Turkey, a New African Power

In just a few decades, Turkey has developed a dense network of economic, political and military connections in Africa. It has become a key partner for many countries on the dark continent, to a degree which has other powers, like France, quite worried.

Istanbul, 18 December 2021. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chairs the official opening session of the 3rd Turkey-Africa Summit
Murat Cetin Muhurdar/Présidence turque/AFP

The third annual Turkey-Africa summit was held in Istanbul on 17–18 December 2021. Its theme was “a strengthened partnership for mutual development and prosperity” and was meant to celebrate more than twenty years of constant Turkish diplomatic activism on the African continent. Indeed, it was as long ago as 1998, well before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power that Ankara inaugurated “a plan of action in view of opening up to Africa” which already reflected the country’s wish to enact a change of strategy made necessary by the end of a bipolar world. While in the years that followed Turkey thus renewed its ties with its Balkan, Caucasian, and Middle Eastern neighbours, it also conferred a multidimensional turn on its foreign policy by venturing onto other continents. Over the next two decades, neighbouring Africa became its favourite area of outreach.

Forty-three embassies

Turkey’s increased presence in Africa is to be observed, first of all, in the considerable development of trade relations with that part of the world. In a span of twenty years, these grew from 5 billion to over 25 billion dollars. Significantly enough, fast-growing Turkish Airlines, have become one of the major companies on the African airways, serving sixty-one destinations.

But there are other indicators illustrating the progression of Turkish influence on the continent. First of all, politically. With its 43 embassies (there are 55 countries in the African Union), Ankara now has one of the densest diplomatic networks in Africa, whereas at the turn of the century it had only 12 missions there. At the same time, the number of African embassies in Ankara rose from 10 to 37. This build-up in Turkey’s diplomatic connections would not have been possible without the multiplication of high-level official visits which have become almost a matter of routine. Since 2005 not a single year has gone by without the Turkish President (or Prime Minister when that function still existed) making a tour of Africa, visiting each time three or four different countries. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the last of these tours in October 2021, to Angola, Nigeria and Togo, where a Turkish embassy was opened just last April).

Besides this rather standard economic and political presence, Turkey intensified its penetration of the African continent by endowing it with an increasingly marked humanitarian, cultural, religious and educational dimension. Thus the Turkish government has opened more and more branches of its Cooperation and Coordination Agency, TIKA (Türk İşbirliği ve Koordinasyon Ajansı) of which there are now 22 throughout the continent. It has also invested in operations of heritage restoration (in particular the renovation of the ancient Ottoman harbour of Suakin in Sudan), in the construction of mosques in Moslem countries like Mali, but also in countries where Christianity is the dominant religion, like Ghana. Thus, in Accra, “the Grand Millet Mosque”, built in the style of the Ottoman mosques in Istanbul, was inaugurated in 2017.

These religious constructions often go hand in hand with charitable activities (food distribution during Ramadan…) or humanitarian aid (financing irrigation projects for farmers, construction of hospital facilities…). Involved in these humanitarian, religious or cultural initiatives are Turkish public institutions such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), the Yunus Inre Institutes (Turkish equivalents of the Instituts français) or the official press agency Anadolu, but also large Muslim NGOs like Türk Kizilay (the Turkish Red Crescent), Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Vakfı or the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation).

Taking over the network of one-time ally Gülen

Last but not least, educational action has been a major dimension of this deployment of “soft power”. Here the activities of the Gülen movement played an essential role at the outset, with the creation of English—and French-speaking schools in many African countries. Now that the movement has fallen into disgrace, has come to be considered, since the failed coup of 2016, a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government, the latter has been busy taking over the Gülen school network via its own Maarif Foundation, bringing pressure to bear if need be on reluctant African nations. At the last Turkey-Africa summit in Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed what he regarded as the urgent need to fight the FETÖ (Fethullahçı terör örgütü - Gülenist Terrorist Organisation, the official acronym used to designate the Gülen movement), a struggle which he identified with the one being waged against Boko Haram, the Al-Chanan militias in Somalia and the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS).

A new third-worldism

This succession of economic achievements, political initiatives, as well as humanitarian and religious interventions, has enabled Ankara to establish a genuine strategic partnership with Africa, which receives constant stimulation via regular technical meetings in every sector, and is punctuated as well by political summits every five or six years, such as the one held in Istanbul on 17–18 December of last year. In their closing statement, the parties adopted a roadmap for the future. Five areas of cooperation to be given priority were defined (security, trade, education, farming and health) and a system for monitoring and evaluating the programs was set up. Besides which, Turkey signed an umbrella agreement with the new continental African free-trade zone (ZEL-CA). The next Turkey-Africa summit is already planned to take place in Africa in 2026.

However, beyond its functional aspects, the decidedly strategic dimension of this summit must be emphasised. As proof of this, we need only point out the size and rank of the African delegations that made the trip to Turkey. All in all, 54 countries were represented by 16 chiefs of State (including Félix Tshisekedi, incumbent President of the African Union, Macy Sali, President of Senegal and Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria) accompanied by 102 ministers (including 26 Foreign Ministers) not to mention the countless technicians and officials involved in cooperative ventures. Taking advantage of this large participation and the ostentatious declarations of friendship voiced by the leaders in attendance, Ankara never ceased heaping praise on the climate of confidence prevailing between Turkey and Africa.

In his 18 December speech, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spared no effort to convince his audience that this relationship rests upon truly common interests, but above all he repeatedly insisted on the new third-worldism which has been the main feature of his African rhetoric for many years now. Repeating his celebrated slogan “dünya beşten büyüktür” (the world is bigger than five1) launched at the 2014 session of the UN General Assembly, the Turkish president denounced the “great injustice” of the current international system which has led to the complete absence of the African continent from the Security Council.

In the aftermath of this reminder, he deplored that only 6% of the population of Africa has been vaccinated and promised to send it 15 million doses of Turkovac, the Turkish vaccine which had just been certified. With this kind of talk, the Turkish president intends to promote the specificity of his partnership, distinguishing himself from the former colonisers who are only striving to perpetuate their domination in different ways and from the commercial superpowers (like China) whose African reflex is prompted solely by the lure of gain.

Yet Turkey’s African policies are anything but disinterested. Even though Africa represents only 10% of Turkish exports, their potential for development is immense. From this point of view, the continent can be seen as one of the targets of the new economic system which the Turkish president claims he wants to develop in order to stem the unprecedented crisis afflicting his country today. Although his approach fuels the runaway inflation which ruins his people’s purchasing power, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to believe in what he calls “the Chinese model”. He is convinced that with low interest rates and a devalued currency he can flood foreign markets with Turkish products, sustain domestic growth, put a halt to inflation and stop the collapse of the Turkish pound.

Politically, although Turkey cut itself off from the rest of the developed world with a series of often successful offensives in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin, in Libya and in the Caucasus, the country is now seeking support from developing countries in order to justify its ambition to be recognized as an emerging power. In 2010, it was the support of African countries that enabled it to be elected for the first time as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Since then, it has become evident that the backing of Africa is essential if it is to carry any weight in international bodies.

An effective military partner

The fact remains that Turkish presence in Africa could easily take an even more pronounced strategic turn in the near future. In 2020, the support provided by the Turkish army for the Libyan government in Tripoli and the deployment of its drones put a stop to General Khalifa Haftar’s offensive and showed Africans the military advantages offered by this new partner. Even though, during this third summit meeting, security issues were dealt with in a more subdued manner than economic and humanitarian cooperation, there is no doubt but what a great many participants had the subject on their agenda. And the latter had plenty of opportunities, outside the plenary sessions, to have bilateral talks with Turkish officials.

Turkey’s military commitments in Africa are nothing new but they have been accelerated recently in spectacular fashion. Ankara has had a military base in Somalia since 2017 but in recent months has signed a considerable number of arms contracts and military cooperation agreements. During his tour of Africa in October 2021, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointed out, not without a degree of satisfaction, that “Wherever I go in Africa, everyone talks to me about our drones.” And last Autumn, Tunisia and Morocco received their first shipments of combat drones (Anka S for the former, Barayktar TB2 for the latter), but several other countries, such as Ethiopia, Angola and Niger are taking a keen interest in this type of weapon or are seeking to purchase them. During the summer of 2021, the Western powers brought pressure to bear on Turkey to stop selling drones to Ethiopia, involved now in putting down the Tigray rebellion. In November 2021, Niger signed an armaments contract for the purchase, a mong other items of Bayraktar TB2s. What is sure is that these drones (first used in Turkey against the Kurdish guerillas of the PKK) are likely to interest a good many African States confronted with separatist uprising or jihadists.

Some of them, however (Niger, Togo, Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia…) have already bought equipment from Turkey (Hürkis training planes, armoured vehicles, canons…) At the third summit in Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed reports that during the first eleven months of 2021 Turkish trade with Africa amounted to 30 billion dollars, 5 billion dollars more than the previous year. Thus, when he set his sights on tripling the volume of Turkish-African trade in the near future, he was probably counting on pursuing his early African achievements in the arms trade. For the year 2021, Ankara’s exports to Ethiopia amounted to 94.6 million dollars whereas in 2020 they had only amounted to 250,000 dollars. Comparable increases have been observed that same year for Chad, Morocco, and other recipients of Turkish weaponry.

A more political commitment

This new statute as purveyors of arms to Africa reflects the strategic role that Turkey now plays on the continent. The phenomenon was first observed on the Horn of Africa, especially in Somalia where Ankara’s initial involvement was humanitarian, before it began to support more and more ostentatiously the Somalian government in the civil war which has raged there for decades. For two years now, Turkey’s commitments in Africa have taken an increasingly political turn. In 2020–2021, at the time of its armed intervention in Libya, Ankara signed accords of military cooperation with Niger, Ethiopia, Chad, and Togo, as well as being, to the annoyance of France, the first country to establish contacts with the Libyan transitional government, set up following the August 2020 coup.

This Turkish military and strategic implication is confirmed at a time when Africa is the object of new foreign interventions. In the Horn of Africa. Ankara, with the backing of Qatar was not long in joining with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, backed by Saudi Arabia, thus helping to export the antagonisms of the Middle East to the African continent.

However, now that Turkey’s strategic presence has reached the whole of Africa, the question is how Ankara will situate itself vis-à-vis the other actors in ascendancy there, especially Russia. True, the Libyan conflict showed that the two countries are far from sharing identical interests, yet on other theatres of conflict (especially Syria) it has been shown that even in disagreement these two sworn enemies could put aside their immediate disputes and form temporary alliances in order to marginalise the Western powers.

This scenario is far from played out, but it represents a threat which worries the former colonial powers like France and Portugal, deeply involved as they are in West Africa. A few days before the third Turkey-Africa summit, Emanuel Macron, assuming the revolving presidency of the European Union, has announced an Africa-EU summit for February 2022 in order to galvanise the “somewhat tired” relations between the two continents. There is no doubt but what this initiative should be understood as part of the ongoing evolution of the strategic balance in Africa, where Turkey now occupies a position which is far from negligible.

1Allusion to the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council.