Adem Koc (PhD) is the head of the Turkish Maarif Foundation in Ethiopia. He came to Addis Ababa two months ago to formally launch the activities of the foundation here. According to Koc, takeover and transfer of schools previously operated by individuals linked to the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) is a priority for the foundation. The schools, operating in Ethiopia for nearly eight years now, are under siege and waiting for their formal transfer orders by the Ethiopian government. During a recent state visit to Turkey, President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) confirmed that Turkish schools in Ethiopia, known as Ethio-Turkish Al Nejashi and Rainbow, are about to be transferred to the government of Turkey, and to be operated by the Maarif Foundation. Following that, the Turkish government sent Koc to finalize the process and formalize the establishment of the foundation here. Koc argues that the schools belong to the Turkish public even though they had been established as private entities. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter recently sat down with Koc and discussed claims and counter-claims the Turkish government has been making against the schools and future prospects. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey is still fresh in the minds of most people around the world. The Turkish government accuses FETO for being behind the attempt. Since then, a number measures have been taken. One of them is the establishment of the Maarif Foundation which is tasked to work in the education sector mostly to serve the Turkish communities overseas. But tell me why establishing such a government organization is so important?
Adem Koc (PhD): I want to start by saying how the FETO movement originated in Turkey. We believe we had lost 40 years of working together in good faith. They say they represent Turkey abroad and use the country’s flag as well. But in the beginning Fethullah Gulen, the cleric and the leader of the terrorist group, went to the US because of his problems. Since then we started to witness some wrongdoings by his organization. This organization has a very sophisticated administrative system and is very secretive by its nature. They have secret agenda against Turkey and other friendly nations. They opened schools and aid agencies with the help of the Turkish people. They have abused tax exemption privileges the Turkish government provided. They have built a number of properties with the money they have been provided by our people. I want to underline that the schools which were established in Ethiopia and other countries are properties of the Turkish people. Hence, the Maarif Foundation was established by the government of Turkey with the consent and vote of approval of opposition parties. The foundation is tasked to take over the schools previously run by FETO-linked groups. By the way, Maarif was not established after the coup attempt. It was established a month before the failed coup. Our agenda is to share resources and help develop our sisterly countries. We want to share our knowledge with Ethiopia. We want to improve the Ethiopian education system together. We are not here for secret missions. Maarif is a government-led entity and we have signed a board of trustees agreement with Ethiopia.
The question is that the people you claim linked with a terrorist group have been running an ordinary business here. They have been doing business by the book. They have been given land and investment permits and the like until your government claimed they are FETO-linked.
Yes, they have been working here thanks to the guarantee the Turkish government had provided. Don’t forget they have been assisted and helped by the government of Turkey. The former Turkish ambassador to Ethiopia has been assisting them until we found out that the group they are linked with is very dangerous. You could not understand their motives and intention that easily. They might seem very nice and kind people but they have a secret agenda. We have seen that during the failed coup. There is an English saying that goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Hence, we want to warn Ethiopia, the families and parents of the children sending kids to those schools that the administration is very dangerous. We don’t have quarrel with the local staff. We have no issue with Ethiopian teachers. We will continue business with them. But we have problems with the Turkish people here running the schools. They might hold IDs and passports of Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries, I don’t know for sure. But they are trying to play a game. They still want to continue what they have been doing in Ethiopia.
Why do you think such terrorist-linked individuals run schools that might be closely monitored and regulated by the government?
Because they wanted to easily brainwash and prepare their future soldiers and recruit them to turn against the authorities of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia or Kazakhstan.
So, you are saying that they have been trying to create a contingent of militia here in Ethiopia?
Not just some military personnel, they target schools to create military- oriented mindsets. The leader of such an underground movement is a very dangerous man. They really wanted to divide Turkey into three major sects. They wanted to create a divided Turkey oriented towards Anatolian, European and Greek.
Are you saying that the Turks here are teaching the ideologies of Fethullah Gulen inside schools in Ethiopia?
Yes, of course.
Do have any proof for that?
You can check their academic calendar. You can check the books they have in the schools. Each student knows about Fethullah Gulen. If you ask the children, they tell you the school leaders are followers of Fethullah Gulen. I tried to find out about that with some parents. They told me they know about the Hezmet Movement which is a Gulenist movement.
But I couldn’t find anything in the Hezmet Movement that says they would take over and bring down government institutions. They didn’t say they would bomb public buildings or parliament.
Are you sure you couldn’t find that?
Yes, there isn’t anything from my readings that says they would terrorize a nation, especially their own country. They say the Hezmet Movement is all about peace and mutuality. But they say the word FETO itself was created by the government of Turkey.
Advocates of the Hezmet Movement began their activities inside the dormitories of schools in Turkey. Then speeches made by Gulen became popular in the 1970s. He became more popular because during that time we did not have religious freedom even though we are almost entirely a Muslim nation. The authorities forbade Islamic activities intending to create a secular government. But suddenly that cleric leader came out to preach the need for performing religious practices. He gave speeches that incited people to be more religious. But his speeches and teachings had been influenced by the West. He signaled he had backing from some countries. In the 1980s, they had opened boarding schools and some colleges. The students had been able to join universities and many of them graduated having been well imbued with Gulenist ideology. They had been well nurtured with secret missions and started to join public institutions as lawyers, engineers and in other capacities but most importantly in the security services. They had overwhelmed the internal affairs, the police and the military and the media. In the 1980s, Turkey was very poor and that helped the cleric and his followers to hinge on strategic institutions. During that time, Gulen lived in a very small house, but he had many media outlets at his disposal. One couldn’t find any openly visible change among these brainwashed individuals, and one cannot tell them from ordinary Turkish people. There is no way they could be seen as suspicious. They acted very normal. But at the beginning of the 1990s, these groups operating under the Gulenist Movement started operations abroad, especially in the Balkan countries. They began to spread their tentacles into Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and the like. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these people went to Russia as well, mostly assisted by the US. It’s because the US wanted to know what was going on in those countries via teachers and other school staff. You can easily collect vital information from schools as it is easy to know well both the children and their parents. You can easily tap them.
You are talking about intelligence and espionage here, right?
Yes, secret information was obtained in such ways. Individuals who run schools in Ethiopia are also selling secret information to other countries.
That is a very huge accusation. The difficult thing here is that you don’t have the evidence to substantiate that claim on the ground, and that might undermine the relationship of countries because accusing one side of espionage is a very serious claim. It might have happened but without concrete evidence how do you think that is credible?
I can show and give you what you need and want to know. Please ask me exactly what it is that you need to know.
For instance, I have asked you how you came to know that FETO- linked groups are active in Ethiopia. What is your definitive evidence for that claim?
Can you imagine a foreign teaching corps, engaged in the field of education, know everything and every detail about your country? They know about your mineral resources such as gold and oil. They know that well and if you don’t believe me, go and check the Internet. You can listen to their speeches about Uganda’s reserves, for example.
But that’s not something secretly held, and is public information. For instance, information about gold reserves in Ethiopia by no means is a state secret.
Yes, but in Uganda these groups provided information for business persons in Turkey. As you might know, Uganda has huge reserves of oil and gold. The groups linked with FETO in Uganda have provided the information and they have also asked Turkish investors to go to Uganda and do business.
But what makes it a secret providing information, as we have many firms, say from the UK or the US, doing consultancies and providing such investor-oriented information to the world. We can mention Deloitte or McKenzie as entities that provide such information to potential investors.
Be careful here; we are talking about school-running companies that are also involved in the natural resources business. They are operating beyond the purview of their formal business activities. You run an educational company upfront but at the backyard, secretly you have another agenda. The Ethiopian authorities will require me to present my credentials if I intend to do some kind of business here. They give me license when they ascertain I am here to do business. I might have been given a license for educational business and I am obliged to do things related to that only. If I go into areas I don’t have license for, then I will be in trouble. Your specific area of interest determines your operations. But I know how these people operate. They secretly share your country’s information; that I know from my own country’s experience. They have provided very sensitive and state secrets of the security, the judiciary, the political system and the like to other countries.
And you are saying the same is true in this country?
I believe so. If the Ethiopian authorities have checked these groups well, they would find out.
But until the Maarif Foundation came to take over the schools, they have been treated as ordinary foreign-based business entities and that was how they have been operating.
We are here at the pleasure of the Ethiopian government. The prime minister invited us to open shop here. There was an announcement made by the president and by the prime minister recently. Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn wrote a letter to the Ministries of Education and Trade and the Ethiopian Investment Commission saying the schools known by the names of Ethio-Turkish Al Nejashi and Rainbow should be transferred to the Maarif Foundation. Maarif is a publicly-run organization with budgetary and human resources. We have a USD one-billion budget.
But I remember reading a news story that says the Maarif Foundation had received some funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
Impossible. The Turkish Maarif Foundation is a legitimate publicly-held institution. We don’t need any donation or help. We want to be part of the team working hard to ensure that the standard of education at high schools is improved. One important thing we will be doing shortly is reassess the school fees. If the fees are two or three thousand dollars per year, Maarif will reduce that amount to be one thousand dollars while maintaining the best quality of education. We will renovate school buildings and furnish them all. By the beginning of the next academic year, all the necessary reforms and changes will take effect. We have been waiting for five months until all the procedures are settled. Our top priority as regards the two countries’ relations is the transfer of the schools to Maarif. We can build and open other schools but that is for the second phase. The transfer of the existing schools is our priority. That is very sensitive.
Let me ask you a hypothetical question; if readers of this newspaper say, ‘Look, the government of Turkey through economic means influenced the government of Ethiopia to close down the existing private schools run by Turks and transferred them to an entity of the Turkish government.’ What would your response be to that?
It is not good. The Ethiopian government believes that the groups running the schools are terrorist-linked. Secondly, we have an agreement to cooperate against terrorist activities not only on these groups but also against Boko Haram, Al Shabab and others. We have agreements to work together. Hence, such perceptions are not good. Ethiopia is a very important country and it’s a big country in terms of its economic growth or demographics.
If you claim the persons owning schools here are terrorists, why not then Turkey asked for the extradition of those individuals instead of concentrating on the closure and takeover of the schools?
These FETO-linked people in Ethiopia are wanted by Turkey, and their passports have been revoked, including those belonging to members of their families. They have been implicated in the killing of 249 people and causing injuries to some 2,000 citizens. In just one night, our economy sustained a loss of USD 20 billion because of the attempted coup. Hence, these people have no place in Turkey. Of course, we are waiting for their extradition from Ethiopia.
Have you formally asked the government for their extradition?
Of course, we have made a request and we are waiting for the government’s response.
How many persons would you say are here that are FETO-linked?
I don’t know for sure since they keep on changing their names, IDs and passports. One day they are here, the next day they are in Harrar or Mekelle, or they travel to neighboring countries. They are very mobile people. If they have good intentions for Turkey, why are they then so mobile like that? Why do they keep changing their location, or are they afraid of something?
But businesspeople travel a lot. Aside from that, isn’t it their right to move here and there?
Of course, they can but I am not talking about business persons. My specific area is education. Anyway, I want to warn parents and families and associations of teachers and parents of school children that they shouldn’t pay any kind of payments and fees and conduct registrations for next year with the existing schools’ administrations. Parents should be very careful that Turkey no longer recognizes these schools’ certifications. By the end of this year, their certification is no longer valid. But we want to assure Ethiopian students that we will provide them scholarships ranging from KG to the PhD level. We will have similar examination systems in place. The Maarif Foundation has campuses in the UK, the US and other places and we might send Ethiopian students abroad to join such campuses in addition to Turkish universities.
Have you already started the takeover of the schools?
No, not yet. We are waiting for decisions of the government. The Ministry of Education is working on how to effect takeover procedures. But at the same time, we have finalized the process to establish and officiate the activities of Turkish Maarif Foundation in Ethiopia. We are ready and our staff is ready to be deployed from Turkey to Ethiopia.
Media reports and some critics suggest that in the wake of the coup attempt, the government of Turkey has become sterner, and the scope for democracy, free press and freedom of expression has become narrower.
No, impossible. I want to say something here. People are talking and claiming about such things lacking the actual facts obtaining on the ground. If you want to find out how democratic Turkey is, then be my guest and go see for yourself. Our democracy was founded by the martyrs. The attempted coup was foiled by 249 citizens who were killed during the infamous attempt. Can you show me any country, even in the West, of people killed in such a way trying to defend their own democracy?
Yes, the people didn’t want their government to be overthrown by force and they defended and safeguarded the government. But the question is the government is capitalizing on that and criticism of the government has become criminalized.
It is not true. The media is important but in our case, they mostly are terrorist-linked and spreading fake news. They support terrorists via their pens, via what they post on websites. They have a journalist ID but actually they are supporters of terror groups. We have a very strong democracy and very firm election system which was seen during the recent referendum. The whole EU institutions monitored the referendum but found no irregularities. The whole world has been watching the events. We will further show our democracy through the Maarif Foundation as well.