After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, became one of the main priorities of Erdogan’s foreign policy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not spend a year without touring Africa: since coming to power in 2002, he has visited 31 African countries, some more than once, notably Algeria, Senegal, Somalia, and South Africa.
The Third Africa-Turkey Economic and Business Forum, attended by 250 delegations from 41 countries and over thirty African heads of state, concluded its work on October 23 in Istanbul. It was a prelude to the third summit of the Turkey-Africa partnership scheduled for December 17-18, where Ankara intends to demonstrate the success of the new strategic cooperation between Turkey and the countries of the Dark Continent. Ankara has officially proclaimed the slogan “From Cooperation to Strategic Partnership” concerning Africa, and Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın even refers to Turkey as “an Afro-Eurasian country” occasionally.
In recent years, Turkey’s activity in Africa can only be compared with that of China. As of 2020, the Turkish trade volume with African countries exceeded $25 billion, and Turkish investments rose to $7 billion. The number of Turkish diplomatic missions in Africa has increased from 12 to 43, with 31 of them opened after 2009 and several more planned. In addition, Turkish Airlines is now a significant player in Africa, serving more than 60 destinations, and Istanbul has become a logistics hub linking Africa to other continents.
Until recently, Turkey’s influence was growing particularly fast in East Africa and the western part of Sahel, in the Horn of Africa and Somalia, but now it has spread to West Africa. Moreover, the military element of cooperation is no less important than the purely economic or humanitarian aspects. “In addition to the supply of military equipment, there is also a military presence in Libya and Somalia. Now there is talk about Turkey’s military deployment in Chad and other countries,” French TV5-Monde reported in a review titled “Turkey’s Expanded Influence in Africa – Globalization of the Country’s Foreign Policy” in late October. For example, Ethiopia, one of the continent’s fastest-growing countries, where Turkey is the second-largest investor after China, has already expressed interest in acquiring Turkish drones to fight insurgents in the Tigray region.
Against this background, the phrase “Today Turkey is a strategic partner of the African Union” can be increasingly heard in the official speeches of the Turkish authorities.
The Turkish leader usually visits African countries accompanied by several hundred businessmen, demonstrating Ankara’s specific interest in a particular African country. Mainly, Turkey’s interest in African mining and military cooperation is often seen. In addition, Turkish companies are trying to make extensive use of cheap local labor, as wages are low in most African countries. Therefore, Africa is becoming increasingly attractive for Turkish companies to move several production facilities, which require less skilled labor.
At the same time, Ankara realizes that its position in Africa is weaker than that of the Western countries with a colonial past in the Dark Continent and China, which has recently dramatically increased its presence in Africa. Previously, only North Africa was part of the Ottoman Empire, and therefore Turkey’s position was fragile south of the Sahara. Given that, unlike Western countries, Turkey joined the “African game” later, to succeed in Africa, Ankara came up with “its card” in expansion by starting to use “soft power,” setting African countries against European countries, engaging in self-promotion and propaganda. Since Ankara’s “soft power” on the Dark Continent has suddenly but successfully become a competitor to other players, both traditional, the USA, France, China, and India, and those that have appeared here relatively recently, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In 2010, Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul said during his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo: “Unlike European countries, Turkey has no colonial past, Turkish-African relations are clean. Turkey provides humanitarian aid to Africa without any expectation. Turkey has already delivered more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Africa. Large countries are defined not only by the size of their armed forces but also by the amount of humanitarian assistance provided.”
In addition, promoting the current neo-Ottoman expansion in Africa, during Erdogan’s last visit to Nigeria in October this year, the Information Support pool for the Turkish president talked a lot about reviving the forgotten friendship between the two Ottoman sultans and the Kanem-Bornu Empire. This state, which occupied parts of modern Libya, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon, existed until the beginning of the twentieth century when it was divided between Great Britain and France.
As a result of Ankara’s recent steps, statistics published in the Turkish media suggest that Turkey’s economic influence in African countries has increased dramatically in recent times. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) activities have been significantly facilitated. TIKA already has about two dozen offices in Africa, implementing hundreds of projects across the continent. These include the drilling of new water wells, the opening of clinics, the training of farmers and the restoration of historical monuments.
In 2016, Turkey opened the first overseas and African military base in Somalia, where about 200 Turkish military personnel are serving, and 10,500 Somali soldiers are being trained. In 2019, Turkey completed the construction of its second military base in Qatar, which is located next to Qatar’s existing Tariq Bin Ziyad base south of the national capital, which has already housed units of the Turkish ground forces and air force since October 2015. According to experts, the Turkish contingent stationed at Tareq Bin Ziyad base is estimated at about 3,000 servicemen.
Ankara has now decided to get a firmer foothold in western Africa, demonstrated by the results of President Erdogan’s brief but very revealing tour of the Gulf of Guinea. He visited Angola, Nigeria, and Togo just before the Istanbul Business Forum, where the Turkish defense industry’s interests were actively promoted. That is why Erdogan was accompanied on the said trip by a strong delegation from the Presidency of Defense Industries (Turkish: Savunma Sanayii Başkanlığı (SSB), directly subordinate to the Presidential Administration and engaged in military procurement on behalf of the Turkish Armed Forces and Special Services. SSB is responsible for coordinating exports and monitoring agreements with countries buying Turkish military equipment and underwriting (risk assessment and borrower analysis) export loans through Türk Eximbank. In addition, SSB operates the state-owned Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and STM, a firm working for the navy and in cybersecurity, radar systems, satellite technology, and control systems. Therefore, the Turkish navy may visit African ports more often and increase Turkey’s military influence in other West African states. For example, in Togo, where leaders of the Turkish defense industry have already shown their intention to implement the 2021-2025 military planning law to modernize the country’s armed forces.
Currently, Turkey has already signed bilateral agreements with Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire in cooperation with the production, procurement, and maintenance of military equipment, logistics support, and information exchange. However, China and France have become increasingly wary of the recent growth in Turkish exports and military-technical cooperation with Africa. The reason is that although Chinese machines are cheaper, they are inferior to Turkish ones in terms of quality; moreover, Ankara offers very favorable lending terms for purchasing its products. As for France, its hegemony in West and Central Africa is long coming to an end against this background because of Turkey’s African expansion. There are increasingly loud statements that Turkish policies exploiting post-colonial resentment do serious harm to French interests in Paris.