If there are personal experiences I will not live to forget, among them is the death of my mother on the 1994 New Year’s Eve at a Tanzania Commercial Capital Dar es Salaam hospital to which she had been admitted three days after Christmas. When everybody was celebrating, I was grieving. But real grief was yet to strike until I went for a coffin, just outside the health facility main gate.
I picked the best piece for my mum. I paid. The ‘merchant’ put some final touches to it and extended to us lots of traditional “pole, pole, pole sana” condolences. As my younger brother and I prepared to take the coffin, the ‘merchant’, now wearing a smile, told us: “Karibu tena” – “Come again”. I looked into his eyes and asked softly: “Are you sure? Will you provide your mum next time because ours is gone?”
“Kaka twende” – elder brother, let’s go — my young brother interrupted. Looking embarrassed, the ‘merchant’ dag in his inner jacket pocket and gave us 25,000/-. He politely asked for our contact. We picked the coffin and left. Days after we came back from the funeral in Kagera Region near the Tanzania-Uganda border, he called my young brother and asked him to visit his shop. He gave him another 20,000/-. Forty-five thousand shillings in 1994 was a big condolence gesture and, for that matter, from a non-relative.
We became friends. One afternoon, we invited him at a joint in the hospital’s Dentistry Department building near his work place. We had a fruitful discussion about life and how best to get along with other people. We settled that in whatever situation, it leaves a lot to be desired of anyone forgetting (worse ignoring) other people’s or broader human interests. Personal gain is not all that there is for anyone to benefit from. Selfishness is not only a shortcoming but also has its own limitations, which may not be apparent in the short term. Then the choice of words. How does one invite a bereaved person to come back for another coffin?
The way Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has conducted himself in respect of the ongoing crisis of the Russian Federation (Vladimir Putin?) invasion of the Republic of Ukraine and the joint Finnish-Swedish application for NATO membership, clicked live my encounter with the ‘coffin merchant’ following my mother’s death about 30 years ago. From different unfolding related scenarios, I have wondered the sort of ‘coffin merchant’ President Erdogan has turned out to be.
Scenario One: Background. The invasion of Ukraine is an outright violation of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and is contrary to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations to which the Russian Federation is party. Russian President Vladimir Putin tagged it as a “special military operation in Ukraine” for an ambiguous and equally intriguing cause of ‘de-Nazifying’ the country.
Scenario Two: The 193-member UN General Assembly adopted a resolution deploring the aggression with 141 votes in favour, five against and 35 abstentions. It also later adopted a resolution calling for Russia to be suspended from the Human Rights Council using the principle of a two-thirds majority of those voting, minus abstentions.
This was despite a Russian call to take the exercise as “voting against the attempt by (the) Western countries and their allies to destroy the existing human rights architecture.” Nordic countries voted in favour as well as EU countries, UK, USA and Turkey. Fifty-eight countries abstained from the process. This was not the first time. It had happened to President Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011. So, up to this point, Turkey somehow stood by the side of the majority.
Scenario Three: Come the invasion assuming savage war, human rights and war crime levels prompting the United States and NATO allies to apply sanctions on non-responding Russia, and the subsequent Finland and Sweden parliaments’ blessing for a joint NATO membership application, Turkey could no longer manage to hide its true colours.
U.S. President Joe Biden saw this as a “momentous application of once-neutral Sweden and Finland. Under normal circumstances, one would have expected strong opposition to the Finland and Sweden application to join NATO from Moscow rather than Turkey. Even the Kremlin, in the first instance, did not seem to speak one language on it. While Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakova said Finland and Sweden joining NATO was a “grave mistake” with “far-reaching consequences”, President Putin was of the opinion that their bid posed no direct threat to Russia.
But, without reservation, Turkey came out outright against the application. President Erdogan said Turkey did not have “positive views” on the Scandinavian countries’ moves to seek NATO membership, accusing them of being “guesthouses for terrorist organizations”. He said Swedish and Finnish delegations “should not bother” to travel to Turkey after they announced they were out to try to change Turkey’s resolve. “We are currently following the developments about Sweden and Finland, but we are not holding a favourable approach”, President Erdogan said.
He went out of his way to see both countries as complete “terror haven”, claiming Sweden and Finland harbor people linked with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and followers of Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the planned-to-fail 2016 coup attempt. “Currently there is a terrorist organization in many European countries, especially in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Sweden, in Finland and in France”, President Erdogan said. Among his conditions was that “terrorists” would have to be returned to Turkey before approval is given.” What a ‘coffin merchant’ self-interest modus operandi.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson categorically stated: “We take terrorism seriously. We condemn terrorism in all its forms and we are actively engaged in combating it.” There is enough evidence of Turkey having ties with terror groups in Nigeria and some other parts of Africa. Turkey has been involved in cross-border kidnapping of people seen as dissidents. The majority of pending cases at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) are of Turkish origin. Is state terrorism not terrorism? There is need to decipher what Turkey means when it talks of terrorism. Could this be another case of the ‘coffin merchant’?
Scenario Four: All said, Turkey has had good relations with both the Republic of Ukraine and the Russian Federation. This means Erdogan is friends with President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, drones we have been hearing of being used by Ukraine in the war against Russian are Turkish. Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 sophisticated war equipment to the dismay of the United States and fellow its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
So here we are with Ukrainian civilians and soldiers dying due to the invasion of Turkey’s friend (Putin) and soldiers of the Russian Federation dying at the hands of Ukrainian forces using, among others, Turkish drones. In between, Turkey also offers to broker peaceful negotiations taking advantage of its closeness to the two opposing forces in the conflict and NATO. What a typical case of the ‘coffin merchant’.
Taking a critical look at Turkey from the Ukrainian crisis perspective, one also sees an unpredictable member country of the United Nations and strategic partner in the US–NATO alliance who cannot say “no” to Russia – the country that ensures a net gain in the process, the typical ‘coffin merchant’, its international tarnished image notwithstanding due to the erosion of rights and freedoms.
It is the country that symbolically has managed to maintain a strong military support to Ukraine through drones and strong political support to Russia by refusing to join the sanctions, besides keeping Finland and Sweden in the departure lounge with no boarding passes for taking a NATO flight. All for personal profit in the style of the ‘coffin merchant’. Can Erdogan take a second thought and stop eroding his people’s rights? That is the question.