Dar es Salaam. A behind-the- scenes battle is raging over the status and control of Feza Schools, with the just-ended visit by President Recep Erdogan adding to the growing fear that Turkey was pushing to either close down the schools or hand them over to a neutral public body for their management.
Concerns over the famed schools’ status would intensify as President Erdogan’s government has listed them among the properties of a charity organisation they accuse of acts of terrorism in Turkey, and has sought President John Magufuli’s intervention to enforce its will. President Erdogan told Dr Magufuli that the charity run by preacher Fethullah Gulen was a terror organisation hiding behind running schools and hospitals.
Turkey has blamed Gulen who is exiled in the US for the recent failed coup attempt to remove Mr Erdogan who has since declared an all-out crackdown on his associates in Turkey and in other parts of the world. His visit to Tanzania during which he signed several bilateral agreements and agreed to fund the construction of 400 kilometres of the Central Railway Line was interpreted as seeking Dar’s backing for his crackdown.
The Citizen has learnt that Turkish officials were pushing for the take over of the schools, with its top envoy in Dar leading in the charge for sometime now. There are 11 Feza schools in Tanzania, five of them in Dar es Salaam.
Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs ministry earlier before Mr Erdogan’s visit on Monday assured that there had been no evidence to link Feza Schools with the Ankara claims.
But in an interview yesterday, The minister for Foreign Affairs and East Africa Cooperation, Dr Augustine Mahiga, confirmed to The Citizen that delegates from Turkey were still in the country discussing Mr Erdogan’s request with the Tanzanian government, which include the question around Feza Schools.
“I can confirm we are in discussions with Turkey delegates with regard to their request; they have come with a positional paper and some other evidence,” he said.
The minister added: “We will go through their position paper and the evidence before making the decision.”
However, Dr Mahiga didn’t say exactly when the government would reveal the outcome of the meetings. The Feza Schools board and management were alarmed at the attempts to paint the institution in the negative light but were confidence that the government would not arrive at a rush decision to close the schools or allow a take over by Turkey.
Board chairman Habib Miraj last evening told The Citizen that the schools were operated by a registered trust jointly run by Tanzanian and Turkish investors. He said the institution was apolitical and did not have any religion. “We are an institution that is operating legally and with backing from the government to deliver on quality education to Tanzanian children. We are surprised at the sudden attack and attempt to link us with Mr Gulen,” said Mr Miraj.
According to the chairman, the war against them was being waged by the Turkish ambassador. He described the link to terrorism as unfortunate and malicious.
“But we are confident the government will not buy into the dirty campaign because there is nothing that the schools do that is not known to authorities. Efforts therefore to disempower us are ill-motivaged and should be condemned,” he said.
The Turkish ambassador to Tanzania could not be immediately reached to respond, but a spokesperson at the embassy told The Citizen on phone that the embassador would not be making any statement regarding Feza Schools or the requests under discussion with the government. Other indpependent commentators separately asked the governemt to tread carefully over some of the Turkish requests.
They said although it was normal for each country to push for its agenda in bilateral negotiations, Tanzania must do its homework thoroughly first before taking any decision.
A lecturer at the Centre for Foreign Relations (CFR), Dr Kitojo Wetengere, said since Turkey concern was on security following last July’s failed coup he had expected the issue to feature in the talks between the two presidents.
“In any bilateral relations it is always a give and take; we need money to help us revamp the Central Railway Line and they want us to help them in security; so the government shouldn’t make a decision which will affect relations between the two countries,” said Dr Wetengere.
A political science lecturer with the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), Mr Richard Mbunda, said if Fetto is a terrorist group as the Turkey government claims, closing its investments in the country would pose threats to the country’s security because the group might use its network to harm Tanzanians.
“Engagement in conflicts with groups, which are associated with terrorists, always pose threats to many countries’ securities, just look at what Al-Shabaab is doing to Kenya; the government should consider this before making any decision,” Mr Mbunda argued.
Turkey has accussed Mr Gülen, through Fetto group, of having a network spread in more than 100 countries globally. They claim the network is behind the estabishment of Feza Schools, a fact that Mr Miraj vehemently denied, noting that both Tanzanians and Turkish investors and not members of the movement were involved.
Reached for a comment, the director of Feza Schools, Mr Ibrahim Yunus, also distanced the school ownership from Mr Gülen.
According to him, the schools are owned by a Tanzania registered non-governmental organisation, Ishik Medical and Education Foundation. “I’m sure that the government wouldn’t close the schools because our operations in the country are legal; we have never broken any law and we don’t have any association with any terrorist group.”