Like France or the United Kingdom, Turkey runs schools located outside of its territory. However, unlike the other examples, the Turkish schools were not managed by the state, at least until very recently.
As a matter of fact, those schools have been established by a trans-national group, named Gülen Movement, which has been massively persecuted by the Turkish governing party since Gezi Park protests back in 2013. A new detailed report published this July highlights the confiscations and smear campaigns that Erdoğan Administration is conducting via one of its agencies against large numbers of education facilities linked to Gülen Movement in various countries across Africa.
Erdoğan and Gülen : tumble down of the relationship
When Erdoğan first came to power as Prime Minister back in 2003, many expected him to partner with the Gülen movement. Indeed, they shared a common vision of the need for Islam to be integrated into the public sphere, in opposition to the secularism that had so far been safeguarded by the Turkish military since the founding of the Republic in 1923.
However, the relations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen deteriorated over time, ultimately reaching its apogee after the failed coup d’état on July 15th, 2016. The Turkish government held and still holds the Movement responsible for the coup and the killings of over 250 Turkish citizens.
Consequences have been very substantial. Thousands of teachers, civil society representatives, and business people were put in prison while massive numbers of civil servants who are allegedly associated with the Movement have been evicted from every agency of the state: the police, judiciary, military, bureaucracy and etc.
The actions taken against the Gülen movement by Erdoğan Administration are not strictly limited to the national level. They also impact the existence of the Movement abroad, primarily by targeting the “Turkish schools” affiliated to the group.
President Erdoğan’s Trojan horse in Africa: Maarif Foundation
What President Erdoğan called as “witch hunt” against the Movement abroad translated into the creation of the Maarif Foundation through a law, published on the 28th of June 2016, which granted it the status of public foundation.
Although the President of this Foundation, Birol Akgün, stated that they were independent from the President of the Turkish Republic and did not have regular contact with the latter, it is nonetheless salient to point out that President Erdoğan directly appoints 7 of the 12 members of the Board of Trustees, the decision-making body of this Foundation, and other members include representatives of the Ministry of Education (article 3§2).
In addition, the Foundation is financed partly by the Ministry of Education that allocates over one million Turkish Liras from its budget in 2016. Therefore, it is impossible to affirm that the Foundation can retain its political independence from Erdoğan Admnistration.
The Foundation claims that it is to open schools for purely educational purposes. However, practice shows that it requests from the African authorities the management of Gülen schools to be transferred to them. A report that is recently released states that the Movement has over 600 schools spread throughout all the continents, however the Maarif Foundation strategically exerts pressure on state representatives in many African countries to make sure that all these schools are taken over.
The Foundation focuses on two of its seven “activity zones” that are Africa I (Anglophone) and Africa II (Francophone), a total of 106 schools in 36 countries. Indeed, the Erdoğan Administration is aware of the fact that they are more likely to be able to influence the national governments of the countries where the democratic process is flawed, as is the case for some countries in Africa. That is why no school take-over took place in countries that are part of democratic-, and free world.
The official aim, as expressed in article 2 of the law establishing the Foundation, is to increase educational quality. However, when looking at the way in which the Foundation has been proceeding, it becomes clear that its main purpose is in fact to replace schools linked to the Movement, as expressed by the Turkish Ambassador to Mali last year and as reaffirmed this July by the Turkish Ambassador-designate to Nigeria, who both seem to embody the preoccupations of the Turkish government as to what it calls the Gülen Movement “imminent” threat.
Their requests hold no legal background, and matters of jurisdiction concerning the take-over of the schools (e.g. territorial expropriation) do not seem to interest the Foundation. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs or President Erdoğan himself have taken advantage of state visits to explain why the Turkish state designated the Gülen movement a terrorist organization and justify the reclaiming of Turkish schools in Africa by the Foundation.
During such discussions, statements have been made according to which the schools are run by a “terrorist organisation” – FETÖ, a political inculpation invented by president Erdoğan following the 17/25 December massive corruption investigations that were launched into the then PM Erdoğan cabinet and members of his family. Therefore, the schools managed by the Movement could not reasonably be considered “Turkish schools”, a title which is considered to only befit Maarif-run schools.
The Foundation’s primary objective is to take the management of Turkish schools outside of the Turkish territory from the hands of the Gülen movement to its own. If this cannot be achieved, it tries to close them down, or as a last resort, it opens “alternative” schools to be in direct competition with the ones linked to the Movement. As of today, as explained in the AST report, the Maarif Foundation has managed to reach about 200 facilities across the continent and this number is likely to increase in the coming months and years.
In that respect, multiple agreements between the Maarif Foundation and a number of African countries – Guinea, Somalia, Niger, Sudan, Republic of Congo, Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burundi, Comoros – have been already made with the aim to seize the schools linked to the Movement.
This does not mean that Turkey has encountered no local resistance. Indeed, in Senegal, despite the Gülen affiliated schools now being closed following a formal Turkish demand, parents had expressed their concerns about the taking-over of the schools, and some had even decided to enrol their children in other non-Turkish educational facilities once Maarif Foundation confiscates the school.
However, in other countries such as Somalia, which heavily relies on Turkish aid, any form of resistance seems complicated and there are no other options than to shut down the schools.
Serious consequences for the education in Africa
Erdoğan’s political agenda is being reinforced by his undermining of Gülen movement, and the transfer of their schools to the Maarif Foundation has created a platform from which to impose his Islamist ideology, since educational programmes are to be determined by the Turkish ministry of Education (article 2§4).
This raises one main issue concerning the future of education in Africa. The “Turkish” schools were often very highly rated, students were provided with quality education respecting the national curriculum, hence were said to be trying to enable the dialogue between students and their parents from different cultures and religions.
Although there have been multiple accusations of unofficial religious study groups, which were referred by President Erdoğan as well, these imputations have nonetheless been eliminated during the schools’ almost 18 years of existence on the African continent.
That being said there is very little, if any, guarantee that this relatively secular education facilities will be maintained after the Maarif Foundation takes over the management of these schools, especially when put in correlation with the radical Islamic background of the Foundation’s board members that the Turkish President appointed himself.
Erdoğan’s Third Pillar in Africa and Impacts for Europe?
The European Union certainly has to take the situation seriously. Targeting the schools, the Turkish government is allowing itself to increase its presence in the African continent by promoting a radical understanding of Islam. Needless to say that those values are far from being in line with those of the EU. Just like some European nations such as France now understand better the importance of education and inclusion to prevent further radicalisation, so do countries in Africa.
Although Western nations have failed to provide help aiming at providing stability in the Middle East, they still need to focus on Africa and take measures in accordance with local authorities in order to counter the dangerous actions of the Turkish government.
Over the past years, President Erdoğan has shown to be more involved in Africa, notably through security policy agreements and economic cooperation. He is now developing a third pillar of his involvement in the African continent via the Maarif foundation. As he wishes to be the leader of the Muslim world and Turkey to be the protecting power of the ummah, his growing influence in Africa and especially on education is jeopardizing the set of values that the EU has been promoting for years in Africa.
Without doubt, Islam is one of the predominant religions in Africa, and President Erdogan’s radical vision of it could make its way into the European Union due to the current migration trends. This scenario would aggravate the already tense situation with rising nationalistic and anti-Islam positions in many member states of the Union.