by Burak Akinci
ANKARA, July 25 (Xinhua) -- Turkey is steadily building its presence in Africa and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan's new visit to the continent this week is the latest in Turkish attempts to increase its weight and profile there, said local experts.
President Erdogan embarked on a four-day official visit on Wednesday to attend the BRICS summit, which gather heads of states of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in Johannesburg.
He will subsequently pay an official visit to Zambia to discuss trade.
This will be the first ever official visit from a Turkish president to Zambia but just one of Erdogan's many visits to the world's second most populous continent where Turkish presence is increasing at a fast pace since the NATO and G20 launched a diplomatic offensive towards Africa about two decades ago.
Erdogan has made it a foreign policy priority to establish new ties with emerging economies in Africa.
Before this week's trip, Erdogan had visited 23 African nations within 15 years, a record number of visits for a non-African leader, indicating, according to observers, the strategic importance given by his administration to the continent and its potential for development.
Many bilateral agreements have been signed between Turkey and African countries and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination agency (TIKA) currently operates 21 offices across the continent, managing a wide range of development and humanitarian projects.
Furthermore, some 5,000 African students were granted scholarship in Turkey.
Historically, the Ottoman Empire, which ruled some parts of the Middle East for more than five centuries, had a foothold in North Africa.
Since Erdogan's conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey has been very active on the African continent, contributing to development projects there up to 800 million U.S. dollars.
The same year, the African Union granted Turkey observer status amid Ankara's determined policy to increase economic, cultural and political ties with various states of the continent.
Ankara now operates 41 embassies in Africa, with the latest opening of representations in Sierra Leone and the Equatorial Guinea. In turn, 32 African states have opened embassies in the Turkish capital in less than a decade.
The main bulk of dignitaries who participated in President Erdogan's inauguration ceremony after his election victory in June, was namely from African states.
Turkish Airlines has recently added new African destinations, increasing its total to 52, becoming one of the largest network on the continent.
Despite Turkey's rough international neighborhood plagued by conflict, this dire situation has not diverted Ankara's ambitions and attention towards Africa at a time when its own economy is showing signs of weaknesses, commented experts.
"On the contrary, I believe that Turkey's attention to Africa is gaining a bigger momentum. The fact that president Erdogan is making one of his first visits to Africa as the president of new political system is a clear indication of the importance given to the continent," said researcher Halil Ibrahim Alegoz from the Istanbul Ibn Haldun University to Xinhua.
This expert on African studies insisted that the "opening" towards Africa launched in 2002 had become a "state policy" and that Turkey, by a string of development schemes and humanitarian diplomacy, acquired a respectable place in this part of the world, mostly forgotten by the western public.
"We are not going to Africa to take their gold and natural resources as westerners have done in the past, we are going there to build a solid and sustainable partnership based on mutual benefits," said the Turkish president.
Erdogan frequently calls western countries to reconsider their relations with the rest of the world on the basis of a new partnership based on mutual benefits rather than hegemonic ambitions of the past.
As trade with the African continent reached 20 billion U.S. dollars in 2017, nearly a fivefold increase compared with 2003, more potential could be reached if Turkey would also cooperate there with China, which is one of the biggest investors, doing more trade with Africa than any other nation does, said Alegoz.
"I see no obstacle for a Sino-Turkish cooperation on matters of interest in Africa, this is a big continent," emphasized Alegoz.
At a time of a trade war launched by the U.S. President Donald Trump, imposing a protectionist policy, Africa harbors many opportunities, said Altay Atli, lecturer at Koc university to Xinhua.
"The 'America first' vision is something unacceptable for global trade and in this vehement outburst of anger and distrust against the rest of the world, the United States seems to forgot Africa, like many other places," said Atli.
"Turkey has been a growing player in Africa and has a lot of motivations, from cultural to geopolitical. In this time of global economy, Turkey does not have the luxury to withdraw into oneself," added Atli.