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Exactly five years ago, Nigeria and Turkey were embroiled in a diplomatic row.
Having just survived a coup and assassination attempt, President Erdogan was on a mission to expose and arrest all those behind the attack that claimed 300 lives. Erdogan said the coup plotters were linked to the Gulen movement, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish businessman and influential cleric who is in exile in the United States.
Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan, repeatedly denied these allegations. He also claimed that he didn’t know 99% of the members of his influential movement which boasts of three to six million members worldwide.
After frustrated attempts to extradite Gulen from the US, Erdogan began reaching out to several African leaders with a view to shutting all businesses linked to the Gulen movement in their countries.
On July 28, 2016, the Turkish Ambassador to Nigeria, Hakan Cakil, called on Nigeria to close 17 Turkish schools in the country with ties to the Gulen movement. “We are requesting the Nigerian government to close down the schools… I have requested officially, both orally and in writing, the closure of these schools. Also, I have sent a letter to Mr Geoffrey Onyeama (foreign minister) and Mr Abba Kyari (chief of staff to the president) about this subject and requested their support for the closure of the schools,” he said. Apart from schools, several institutions affected included hospitals and other establishments.
Coming at a time Nigeria was facing one of its worst economic downturns ever, the government was reluctant to honour such a request. Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, said, the request would not be considered until the Turkish government provided satisfactory evidence.
Turkey launches offensive
Nigeria’s unfavourable response further infuriated the Turkish government. Consequently, several Nigerian students attending Turkish schools abroad were arrested while others were deported for reasons never stated.
President Buhari’s adviser on Diaspora Affairs at the time, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, confirmed to local media that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the permanent secretary summoned the Turkish Ambassador immediately the information was received. While both countries are working at resolving the issue through every possible diplomatic channel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made it clear that such acts against Nigerians will not be accepted.”
In a bid to cut ties with Turkey following the pressure from Erdogan’s government, the businesses that were linked to Gulen in Nigeria began removing Turkey from their business names and rebranded completely although they maintained their Turkish orientation.
Some of these companies include the Nigerian Turkish International College (NTIC) with branches in Kaduna, Abuja, Kano, Yobe, Ogun and Lagos. The school changed its name to Nigerian Tulip International School. Also, the Nigeria Turkish Nile University changed its name to simply Nile University. The Nigeria Turkish Nizamiye Hospital which was patronised by Nigeria’s elite was simply changed to Nizamiye Hospital.
Despite these moves, however, Turkey remained adamant. In 2019, the new Turkey Ambassador to Nigeria, Melih Ulueren, said at an event in commemoration of the third year anniversary of the coup that the Turkish Maarif Foundation had been set up to take over all business interests linked to the Gulen movement.
With Turkey unable to take over the business interests of the Gulen movement in Nigeria, Erdogan decided to take a new approach and give Nigeria an offer that would be difficult to refuse.
Nigeria has been witnessing a rise in insecurity in recent times with thousands killed by insurgents in the north. In a desperate need for weapons and intelligence amid an impending arms embargo by the United States Congress due to human rights concerns, Nigeria needed to explore other options and unlike the US, Turkey would be willing to partner with Nigeria without such stringent human rights conditions.
Making a direct reference to Nigeria’s security quagmire, Erdogan during his visit to Nigeria in October told President Buhari that his administration would continuously share intelligence with Nigerian authorities. He was quick to add that those behind the attempted coup in Turkey were still very active in Nigeria and there needed to be a quid pro quo.
“The sensitivity we show in fighting terrorism, I hope will be reciprocated by our Nigerian brothers and sisters and our counterparts. The perpetrators of the heinous failed coup of July the 15 FETO are still very active in Nigeria. And we are continually sharing our intelligence with Nigerian interlocutors and authorities,” Erdogan said.
He said he hoped to expand trade volume from the current $2bn to $5bn between Nigeria and Turkey and he was hopeful that the relations between the two countries would be further developed on the basis of a win-win situation and on the basis of mutual respect.
As a show of good faith, Buhari immediately announced the removal of Turkey from Nigeria’s COVID-19 red list. The Nigerian President revealed that he signed eight major agreements with Turkey on several key sectors including energy, defence industry, mining and hydrocarbons among others. Buhari also praised Erdogan for opening his country’s borders to accommodate millions of refugees in dire need of humanitarian support.
The new deal
Reciprocating Erdogan’s gesture, Buhari recently visited Istanbul for the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit. Buhari celebrated his 79th birthday while away in Turkey with his wife, Aisha, and seven ministers. During the visit which Presidency officials described as ‘epic’, several agreements were reached.
Buhari’s Spokesman, Garba Shehu, said in a Facebook post that Turkish technology, be they drones or even through the supply or manufacture of military ordnance in Nigeria will surely quicken the process and efforts to “rid Nigeria of pockets of terrorists and the menace of kidnappers and bandits. From their wide experience and advances in technology in fighting terrorism and banditry, they have a lot to give and they have assured us that they will give that support.”
In exchange, Shehu said the Nigerian government would not allow the business entities linked to Gullen to undermine its improved relationship with Turkey even as he revealed that a team from the Turkish defence establishment is expected to be in Nigeria to advance the discussions on the issue of military procurement in January.
He added, “The national security component equally has a Turkish angle to it and one that turned to be one of the gains, in the sense that both countries have a common view of what Turkey perceives as a security threat to their nation and its leaders present in Nigeria. This is about some Turkish investments, schools and hospitals associated with an opposition figure linked to the abortive coup and attempted assassination of President Erdogan.”
The President’s spokesman noted that this end, the financial regulator, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), will ensure that funds cannot be moved from any of these firms into Turkey to undermine Erdogan’s government.
“The government of Nigeria will not allow any part of our territory to be used to undermine a friendly state such as Turkey. Under our strict Central Bank and Financial Intelligence Unit’s governance structure and management, money from the investments in issue cannot be moved anywhere to finance subversive activities,” said Shehu.
He argued that while the protection of foreign investment is sacrosanct, the Nigerian government clearly will not allow any interest, individual or group, to undermine the very warm and cordial relationship between the two nations.
Apart from Turkey’s military assistance, Buhari also hopes to ensure that Erdogan would assist Nigeria to build infrastructure which has been the exclusive preserve of China. The Marif Foundation funded by the Turkish government is also expected to build a five-star hotel and conference centre, schools and a world-class hospital in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.
A former Director-General with the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Prof. Bola Akinterinwa, told The Africa Report that Nigeria’s new deal with Erdogan was not strange in international politics and should not scare investors.
Akinterinwa, who was instrumental in shaping Nigeria’s foreign policy between 2011 and 2015, however, said Nigeria lacked the capacity to monitor the movement of funds from these businesses under surveillance.
“Nigeria will not be in a position to know how money made in Nigeria by these businesses would be spent abroad. We are only in a position to know how the money is moved about in Nigeria,” he said.
He maintained that such an arrangement coming barely 13 months to the next elections may not last beyond Buhari’s administration which ends in 2023.
Also speaking with The Africa Report, Prof. David Aworawo, the Head of Department, History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos, said Nigeria ought not to have agreed to monitor private businesses in order to please Erdogan.
The international relations expert stated, “This issue of monitoring certain funds that should not leave the country will be problematic.”
“I think the Nigerian government should have insisted that this clause was not inserted into the agreement. These things are bound to complicate relations and could undermine the positives that are not controversial. If I was the President’s adviser, I would have advised him against it.”
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