Q:What region are we talking about when we say “Ottoman Africa”? What are its boundaries?
A:It’s actually a concept that was used in the Ottoman period. When the Spanish and the Portuguese closed in on Africa, the Ottoman state broke the siege and saved a large part of the continent from invasion. The 16th century, when the city of Tunis came under Ottoman rule in 1574 and Mombasa, the most important city in the country known today as Kenya, in 1585, was a period in which the Ottoman empire acquired its last organ, perhaps even its legs. The regions where the Ottomans ruled or their influence was spontaneously acknowledged cover close to half the surface area of the continent today. But the Ottoman area of impact and influence was far wider, because all the Muslim societies - including the islands in the Indian Ocean - regarded the Ottomans as their greatest protectors right up to the beginning of the 20th century.
Q:There is also the period when Africa was crippled by colonialism. You say in your academic studies that the Ottoman presence in the region offered resistance to colonialism. Could you elaborate a little on that?
A:The Ottoman state knew what colonialism could do and how it could swallow up Africa if it achieved its goal. Rendering that effort unsuccessful in the 16th century, the Ottomans acted as a counter to it until the mid-19th century and protected Africa from colonialism throughout that period. From the mid-19th century onwards, however, Ottoman power was unequal to that of Europe, and one by one all the Ottomans’ fears were realized. The languages, religions, customs, mores and other values of the African continent were eroded during that period, the continent was weakened socio-economically, and an effort was made to impose European culture in part although complete Europeanization was never the intention.
Q:How did relations between Turkey and Africa develop after the Ottomans? What does Africa mean for Turkey today?
A:When the Ottoman state was wrenched away from Africa against its own wishes, seven European countries - primarily France and England, but also Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium - totally overran the continent, and Africa was virtually closed to the outside world up to the 1950’s. After the Second World War, 50 of the 54 countries on the continent today declared their independence one after the other. It was very difficult for us to feel any interest in Africa until the 1960’s. We nevertheless opened embassies in all the countries that declared independence, but, for reasons that remain unknown, at some point we stopped at only 12-13 countries. Today the number has risen to 35 with the new embassies opened as part of Turkey’s Africa initiative in 2005. In terms of surface area, Turkey is represented on 95 percent of the continent today. Our organizations of civil society have also begun making inroads on the continent in the areas of health, education and humanitarian assistance. The serious Turkish presence on the continent today commenced in an approach that recognized the pain and problems of the people here and produced solutions. Trade relations developed and, thanks to experienced diplomacy, are moving rapidly forward today. We are the country with the most representation on the African continent today. Not only that, but Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s national flag carrier, is also connecting Africa’s most remote points to the rest of the world. We fly to close to forty African capitals.
Q:Turkish Airlines has also started flying to Chad, where you are the Ambassador. How has that affected Chad’s connection to the world?
A:There used to be flights between Chad and Europe only a few times a week, so the Chadian people were unable to connect with the world at the requisite level. Although it has a population of 12 million, Chad is a big country. Because it lies in the heart of Africa, it has plans in the near future to build an aviation hub that will be conveniently accessible to all the continent’s airlines. There is a serious economic potential in the Lake Chad basin. From the standpoint of security, it is the leading country on the continent at the moment. It has also been elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Although French is one official language, the other official language, Arabic, is more commonly used in everyday life, which enables the country to communicate very easily with the entire Arab region. Chad lies at the heart of a geography that is home to the enormous populations of Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Niger, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and, especially, Nigeria right on its doorstep. To sum up, by flying to Chad, Turkish Airlines is actually connecting this huge hinterland and virtually attaching the continent’s heart to its vital arteries.