The misguided and destructive campaign of the Turkish President, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, against the press has attracted world-wide condemnation. Mr. Erdogan will be attending the Nuclear Security Summit slated for Thursday and Friday (31st March and 1st April, 2016). Indications are that he would not get the opportunity to meet with President Obama, the latter not very much enthused about the problems the former is courting for himself, the US and Europe generally by his conduct. He is expected to meet rather with Vice President Biden. It is a known secret that in recent years, Mr. Erdogan has become ever more autocratic.
Obviously he assumes that perhaps both Europe and the United States need his help in the fight against the Islamic State. Also he has played his card very well where the control of refugee flows is concerned, having exacted from Europe huge sums of moneys for that purpose (something we noted in our last piece). But in the long run, Mr. Erdogan’s brutish behavior will be counterproductive. Turkey’s ambition to join the EU alone enjoins Mr. Erdogan to behave and behave well. Unfortunately, he has become more of a burden to himself, his country, and to the efforts at fighting terrorism. He has been ruthless on his country-men and women. He stoked the fire by downing the Russian jet fighter, forcing NATO and Russia to raise the stakes of confrontation. This act also caused a Russian retaliation in the form of sanctions, which hit the Turkish economy very hard, causing a sharp drop in growth rates, allegedly from 7% to just 2%. The unnecessary act also dented Russo-Turkish economic relations (they had signed economic agreements running into billions of dollars). Mr. Erdogan has also been repressive of the Kurdish legitimate struggle for autonomy and self-determination, at points, going against them even as they fought on the side of the global coalition against ISIS. Indeed, Turkey, under Erdogan, bears the greatest blame for tacitly giving support to anti-Assad elements, by allowing hordes of fighters to cross the Turkish border between 2011 and 2014.
The daily crossings were estimated at 300 a day. It was when the ISIS was formed and gaining much grounds that Turkey started showing concern. Meanwhile, as we indicated in one of our pieces, the President is alleged to have been the conduit for the sale of ISIS oil. It is ironic that today, two journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, editor and Ankara bureau chief, respectively for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, face multiple life sentences on charges of disclosing state secrets, espionage and aiding a terrorist group. What they did that so infuriated Mr. Erdogan was to expose weapons transfers by the Turkish secret service to anti-Assad fighters in Syria, most of which fell into the hands of ISIS. The journalists were arrested in November of last year and spent 92 days in prison in solitary confinement, before they were ordered released last month to stand trial. In January US Vice President, Biden, visited the families of the detained journalists in Istanbul. That must have infuriated Erdogan. As if that was not enough! On Friday 25th March, the President, Mr. Erdogan ordered the seizure of Zaman, Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper, and its sister publication, Today’s Zaman, dismissed the management and editorial board and installed a three-man court-ordered administrators. And this is not the first time a similar process has been used to effectively take over and close down media outlets under Mr. Erdogan’s watch. The police in November 2015 stormed Ipek Media Group headquarters and shut down its two opposition dailies and two opposition TV stations. Control of management was then secured and 71 journalists fired. Incidentally, barely two days after ousting the editors and management, Zaman began publishing pro-government articles. The dailies, Bugun and Millet, ran Erdogan’s photo on the front page along with the headlines “The president among the people” and “Turkey united.” Intolerance for opposition media has become a bad habit in Erdogan’s Turkey. Under Mr. Erdogan, there has been a growing concentration of media ownership in the hands of government allies. This is gradually eroding pluralism and has rather, encouraged self-censorship. The authorities have also reined in the Internet. In the wake of repressive reforms, the blocking of Web sites has become systematic. Turkey is alleged to be responsible for more than two-thirds of the requests to Twitter to remove content. The government does not hesitate to block the entire YouTube platform. No doubt, Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the latest Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index. It is clear that the metastasizing Syrian conflict and the resumption of fighting with Kurdish rebels have accentuated governmental paranoia about critical journalists. What Erdogan needs to understand is that his behavior is rather compounding problems inherited from the years of military rule: laws restricting freedom of expression, a judicial culture centered on defense of the state, and impunity for police violence.
As already indicated, this attitude, plus Turkey’s spoiler role in the fight against ISIS should worry, the US and NATO. Turkey is an ally and hosts NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Turkey is struggling with urgent problems, including an influx of nearly two million refugees from Syria, an upsurge in terrorist attacks, and dwindling fortunes of its economy. As already indicated, Mr. Erdogan may calculate that Europe and the United States will not dare object to his crackdown as long as they need his help to keep refugees from flooding Europe. But the more Turkey slides into the abyss of autocracy, the more the likelihood of dissent and chaos. This should worry Europe, especially if dissent travels the path of opposition and Turkey plunges itself into chaos or implodes.
And this is the Turkey that is running around Africa seeking partnerships. In most places, including Ghana, huge sums of moneys are being doled out for the building of Mosques. Recently, Erdogan visited Ghana with a huge entourage (150 businessmen). Incidentally only very few agreements were signed. Turkey has a huge potential in manufactures (heavy-duty, machines, agriculture, energy, etc.). It has a very hard working population, and a dynamic and aggressive entrepreneurial class, who, given the chance, would give the world, especially Africa, the needed cooperation and/or assistance. But under a repressive, self-seeking government, the glow will not be seen. While not recommending a stay-away from Turkey, we should warn African countries to be wary of such dictators. Meanwhile, any flirtation with such dictators would anger the traditional allies – China, the US, Russia – for instance, especially as each of these traditional nations are watching Turkey with cautious lenses.