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The Turkish Empire in the Middle East is gone, but Turkey is making new inroads in Africa. Over the past decade, it's been investing in some of the continent's most troubled countries, and Turkey is expecting to see some benefits in return. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Dozens of African ministers milled about an Istanbul hotel ballroom recently, planning for next year's Turkey-Africa summit. Off in one corner, Abdulkadir Abdi, minister of state from Somalia, is lavish in his praise of Turkey's assistance to a country plagued by famine, civil war and terrorism.
ABDULKADIR AHMED-KHEIR ABDI: Turkey came to Somalia first in 2011 when no one dared to go to Somalia. There was a drought. There was a famine. There was terrorist activities. There was a war, and everyone stayed away.
KENYON: When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife got off the plane in Mogadishu, went to a camp full of starving children and began pledging aid and signing trade agreements, Abdi says other countries followed.
ABDI: So for us as Somalis, Turkey is - it's in our heart because of the help they provide in the time of need.
KENYON: It's part of Turkey's growing presence in Africa. State media report Turkey's trade volume with Africa is at least six times what it was in 2003. And Turkish Airlines flies to more than 50 African destinations. If you get sick in Somalia, you may be treated at the Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital. Visitors arrive at an airport terminal run by a Turkish company and travel on roads built by Turkey's development authority. Along the way, they may see the garbage being collected by the Turkish Red Crescent.
There are questions, however. Critics note that Turkey's involvement was facilitated by non-competitive Somali contracts awarded by a state notorious for its corruption. And Somalia isn't the only troubled state where Turkey is making a splash. President Erdogan recently addressed the Parliament in Sudan. He spoke warmly of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) My brother al-Bashir and I will talk business, and I'm sure we will leave this place with handshakes on a number of big partnerships.
KENYON: Turkey was granted a long-term lease and rights to restore Ottoman-era buildings on Sudan's Suakin Island in the Red Sea. The island was once a stopover for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca. Sedat Aybar, director of the Africa Research Center at Istanbul's Aydin University, says burnishing Turkey's credentials as a defender of Muslim heritage is part of the motivation for Turkey's efforts in Sudan. He calls it reactivating the Turkish memory chip regarding the territories it once controlled in Ottoman times.
SEDAT AYBAR: So that kind of reawakening the memory chip that Turks has been in the continent is a very important part of restoration of ruined Islamic sites on the island.
KENYON: But Aybar says the primary motivation is economics. Africa has natural resources that Turkey needs for its manufacturing and industrial sectors, and Africa needs income, infrastructure and jobs for its people. Aybar says money also explains Turkey's military presence in Somalia, where a Turkish base is used to train Somali soldiers. With large areas of the country still under the control of al-Shabab extremists, he says a better security environment is key to improving Somalia's economy.
AYBAR: And this is particularly important as Somali, a failed state, it requires building up military capacity. A stable and more secure Somalia will provide Turkey with more positive economic returns.
KENYON: Aybar says Turkey's decade-long embrace of Africa is now irreversible. President Erdogan has made more than 30 visits to Africa since coming to power, and he recently embarked on another tour, this time to four countries in North and West Africa. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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