Ankara — In his first interview with an African news organization, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed his government’s interests and priorities with AllAfrica’s executive chair Amadou Mahtar Ba. The Turkish leader traveled to Sudan, Chad and Tunisia this week, bringing to 24 the number of African countries he has visited.
In a wide-ranging conversation at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, he condemned the selling of African migrants into slavery and President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He rejected criticism of Turkey's record on human rights and media freedom and called for Turkish women – who won the right to vote in 1934 and have constitutional rights to equality – “to become much more involved” in politics, education, healthcare and business. Erdoğan also warned Africans against the network of schools established by the Fethullah Gülen movement. [Gülen, a former ally of the president, is living in exile in the United States. The government says Gülen plotted a coup in 2016 and is seeking his extradition to Turkey for trial.]
Accompanying the president to the three Muslim-majority African countries are Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and a delegation of Turkish businesspeople. Turkey’s economy is the world’s 17th largest, and a business forum was planned for each stop on the trip.
Here is the interview, conducted on the evening of 21 December as transcribed from the government’s voice-over translation of the video.
Good evening Mr. President. You are getting ready to embark on your second Africa trip of 2017. When you come back, inshallah, from this trip, you would have visited 24 Africa countries. How do you explain this huge interest which it seems you have for Africa? And also, what would be the pillars of your Africa strategy?
Well, first I would like to salute the entire African continent, through you, on behalf of my personal self and my people. And I would like to extend my most heartfelt emotions. The series of visits to the African nations is not new. In the year 2005, we declared the year as the Year of Africa. Then, I was the Prime Minister for Turkey. And after we had declared 2005 as the Year of Africa, I had made a commitment that my visits would sustain.
We used to have 12 embassies in the African continent. But then, we have decided to open our embassies all around the African countries. We have now 39 embassies. However, we still hope we can prevail in every country of the African continent through our embassies, and we are going to achieve that because we are very determined.
In 2008, we organized the Turkish-African Cooperation Summit, and the cooperation between our nations will be solidified at every extent possible.
Next week, I will spend two days in Sudan. I will then travel to Chad, and then finally to Tunisia. There, I will be enjoying bilateral meetings, and, of course, I shall be accompanied by a delegation of businesspeople. The businesspeople from Turkey will be able to get together with their counterparts, with their interlocutors in those aforementioned countries, by attending a business forum there.
We are always trying to explore new ways of solidifying our relations with the African nations, and Turkish Airlines is the strongest pillar for our strategy. Turkish Airlines is flying to 55 destinations in 33 countries, enabling our people to travel to those countries and the people in those countries to travel to Turkey reciprocally.
That’s why Turkey is no longer the Turkey of 15 or 16 years ago. We are at a very different stage right now.
I would like to state that there is another significance with regards to my visit to Sudan. The President of Sudan was in Turkey last week because of the OIC Extraordinary Summit in Istanbul. It’s not going to be reciprocation to his visit. This visit is a previously planned visit to Sudan. It’s a big country, it’s a major country. And whether it be the culture, whether it be the civilization, whether it be the population, we have many commonalities.
The visits we are going to conduct and the meetings that our businesspeople will have mutually and the way we shall address the business of both of the countries as the leaders of these countries will be very important to crowning our official agendas.
Our visit in Chad will be quite significant, and finally, in Tunisia, our visit will be quite significant. The U.S. lifting the embargo upon Sudan is highly welcomed by us. We hope and pray that developments will increase in the positive direction at every extent possible.
Mr. President, you mentioned that you would be accompanied by businesspeople. Of course, you will have bilateral meetings with your counterparts there. But one of the sayings we have heard a lot coming here to talk to you is that the African citizens also want to hear directly from you.
Now, there are a lot of questions, obviously, when it comes to relations between Turkey and the continent of Africa, 55 countries. I want us to try to go one-on-one on the main issues currently. Turkey as a Muslim country, and yourself as chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), you’ve taken a lead role on the issue of Al-Quds Ash-Sharif.
Many Muslims around the continent, more than 500 million, would like to hear what message of peace would come from you to them. What do [decisions on Israel] at the United Nations Security Council and at the General Assembly mean to the Muslim world and to Muslims in Africa, and where do we go from here?
This is a very important question. For the Islamic world, Al-Aqsa Mosque is very important because it’s our first qibla [the direction Muslims face to pray]. And of course, Al-Quds [the Arabic word for Jerusalem] is very important for Christians. As the term chair of the OIC, I was calling the leaders of many Islamic countries. I’ve also had contact with the leaders from the Christian world.
“I’ve called His Holiness the Pope” and political leaders around the world; Jerusalem “is an issue for all of us”.
Especially, I’ve called His Holiness the Pope and I’ve shared my thoughts and opinions with him vis-à-vis Al-Quds. And praise Allah, he is thinking alike. I’ve spoken to the German Chancellor, and similarly President Macron of France; I’ve talked to him. And I’ve also talked to President Putin of Russia. These are the issues that I’ve discussed with all of these leaders around the world so as not to confine this matter within the boundaries of the Islamic world. Because this is not an outstanding problem for the Muslims of the world. This is an outstanding issue for all of us.
This was a trap that we should not have fallen into. Because in 1980, Resolution Number 478 of the UN Security Council was issued, also co-signed by the United States, promulgating several facts about the status of Al-Quds. That decision bearing the signature of the United States – now getting torn apart was a wrong step to be taken. Instead, we should have gone back to the year 1967. In 1967, you will find a will for a two-state solution. There, you will see that the possibility of recognizing Eastern Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine was there. If that had been the case, we would not have come to where we are today.
A hundred and twenty-eight countries thought alike [Thursday] afternoon, siding with Palestine regarding Al-Quds. Only eight countries [Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo] stood by President Trump and the U.S. administration. And about 35 countries had reservations. Those countries suffered from tremendous pressure. I believe had they been relieved, they would have sided with the 128 countries voting in favor of this resolution [condemning recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel].
Looking at the countries siding with President Trump, the sizes of those countries are quite obvious. And under these circumstances, I think President Trump is going to review the situation that he is in. He needs to take the following step forward in my point of view. If we are defending peace, we have to say yes to two-state solution in Palestine. But if we’re not defending peace and if we want the Middle East to get pushed into a further conflict and turmoil, then the price will be upon President Trump and Israel.
But humanity is not seeking battle anymore. Especially the Middle East, it’s quite weary of conflicts and wars. What’s happening in Iraq is obvious. What’s happening in Syria is quite obvious. Millions are dying, women and children are falling.
Quite recently in Palestine, can you even consider this? A child suffering from Down’s Syndrome was beaten up by the Israeli soldiers. He was smashed against the wall. Twenty Israeli soldiers cornered a child. And even young girls were getting harmed. In the face of these atrocities, I can say that Israel is a state of violence and there is state-sponsored terrorism in Al-Quds. And we have to see these facts for what they are. That’s why we have to unite; we have to be together.
Because as I said before, this is not just a matter about the Muslims, it is a matter about the entire humanity. That’s why the voting at the U.N. conveyed the message that this is an outstanding question for the entire humanity. It’s a matter for the entire humanity to take care of. And I would like to thank all those voting in favor of this decision on behalf of my people and the people of the world.
So you expect President Trump to come back on his decision. And if he doesn’t – because he has not shown any willingness to go back on his decision – what’s the next course of action?
He does or he does not. The step to be taken forward after this moment is all about the 128 countries siding with Palestine and all of the countries which had reservations. We should get together and take up an initiative.
Palestine should be recognized as an independent and sovereign state by all of these nations that voted in favor this afternoon at the UN. And after that is accomplished, the U.S., willingly or non-willingly, will have to interpret this situation accurately. I don’t think they will be very insistent on repeating their mistakes. And at the end of the day, they will come back to the truth. Taking Israel by your side and walking ahead like that will not be very fitting for the United States.
We could spend hours talking about Jerusalem. But I want to pivot back to Africa. The African Union estimates that after the defeat of Daesh (ISIS) there would be about 6,000 young Africans coming back to Africa and it would pose the greatest threat to the countries of the region. What’s your view on that and how Turkey can work with the African nations to tackle that critical issue of peace and security in Africa?
Yes, whether it be in Sudan or whether it would in Chad or Tunisia, but especially in Chad, there is a struggle against Boko Haram. We have been fighting terrorism for the last 35 to 40 years. We have paid a hefty price. And we no longer wish to pay any price whatsoever whilst fighting terrorism. That’s why fighting terrorism has become our number-one priority for us, and we’ve intensified our efforts cultivating great accomplishments.
While we were fighting terrorism internally - and by the way, internally, we’re battling Daesh to a certain extent as well - at the same time in Syria and Iraq, there is a Daesh organization quite widespread. But they have lost a significant amount of blood until now. In Syria in Jarabulus, Al-Rai, and Al-Bab, that region encompassing 2,000 square kilometers, we have repelled Daesh presence completely.
And the Coalition forces at the same time repelled the Daesh terrorists towards the southern part of the country. They are being pushed back, and only five percent of Syria is under the control of Daesh terrorists currently and 95 percent of the country is being run by the Coalition forces and the Regime. So Daesh is no longer there to prevail. Similarly in Iraq, there isn’t any significant Daesh presence left behind.
But everything boils down to this question. What about the future of these countries? And the things you have suggested can never be ignored.
In Chad, there are about 600 thousand refugees. What about those refugees? What’s going to happen to them? Sudan suffered tremendously. At the end, it was divided into two as South Sudan and north Sudan. Tunisia appears to be quite relaxed right now, but I think some people are trying to stir things around in Tunisia. We want Tunisia to remain in full unity and in peace and togetherness.
Whether it be culture or whether it be business-related or whether it would be political, we are ready and committed to cooperate with all of our friends across the African continent. And the number-one priority for us is solidarity with our African brothers and sisters in all of these areas I have listed previously.
As the term chair of the OIC, we have assumed certain responsibilities vis-à-vis the African continent. In all of these countries, there is a Turkish agency - known by the abbreviation TİKA - assuming several initiatives vis-à-vis social services to be provided to those in need locally. TİKA’s initiatives are allowing the locals to unite with the Turkish nationals. The students coming from these countries in Africa and pursuing their education in Turkey build a bridge between our cultures and between our nations of people. We are going to sustain these efforts even more committedly in the future. And fighting terrorism is another important priority as well as security.
I want to talk about an issue which has been really confusing in Africa – the issue of the Fethullah Gülen network. Your administration calls it a terrorist organization. For the longest time, many Africans thought that this network was sponsored by or worked with the Turkish government. Many elites, many leaders, would send their children to the schools of the network around the continent. This is the time you’re talking to an African audience about this issue. I want you, Mr. President, to tell the African people if it today is safe for me to send my children or my nieces or my nephews to the schools.
My dear brother, without any further ado, I would like to immediately mention one thing. Neither your nephews, nieces, nor your children - do not send them to one of these network’s schools. Education is just a great disguise for these people working for the network. Even religion is a great form of disguise for the Fethullahists. In the Quran’s verse, Al-Ma’un, Allah condemns those who are using prayers as a disguise as they will never be conscientious about the practice of prostration and prayer. That’s why we will remain alert. We will never be manipulated.
On July 15th, the coup plotters with the Fethullahists, they have all been identified as perpetrators. Most of them have been sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. Some of them were sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. Some of them were sent to serve 20 years, 30 years, or 40 years in prison. These Fethullahists came to kill me and my family members. But Allah protected us and in a matter of minutes, we were saved from their bombs and from their attacks. But two of my security guards have fallen, unfortunately, as a result of their attacks. They were martyred.
Two hundred fifty-nine people have fallen as martyrs. There were 29 martyrs around this presidential complex which was attacked that night as well. This complex you see is crowned by a crescent and a star. That is a monument crowning their memory so that we will never forget. When all of these developments are underway and when the Turkish judiciary is very busy with these cases, we were warning our brothers and sisters in Africa not to be manipulated and not to be deceived, because the Fethullahists earned great sums of money out of their actions.
In 1999 the chief terrorist, Gülen himself, fled to the United States to live in Pennsylvania. We have demanded his extradition immediately. We have amassed 85 or 90 boxes filled with evidence and documents proving that he was the main perpetrator behind this plotted coup. But he has not been extradited yet.
“If tomorrow the United States asks for the extradition of terrorists, I will say ‘no’.”
And if tomorrow the United States asks for the extradition of terrorists, I will say ‘no’ to them similarly. Why? Because this man - the killer of 252 martyrs, 2,192 veterans - is still residing in the United States.
The evidence has been amassed. There are judicial sentences to send him away for 40 years, 50 years or even more. But he is still not being extradited. He needs to be extradited, and he needs to be judged and prosecuted. There is no capital punishment in Turkey, but there is capital punishment in the United States. He should be extradited to Turkey, and he should be tried and prosecuted and sentenced in Turkey.
We have established the Maarif Education Foundation just for that. My brothers and sisters in Africa, do not be manipulated. Do not be played. Because the Turkish Maarif Foundation will provide children with better education, and you will not be deceived.
In Sudan, for example, we have cooperated with the National Education Ministry and we are taking over the schools that belong to this network. In Chad, in Tunisia, the same thing. We have cooperated with their education ministries and we are going to work with them.
But some Fethullahists are finding a different disguise and finding different identities to manipulate the government echelons or the high echelons once again. They can lie in any way and in every way. Africa should no longer be played by these people.
If there is anything, please do come back and ask us and we will give you all the satisfactory answers as to what this network is capable of. And through our embassies, please get the right information, so that our unity and our togetherness will precede anything and everything else. We are looking forward to forging the solidarity.
Mr. President, I know your team is telling me our time is almost over, but I have a couple of questions to ask you because these are important issues I want us to touch on briefly.
First, you’ve seen what is happening in Libya. Recently with the meltdown in Libya, there have been slavery markets discovered. Beyond the atrocity of that, what as a Muslim and as a leader, what do you tell to the African youth in general about migration and about the risks associated with this migration?
Right now in terms of the migrants, we are currently housing 3.5 million Syrian refugees. They are displaced people in our point of view and we are their shelter. And we are extending our helping hand. Our arms are wide open, and we are hosting them in our country. We are trying to cater to all of their needs. But it is really difficult for one person to be displaced, to be away from their motherland.
We have spent more than $30 billion along with all of our NGOs and our state institutions for the refugees. Why? Because we are trying to serve our duty as a human being, duty as a Muslim, and duty as a conscientious human being. Have we received anything from the E.U.? Let me say until so far we’ve only received € 900 million. And from the UNHCR, we have only received $550 million. However, we have spent $30 billion so far. These are all duties for us that we need to fulfill. And we are committed to sustain for as long as it takes because the giving hand is more auspicious than the taking hand.
Please do everything you can to save those who have fallen to slave markets.
When it comes to slavery, we will never allow the refugees to be traded off as slaves because that can never be approved in the eyes of our religion. I would like to call out to the Libyan administration and the Libyan youth. Please do not be played. Do not be fooled. Slave markets are prohibited internally by our religion. Do not resort to them. Do not fall for them. And please do everything you can to save those who have fallen to slave markets.
This is the biggest and this is the richest wealth of all the Muslims, to extend a helping hand to those in need. I am praising Allah and I pray to Allah that those slaves would be saved. I hope and pray that Libya will be able to run towards a bright future that she deserves. Libya is no poor country. Libya is a very rich country, but Libya was put in that situation deliberately by the sovereign powers of the world. Those proud to be sovereign are keeping the money of the Libyans in their central banks. That money, that deposit is not in the central bank of Libya, it’s in the central banks of other sovereign powers.
As the Libyan administrators, as the government officials: expeditiously leave all your differences behind and embark upon a democratic process once and for all so that the will of the Libyan people can be exercised. Through that, general elections can take place and a new administration can emerge. Libyan people will be loyal to a freely and democratically elected government in order to run for a better future.
Rest assured, Libya is a country that can be exemplary in the African continent because - looking at its shores, it’s quite majestic. Looking at the vast land - it’s enormous. The population [inhabiting] that vast land is very limited. That is something that we need to take up and help Libyans embark upon a journey of development and progress. I love Libya, and I’m saddened by the current situation of Libya. I hope and pray that we will prevail. We will help the Libyans to establish their inner peace. And if we will have any responsibility to assume, we, Turkey, are ready to commit ourselves.
Let me touch on some quick issues which are really dear to me. One is women’s rights. Turkey is a Muslim country where women have been voting since 1934, way before many European countries. As a Muslim nation, considering the role women can play in economic and human development in Africa, what lessons can be learned or what experience can be shared between Turkey and the rest of Africa in terms of women’s involvement in pursuing economic and human development?
Women need to become much more active in the political lives of these countries. Women cannot and should not be left outside the political realms. Secondly, women should be more involved in education, in training, in health. And above all, women should be more involved in the business life. Nobody should forget that women deserve a place in the business life. And even further than that, in the NGOs, women should have all the representative powers, which I think is very crucial.
In Turkey, for example, including the judiciary, we have women in their rightful place. It can be replicated in the African nations. I think that would be of crucial significance. And it will be very productive for the nations to have women in a competitive zone along with men as well. The different edge will emerge for the countries leading to progress and development. It all depends on competence and skills. So long as one person is competent and skillful, they can never be stopped, they should never be stopped.
“It’s very important to quash discrimination once and for all and eradicate all forms of discrimination.”
Right now we have a 14 percent representation of women in the Turkish Parliament. They were coming from nowhere. There were days when their representation in the Turkish Grand National Assembly was very limited. And some of the highest echelons in the Turkish Government are women. And in the business life, we have a lot of women entrepreneurs and women pioneers.
At the end of the day, it’s very important to quash discrimination once and for all and eradicate all forms of discrimination. I would like to once again underline the fact that women need to be very proactive, vis-à-vis the NGOs. And NGOs are becoming very important in terms of women’s rights all around the globe. Getting involved for women is very important and there are many things to be achieved by the African women.
Mr. President, we almost at the end of our discussions. Two rapid questions, if I may. One is on healthcare. You mentioned health for women and children. Turkey is looked at in terms of universal healthcare, as an example. With the huge and young population we have, what advice and what experience can be shared with African nations to develop healthcare systems which can offer universal access to everybody?
It all depends on education. Fifteen years ago, for example, the number of the medical schools [in Turkey] were quite limited. But after we took over the office, we have increased the number of the medical schools immediately. And secondly, we have increased and encouraged the numbers of the private hospitals. We now have the private hospitals and the foundation hospitals along with the state hospitals, the public hospitals, if you will. And we might need a reform down the road vis-à-vis these hospitals, but right now we need to increase the number of doctors and nurses dramatically along with the healthcare professionals and paramedics.
In five or ten years “we will be able to compete with the leading countries of the word” in health care.
As the medical schools have multiplied in Turkey, we will need to be higher in the next five or ten years. We will be able to compete with the leading countries of the world, and we will be ranking, I don’t know, amongst those top five on a global scale, as we have here skillful and very talented doctors. In terms of the physical conditions, our hospitals are preceding those in Europe. And the city hospitals, which are close to my heart, for many decades as far as I can remember, they’ve started to emerge as great beacons of healthcare. They will be supported.
We will share our experiences and our know-how with all our brothers and sisters around the African continent. For example, we have undertaken several initiatives in Somalia; there is one hospital in Somalia right now built by us. And we will be more than ready to share.
Mr. President, you raised the issue of Somalia. Some parliamentarians in Somalia are calling for impeaching the sitting President. What is your message to the Somalia leadership today in this situation?
I will state the following first. We have not embarked upon our journey leading to Somalia with some expectations in mind. We have seen the suffering in Somalia and we wanted to help our brothers and sisters and children in Somalia. Myself, my wife and my children, we went to Somalia all together and we have witnessed everything in situ. If we are traveling somewhere, we are not running after benefits or expectations. We are just going due to our Islamic duties and duties as human beings, conscientious human beings. The unity and fraternity of Somalia is very important for us. And if the Parliamentarians appeal is about harming the unity and solidarity of the Somalians, I would be very sad.
I don’t know the details about this impeachment appeal, but I hope it is not about harming the fraternity of the people in Somalia. I expect the people in Somalia to protect to their unity and fraternity once and for all. Because it’s all about dividing and managing the African nations and the African continent by the sovereignty nations of the globe. ‘Divide and conquer’ is the name of the game in Africa, and I often pray that the African people will no longer suffer from these games.
We have great expectations for the future of Africa, as this century can be the century of Africa. You know better than I do who have been consuming the riches of the African continent until this day and age – how diamonds, gold and emeralds and other ores and riches were snatched away from the Africans and sold elsewhere. These are the problems that the Africans need to surmount once and for all, and I would like to thank you.
Mr. President, this last question. I am a media person. I’ve been coming to Turkey for a long time and have many friends here in Turkey. With all the progress you have described about Turkey, its development, every year reports come out about the state of press freedom in this country. How do you explain that, still, reports year after year are coming out and saying there’s a lack of press freedom and freedom of expression in this country? What do you have to answer to that?
The reports produced by the western countries about the freedom of expression and freedom of the press are not impartial. They are not objective reports. They are biased reports. Just because of reciting a poem, I was sentenced. And I was the mayor of Istanbul. But my duties were robbed from me. And I was then a politician, so I knew what this this deal is all about. [Erdoğan served four months in prison in 1999 after reading a poem at a rally.]
But once we’ve started discussing these issues, we should know that a media person does not enjoy indefinite freedom. There is a limit to our freedoms. The limit is where the freedom of the others shall begin. And media persons cannot support terrorism. If they are harboring terrorists, then there will be a price to be paid. Those who have been sentenced or detained or who have fled Turkey - the so-called media people - have committed crimes. Not crimes of expressions, not the crimes of free thought.
There are many burglars inside those so-called journalists. And there are those without in relevant credentials proving they are journalists. But the allegedly international associations of free press, when they come to visit us, when we show them the documents and the evidence, they go quiet. But still, they are not honest. They are not sincere. They are just trying to put the government of Turkey in a difficult situation. And they are blaming everything on us, thinking that we will be feeble. But we won’t be feeble. We don’t care because we always turn toward the Turkish people. We always consider what the Turkish people have to say about us. That’s the primary.
“I have garnered 52 percent of the votes with a turnout of 86-87 percent.”
I have garnered 52 percent of the votes, and I took over the office with the support of my people with a turnout of 86-87 percent in the general elections, but I was still called a dictator. I said I came out of a ballot box. I'm not here because of a coup d'état. I am here because of the general elections.
How is this even impossible? You have insulted me. You have insulted my family. You have insulted my daughter and my son. But I emerged as the president because my people know the services that we have provided for them in education, in transportation, in energy, in healthcare, in agriculture, in justice, in police. My people know of those achievements and those accomplishments. That’s why they have not listened to the claims of international associations. That is the reason why they come back and vote for us. You have to respect the will of the people because that the primary asset. The rest is nothing.
Thank you, Mr. President. We hope to have the opportunity to exchange in the future. We wish you a safe trip, inshallah, to Africa and back to your country. Thank you.