celebrated as the representatives of Turkey in places where official missions had not yet reached, these schools became targets of Turkey’s global war on terror, especially after the attempted coup. The first wave of new embassies in Africa established in the late 2000s prioritized the countries hosting a “Turkish school” in a spirit of political alliance. However, after the rift between the party and the Gülen network, the embassies acquired a new mission of replacing the schools as the true representatives of Turkey. As a response to the anti-terror campaign waged by the Turkish government, the schools on the continent dropped the references to Turkey from their names and got rid of the Turkish flags in the schoolyards. While the schools lost their aura of officiality and representational power, state bodies and pro-government non-state bodies worked diligently to take over the schools’ claims to represent Turkey.

The Turkish state is not alone in carving up a legitimate space for the Turkish presence and marking the surface of the continent with its symbols in competition and contestation with the Gülen network. The pro-government civil society organizations actively participate in the rescaling of national representation by channeling state funds and pious donations to the construction of Islamic schools, mosques, water wells, solar energy systems, etc.[xi] Next to these constructions, there is often a signboard displaying not only the logo of the sponsoring organization, but also the Turkish flag. In tandem with state efforts, these non-state actors, active in the humanitarian and education field in Africa, take an important role in the construction of Turkey as a benevolent Muslim donor through the circulation of national symbols. Often analyzed within the framework of “soft power” or “public diplomacy,” the humanitarian, developmental and pedagogical projects of faith-based NGOs and Sufi communities are, however, carried out in the name of the nation as much as that of the umma.

The making of a Muslim world as a scalar and racial project

The second scale-making project that is integral to Turkey’s recent orientation towards Africa south of the Sahara consists of the making of a Muslim world[xii] in its own image, through state as well as non-state efforts. Since 2006, Turkey organized three African summits of Muslim religious leaders which helped introduce the African participants to the Turkish model of state-religion relations and Islamic education. Two institutions that are central to this model are the Presidency of Religious Affairs that govern religious life with state funds and the imam-hatip schools that combine a religious curriculum with secular subjects.[xiii] Originally designed to ensure the secularization of education and public life by the early Republican regime, today these institutions are promoted as the pillars of the “Turkish model” of Islam to be emulated by Muslim Africa.

At the heart of the making and disciplining of the umma lies the Islamic schools established in sub-Saharan countries by Naqshbandi communities from Turkey. In these mostly boarding schools, Turkish educators or African educators trained in Turkey, teach the religious curriculum imported from Turkey and, as some of my interlocutors stated, help spread “Turkish Islam.” What is common to the summits organized by the state and the pedagogical content of the Islamic schools, beyond disseminating a self-proclaimed Turkish model, is the racial ideology which refers back to the Islamic principle of racial egalitarianism while reproducing the nineteenth century racial taxonomy. Conjuring of the scale of the umma is, then, at the same time conjuring of race. In other words, imagining a multiracial Muslim world is conditioned on the racialization of Muslims as white and black. The scalar and racial politics of umma-making, furthermore, lay the ideological groundwork for the conjuring of the Turkish-African “partnership.”[xiv]

The conjuring of “global partnership”

The third scalar project implicated in Turkey’s pivot to Africa is that of global capitalism and relies on the conjuring of “partnership” through business delegations and forums. Modeled after China’s forum diplomacy (discussed by Benabdallah in this collection), Turkey has been organizing Turkey-Africa summits since 2008, the same year as the African Union’s declaration of Turkey a strategic partner. One of the decisions taken at the first summit was to establish the Turkey-Africa Desk within Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) which gradually took charge of the economic dimension of Turkey’s pivot to Africa. In 2016, DEIK’s Africa Desk organized the Turkey-Africa Economy and Business Forum in Istanbul with state funds that covered the international participants’ travel and accommodation. This forum became an international platform to demonstrate the resilience of the Turkish economy in the face of the recent coup attempt and to invite the African leaders to support Turkey’s anti-terror campaign, by either transferring the Gülen network’s schools to the Turkish state or shutting them down. After the opening ceremony, which the chairman of DEIK resembled to a wedding, the participants could attend the panels on the investment opportunities in individual sub-Saharan countries, visit the exhibition on the popular resistance against the coup attempt, or interact with Turkish companies in the business-to-business meetings (B2B). In the vast venue arranged into different business sectors for the B2B, over a thousand participants could meet their potential “partners” and communicate with the assistance of international students from African countries studying in Turkish universities who served as translators.

Business delegations accompanying President Erdoğan on his diplomatic visits to sub-Saharan countries are no less important than the forums for imagining, enacting and celebrating the “partnership” between Turkey and Africa. During these visits, that cover up to three African countries within 3-5 days, a second plane carries a Turkish business delegation ranging between 150-300 businesspeople. Until 2014, the business delegations attached to diplomatic visits to Africa were dominated by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the umbrella organization of the business associations of the Gülen network spread across the country. The membership of TUSKON was primarily composed of small and medium size enterprises located in Anatolian cities which were in need of new export markets for their products in the face of a saturated domestic market and shrinking markets of the regional hinterland. Through “trade bridges” organized not only in the financial heartland of the country, Istanbul, but also in the economic peripheries such as Gaziantep, TUSKON matched the Turkish manufacturers with African merchants. When the institutions of the Gülen network began to be ostracized from Turkey’s pivot to Africa, DEIK replaced TUSKON in organizing the business delegations accompanying President Erdoğan.

DEIK was restructured by a new decree in 2014 from an autonomous institution into a unit of the Ministry of Economy, lending the government more control over it. As new business councils were established within DEIK to cater to each sub-Saharan country, the new cadres began to be filled with the members of the pro-government Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MUSIAD). This shift from TUSKON to DEIK in managing the economic flows between Turkey and Africa and the encroachment of MUSIAD on DEIK were reflected in the changing profile of the business communities and the nature of the businesses promoted. MUSIAD’s membership includes the new business elite that have disproportionately prospered through their clientelistic relations to the AKP and within the “construction based growth” of the Turkish economy it engineered.[xv] While the emphasis on commercial relations has not been lost completely with the elimination of TUSKON, it is overshadowed by the agenda of construction companies. More and more CEOs representing the construction industry are flying in the second plane as part of the President’s diplomatic visits to Africa, especially since the loss of construction markets in North Africa in 2011. The “trading state” has thus become the “bidding” state for construction projects in Africa in the last years.[xvi]

Reconfiguration of the scales of construction

In parallel with the construction of a “legitimate” Turkish presence on the continent and a multiracial umma at global scale, finally, a less figurative kind of construction is taking place by the hand of Turkish investors, exporters and contractors in Africa’s construction sectors. This spectrum includes  Turkish immigrant clusters manufacturing brick, shop owners who sell construction materials imported from Turkey, entrepreneurs who invest the capital they accumulated through trade and manufacturing into constructing houses, cement and concrete factories established by Turkey’s larger companies that dominate local economies, and finally the building and infrastructure projects contracted to Turkish construction companies. African states are the main client of Turkish contractors on the continent. In 2017, a Turkish construction company, Yapı Merkezi was awarded two infrastructure projects worth $3.1 billion in Tanzania which, according to analyst Hasan Öztürk, was the fruit of President Erdogan’s visit to the country same year.[xvii] While the railway projects in Tanzania showed Turkish contractors that a sub-Saharan country can surpass the share of traditional markets like Russia and Saudi Arabia with a single mega project[xviii], Summa’s construction projects that expanded from the north to the south of the Sahara in 2011 proved that sub-Saharan countries are ripe with opportunities for luxury and prestige projects such as presidential palaces, hotels, shopping malls, stadiums, congress centers, etc.[xix]

President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who attended an international meeting at the Tripoli Congress Center in Libya[xx] in November 2010, contacted Summa, who took part in its construction, for the construction of a similar congress center in Sipopo where the 17th African Union Summit was to be held within seven months. After the congress center was successfully completed in such a short time, President Obiang asked the company to build the Oyala Government Palace as well as a shopping mall in Sipopo. Later, Summa signed a contract with Senegal’s President Sall who had seen the Sipopo Congress Center and needed a similar building for hosting the 15th Francophonie Summit in Dakar. In Senegal, the company has also built an international airport, a hotel/resort, an expo center, and the Dakar Arena while similar projects were undertaken in Rwanda, Niger, and the Republic of Congo.

Concluding remarks

The projects contracted to Summa hint at another scale-making project, that of global governance and circulation of capital. At stake with the construction of these concrete spaces is the position of African states and cities within the scalar project of global governance and capitalism. We cannot understand the interscalar entanglements between the projects of Turkish contractors and African states as their clients, which is called a “partnership,” without taking into consideration other ideological projects of scale-making, such as the claims over official representation of the nation and tutelage of the umma. Turkey’s pivot to Africa is a multi-scalar project that encompasses and interweaves the scales of the nation, the Muslim world, and global capitalism. Different scale-making projects, however, do not always lend vitality and energy to one another. As this analysis has shown, the contours of this multi-scalar project are drawn by the post-coup competitions and contestations with the Gülen network’s own scale-making project on the African





[i] Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Ching Kwan Lee, The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); Fantu Cheru, “Emerging Southern powers and new forms of South–South

cooperation: Ethiopia’s strategic engagement with China and India,” Third World Quarterly, 37:4 (2016): 592-610.

[ii] Zach Vertin, “Turkey and the new scramble for Africa: Ottoman designs or unfounded fears?”, 05.19.2019. Retrieved from; Michael Rubin, “Turkey’s Africa Strategy Threatens to Breed Islamist Extremism”, 06.26.2019. Retrieved from

[iii] Pinar Tremblay, “Why Erdogan’s so quiet about Turkish expansion in Africa,” 08.20.2018. Retrieved from

[iv] Majed Nehme, “What in the world is Erdoğan doing in West Africa?”, 02.03.2020. Retrieved from

[v] For anthropological theories of scale see, Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); E. Summerson Carr and Michael Lempert, eds., Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life (Open Access: University of California Press, 2016).

[vi] “The New Scramble for Africa,” The Economist, 03.07.2019.

[vii] Zehra Nur Duz, “Number of Turkish embassies in Africa rises from 12 to 42,” 10.19. 2019. Retrieved from

[viii] Founded in 1992, TIKA initially responded Turkey’s changing role in the post-Cold war world order by managing its official development assistance to the newly independent countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as the Balkan countries. Over the last decade, TIKA has been restructured in alignment with Turkey’s pivot to Africa. Today, a quarter of TIKA’s budget is devoted to foreign aid in Africa.

[ix] In Africa south of the Sahara, TIKA has offices in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea, South Africa, South Sudan, Cameroon, Kenya, Comoros, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda while the offices of the Presidency of Religious Affairs are located in Cameroon and Tanzania.

[x] For the conflict between the Gülen network and the AKP government in the context of Africa: Gabrielle Angey, “The Gülen Movement and the Transfer of a Political Conflict from Turkey to Senegal,” Politics, Religion & Ideology, 19:1 (2018): 53-68; Kristina Dohrn, “Navigating the Future of the Gülen Movement in Tanzania,” in Hakan Yavuz and Bayram Balci, eds., Turkey’s July 15th Coup. What Happened and Why (Salt Lake City: Utah University Press 2018); Federico Donelli, “The Gülen Movement in Africa: From Turkish Transnational Asset to Anti-State Lobby”, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 13:1 (2019): 67-80.

[xi] For the role of NGOs in Turkey’s foreign policy towards Africa see: Zeynep Atalay, “Civil Society as Soft Power: Islamic NGOs and Turkish Foreign Policy,” in Riva Kastoryano, ed., Turkey Between Nationalism and Globalization, 165–186 (New York: Routledge, 2013); Bülent Aras and Pinar Akpinar, “The Role of Humanitarian NGOs in Turkey’s Peacebuilding, International Peacekeeping”, 22:3 (2015): 230-247; Nihat Çelik and Emre İşeri, “Islamically oriented humanitarian NGOs in Turkey: AKP foreign policy parallelism,” Turkish Studies 17:3 (2016) 429-448.

[xii] For the historical formation of the idea of the Muslim world: Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World A Global Intellectual History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[xiii] For an ethnographic study of imam-hatip schools, Iren Özgür, Islamic Schooling in Modern Turkey: Faith, Politics and Education (London: Cambridge University Press, 2012). For a recent issue on Diyanet, Samim Akgönül and Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, “Religion as a Foreign Policy Tool: Scrutinising the multi-dimensional role of Turkey’s Diyanet abroad,” European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 27 (2018).

[xiv] This becomes clear in the discourses and practices of business associations that rely on religious values and organizing such as TUSKON and MUSIAD, which cannot be addressed within the limited space of this paper.

[xv] For the new business elite loyal to AKP and the rent redistribution mechanisms see Ayşe Buğra and Osman Savaşkan, eds., New Capitalism in Turkey: The Relationship between Politics, Religion and Business (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2014); Esra Çeviker Gürakar, Politics of Favoritism in Public Procurement in Turkey Reconfigurations of Dependency Networks in the AKP Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2016); Ziya Öniş, “Turkey under the challenge of state capitalism: the political economy of the late AKP era”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 19:2 (2019): 201-225. For the construction industry in Turkey: Osman Balaban, “The Negative Effects of Construction Boom on Urban Planning and Environment in Turkey: Unraveling the Role of the Public Sector”, Habitat International 36:1 (2012): 26–35; Evinc Dogan and Aleksandra Stupar, “The limits of growth: A case study of three mega-projects in Istanbul,” Cities 60A (2017): 281-288; Fikret Adaman and Bengi Akbulut, “Erdoğan’s three-pillared neoliberalism: Authoritarianism, populism and developmentalism,” Geoforum (2020)

[xvi] For the trading state see Kemal Kirişci, “The transformation of Turkish foreign policy: The rise of the trading state,” New Perspectives on Turkey, 40 (2009): 29-57; Emel Parlar Dal and Samiratou Dipama, “Assessing the Turkish ‘Trading State’ in Sub-Saharan Africa” in Emel Parlar Dal, eds., Turkey’s Political Economy in the 21st Century, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[xvii] “Erdoğan ziyaret etti Türk firma işi kaptı,” 02.05.2017. Retrieved from The vice chairman of Yapı Merkezi confirmed Öztürk’s point by saying that “we signed the contract thanks to our President”. “Yapı Merkezi, Tanzanya’da demiryolu ihalesine imza attı,” 10.02.2017. Retrieved from

[xviii] “Yurtdışı Müteahhitlik Sektör Değerlendirme Raporu,” Ministry of Trade, 04.05.2020. Retrieved from

[xix] Here I limit my discussion of the Turkish contractors to the case of Summa which has been a successful one. However, there are several other examples where a contract is signed with an African state during a business forum which circulate in the Turkish media, especially after the President’s diplomatic visits, that do not come to fruition, usually due to lack of financial sources.

[xx] Libya has historically been the first destination for the Turkish contractors with the construction of the Tripoli port in 1972 and dominated more than half of the international market for the Turkish contractors until the end of 1980s. Following the protests in 2011, construction projects in Libya came to a halt with Turkish contractors withdrawing from the country. Therefore, Summa’s jump from Tripoli to Sipopo coinciding with the year 2011 is symbolic of the Turkish contractors’ expansion into new markets in the south of the Sahara with the loss of markets in the north.