Deniz Eke is the Turkish Ambassador to Kenya. In her most candid interview yet, she spoke to The Star's Brenda Okoth about her work and what she hopes to achieve during her tenure. Here are excerpts
Is this your first African appointment? What is your impression of Kenya thus far?
Yes, this is my first African appointment. As a diplomat, I had certainly read and heard about Africa and Kenya well before coming here. But it was only after my arrival that I could fully grasp the enormous potential and talent in Kenya. Having lived here for almost eight months now, I am convinced that your country has all it takes for achieving the Vision 2030 targets, and to attain a bright future.
I also find it particularly important that democracy is deepening in Kenyan society, and people's ownership of the democratic achievements brought by the 2010 Constitution is increasing. This is, and will be one of Kenya's biggest strengths in preserving its stability, unity and prosperity.
What challenges do you think we face as a country?
The challenges for Kenya are equally evident, as they have been for many other countries on the path of transformation. Development is never an easy process for any country, including my own. It is also important to note that Kenya has embarked on overarching reforms at home, at a time when the international and regional order is changing unpredictably.
Global economic and financial crises are far from over. International terrorism has proliferated not only geographically but also in terms of violence and narratives. Organised crime, rise of extremism, racism, discrimination, migration and integration problems, climate change and environmental issues put further pressures on all governments in the implementation of their policies. Nevertheless, I am of the view that Kenya is diagnosing the problem areas correctly, and as long as the effective commitment to address the problems is maintained, a promising future awaits Kenya.
Are there any similarities between Kenya and Turkey?
On a more personal note, among my most notable experiences in Kenya are the cultural similarities that I discover between our countries. Take the Kenyan chama for example, which, to my knowledge, was originally only among women's groups. We have the same practice in Turkey, where a group of women, usually neighbors or friends, meets every fifteen days or monthly.
They host each other at their homes on a rotational basis to enjoy own-baked cakes, pies and cookies. At the end of the day, all the guests give a gold coin to the house-owner, and thus savings are made. We call these events "gold days". Nowadays, they are organised also at workplaces.
I should not miss the harambee tradition, either. In Turkey's rural areas, we have similar community self-help systems called imece where villagers come together around a project and do physical work for no money, or salma where money is raised from households depending on their budget, and then used for community benefit.
The first interaction between the Turks and Kenyans date back to the 16th century when Ottoman sailors helped the residents of Mombasa defend their territory. So I would not be surprised to find many more similarities between our peoples and cultures, as I spend more time in Kenya.
It is very unusual to have a lady ambassador from a majority Muslim nation. Can you describe to us, your journey to your present position?
Turkish women have made great strides in gender equality in the past century. The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, following a war of independence against foreign occupiers. In 1920's and 30's, rapid progress was made on women's rights with great support from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Ataturk had abiding faith in the vital importance of women in society and launched many reforms to change the religious-based social and legal structures of the former Ottoman Empire.
Thanks to his reforms, Turkey is the only country where the population is predominantly Muslim but which implements a fully secular pluralist state system, including in women's rights. Turkish women have been eligible to vote in local elections since 1930 and in general elections since 1934, well before many European countries.
More recently in 2010, our constitution was amended to allow for positive discrimination for women. With this background, active participation of women in all walks of life is quite commonplace in Turkey. And diplomacy is no exception. Turkey has 54 female ambassadors, and 37 per cent of the Foreign Ministry's staff is female.
I must add, however, that the road to foreign affairs in Turkey is a long and arduous one, both for men and women. Our diplomats have to go through a stringent selection process to qualify. Sometimes this might become very challenging, as we are assessed from various aspects, from general knowledge to personality and language skills. But it is a profession that I would whole-heartedly recommend to young ladies, for females have better skills in empathising and this is an asset for a diplomat.
Turkey has in the past sought to join the EU how far has that gone?
The EU opened membership negotiations with Turkey in 2005. Since then, we have opened 13 out of 35 negotiation chapters, but only managed to close one. Regretfully, things started to go wrong soon after the negotiations started.
We are now in a situation where the negotiations are de facto stalled due to the political obstacles raised by some EU member states. Obviously, this is neither a sustainable nor a tenable situation, which has also led to questions in both Turkey and the EU if Turkey is moving away from Europe.
As repeatedly underlined at the highest level by my country, membership to the EU is a strategic choice for Turkey. Turkey is not moving away from Europe and will not do so of its own initiative. We keep our positivity that in the end, commonsense and common strategic interests will prevail, and the EU will take the right decisions about Turkey. Probably, this is going to take some time. Turkey cannot wait forever but we realise that currently, the EU has many internal problems to cope with. Last year they announced a five-year pause to enlargement. So we will not lose our patience yet.
Meanwhile, Turkey continues to work hard on the negotiation chapters that are not affected by political blockages. Recently, the Turkish Government announced its new EU strategy targeting the completion of membership preparations in 2019. In addition, Turkey-EU customs union is fully operational since 1996. Through the customs union, Turkey and the EU is integrated into a single trade zone, and industrial goods circulate free of any customs tariffs or restrictions.
Recently, the extension of the customs union to agriculture, services and public procurement has been put on the agenda.
Definitely, this will not be a step diverging Turkey from its goal of membership, but one that will eventually help us reach there. In short, one can say that in our relations with the EU, there is a positive agenda at the technical level while the political hindrances continue.
If accepted Turkey would be the only Muslim majority country in the EU. Do you think this would help diminish misconceptions about Islam which are prevalent in Western Europe?
Yes, Turkey can indeed play a key role in that respect. Ethnic and religious prejudices are more widespread today than they had ever been. These are also nurtured by socio-economic problems. Turkey is deeply concerned by the threat of increased polarisation among different cultures and religious beliefs. This is just as dangerous as any hardcore security issue.
Recent history contains examples of the grave damage that such polarisation can inflict. Yet, we believe the so-called clash of civilisations is not a human destiny. The Muslim identity of the Turkish population has not prevented it from interacting intensely with the West, or from becoming an effective member of its organisations.
My country stands as the proof that a well-functioning secular democracy in a predominantly Muslim society can prosper, preserve its traditional values and also be a part of Western institutions.
At this point, Turkey-EU relations become much more significant. Turkey may easily become a well-experienced bridge between the Muslim world and the EU. Sharing the common values of democracy, rule of law and human rights, it can do invaluable service for the good of humanity, by spreading these values beyond the EU's borders.
And eventually, the enlargement of the democratic space can positively influence European multiculturalism as well.
Tell us something about economic, political or social ties between your country and ours.
With Kenya, we have excellent dialogue and a positive agenda to work on. Turkey is a natural hub between three continents, and thus an ideal centre for business at the heart of Afro-Eurasian geography.
Kenya is East Africa's trade, finance and logistics centre, as well as a regional operations centre for foreign multinationals. The two countries have a great potential to combine their comparative advantages to expand and deepen their relations.
Last year during President Kenyatta's visit to Turkey, 10 agreements and memoranda of understanding were signed in the fields of security, trade, financial and technical cooperation, energy and mining. The visit was the first state visit of the President to the European continent.
In recent years, as relations with Africa became an important policy priority, Turkey started to be recognised as a leading emerging development partner in Kenya. Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency (Tika), which is the development arm of our government, is implementing various projects particularly in the fields of health, women, environment, agriculture and education.
Kenyan experts participate in Turkey's capacity-development programs in various areas. Turkish NGOs provide health and emergency aid in required areas. As at the end of 2014, more than 350 Kenyan students have received their university education in Turkey.
On bilateral trade, the volume was around USD 122 million in 2014. In the first half of this year, the volume has reached over USD 62 million, which makes us believe that we will either equal or surpass last year's figure.
Finally I should mention the great job Turkish Airlines is doing in connecting our people. Our national flag carrier was recently voted by 13 million airline passengers from 112 different nationalities as the "best airline of Europe" for the fifth consecutive year. They are flying daily to Nairobi and Mombasa.
What do you hope to achieve during your time in Nairobi? Do you have any specific objectives?
One of the things that I am very happy to observe is the positive perception about Turkey in Kenya. However, most Kenyans recognise Turkey only as a quality textiles producer, and a vibrant tourist destination. These are definitely true, but Turkey is actually much more than that.
Many people do not know, for example, that we are the 17th biggest economy of the world and currently chairing the group of world's 20 biggest economies - the G20, where we make every effort to strengthen the dialogue and interaction between the G20 and Africa.
Similarly, many Kenyans are surprised to learn that the Turkish construction sector is one of the top two in the world. Our constructors undertook more than USD 270 billion worth of contracts on in more than 100 countries. The share of African countries in the overall international business volume of Turkish contractors is around 19 per cent. It is therefore among our priorities to encourage Turkish constructors to follow the opportunities in Kenya more actively.
With Kenya, the sectors where we can cooperate are not confined to textiles and construction services. Since Turkey is in a customs union with the EU, Turkish manufacturing products have the standards of Europe, but come at more affordable prices thanks to lower production costs. We see a good potential in retail, automotive parts, electronics, construction machinery and materials, food processing and chemicals.
On this basis, we are giving priority first, to create a wider perception about Turkey and the actual potential of cooperation between our countries, and second, creating partnerships between our business communities. In our economic and commercial ties, we wish to work with Kenya on mutual benefit.
I feel that the time has come for the Turkish and Kenyan businessmen to go beyond the traditional "buy and sell" type of relationship, and to partner with each other by combining the know-how and technology that Turkey has with the resources in Kenya. If we can create this basis, I am sure our relations will expand and deepen very fast.
Another area that I see of prime importance is fighting terrorism and violent extremism. Like Kenya, my country is facing these two menaces, and is an active member of international efforts to combat them. Since 2011, we co-chair with the USA, the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF).
We also co-chair with the EU, the Horn of Africa Working Group of the GCTF. In both fora, several good practices and actionable guidelines have been developed to counter terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation. In all these areas, Turkey is ready to further deepen and strengthen its support to Kenya, also at the bilateral level.
In what fields in particular could Kenya learn useful lessons from Turkey?
The challenges that countries face, and the conditions under which they operate are different from each other. Therefore, in Turkey we do not actually like to speak of "learning lessons". But we rather promote sharing of experiences and best practices, so that we can create sources of inspiration for all.
This is why "African solutions to African problems" is a genuine attitude in our overall policy framework.
When I look at Turkey-Kenya relations, I believe that the experiences of Turkey can be a source of inspiration for Kenya in many areas. Like I mentioned before, tackling terrorism, radicalisation and violent extremism is one of them. Local administration reform is another one.
That's why I hope that we can soon start establishing sister city relationships between the counties in Kenya and their Turkish counterparts.
Turkey, like many developing countries, has faced all challenges of rapid urbanisation, mass housing and flow of rural population towards cities. This can constitute yet another area where we can join hands.
Until recently, Turkey was a country that had to borrow from the IMF. But positive developments have led Turkey to become a country that now lends to the IMF instead.
Our ability to do this was a result of policies of fiscal discipline, implemented since our own crisis in early 2000's. We can therefore work together on such areas as budgetary discipline, effective revenue collection, debt management, as well.