What is driving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s headlong charge into commercial and military relations with Africa?
Two key developments look set to define the Ankara government’s Africa policy this year: its decisive provision of armed drones to the federal side in Ethiopia’s civil war and to the G5 Sahel, and how Turkey’s deepening economic woes might constrain its diplomatic ambitions.
Turkey’s trade has grown considerably with Africa: from $5.4bn (2003) to $25.3bn (2020) along with its diplomatic network growing from 12 embassies in 2009 to 49 today, not to mention its African Union observer status since 2005.
Ties to the continent also include increased cooperation along with humanitarian projects, as seen during the widely-attended Turkey-Africa Summit (2021), complete with a pledge of 15 million Covid-19 vaccines for the continent.
Geostrategic interests are also at play given its involvement in conflict zones (Libya, Sahel, Somalia), 37 military offices across Africa and a military base in Somalia.
Booming industry and drone diplomacy
Boasting around 1500 companies, the defence and aerospace industry is booming in Turkey. It is also an important source of foreign currency, with export revenues amounting to $10.8bn in 2020 (up from $1bn in 2002).
According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly, Africa is Turkey’s fifth-largest importer with a significant 700% increase in volume ($41m to $328 m) within the first 11 months of 2021.
African countries are mostly interested in armoured vehicles (OTOKAR 4×4, NUROL Ejder), battle and sniper rifles (MKE PMT-76, MKE KNT 76), as well as drones/UAV (ANKA-S, BAYRAKTAR TB2).
“Many African governments facing armed groups and instability are highly interested in Turkish drones which have shown to be effective in other conflicts (such as Libya). All armed forces in West Africa are clients, but this also extends to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria” Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Prospective and Security Institute in Europe (IPSE), tells The Africa Report.
The widely reported use of the Turkey’s armed drones by Ethiopia’s National Defence Force against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces late last year sent a strong message to other governments facing insurgencies in the region: call Ankara.
From humanitarian to military presence
Turkish presence on the continent is not limited to arms deals. “Turkey’s strategy involves several dimensions. Initially, it was about humanitarian aid [Libya and Somalia], diplomacy and trade [with an anti-colonial stance].
It is now turning into military activism” Suleyman Ozeren, a Senior Fellow at Washington DC based Orion Policy Institute and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University, tells The Africa Report.
Turkey’s strategy has consisted of three phases “starting in Somalia where a military base was established, serving as a gateway to East Africa” he adds. Indeed, Camp TURKSOM, established in 2017 is the country’s largest overseas military base. As of 2020, it trained a third of the Somali military.
The Horn’s strategic trade and energy corridor location is also an important advantage, as well as a source for tension. Indeed, TURKSOM is among four foreign military bases in Somalia (UK, US, UAE). Competing foreign military interests are also highly present in the wider region (China, US, UK, France, Japan, Germany, Spain, Israel, Russia, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia).
As in the case of Somalia, Turkish presence is increasingly favoured following the withdrawal of previous actors, such as the African Union’s Mission In Somalia (AMISOM). The UN, which jointly funds AMISOM, has agreed to extend its mandate until March 2022.
Libya and the ‘Blue Homeland’
Similarly, the US leaving Libya in 2019 offered a chance for “Turkey’s aggressive entry into the Libyan civil war […] on the side of the United Nations-backed Tripoli government” writes Peter Fabricius for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
Although “there has been a ceasefire for more than a year with conditions – including the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries – Turkey continues to insist its presence is legitimate,” Sabina Henneberg, Senior Analyst at Libya Analysis, tells The Africa Report.
Fabricius adds that the intervention “was motivated by a mixture of economics – to secure off-shore gas concessions [in the eastern Mediterranean] – and [to counter the influence of its Middle East nemeses, the UAE and Egypt]”. It’s in keeping with Turkey’s expansionist maritime strategy to dominate the Mediterranean called “Mavi Vatan” or “Blue Homeland”.
Sahel and proxy warfare
The Sahel is another prime example as “France is closing three of its six military bases in the region and concentrating troops to the Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger border because of the shift in location and strategy of armed terrorist groups” says Dupuy.
Political discontent and anti-French sentiment have also been an advantage for Turkey which presents itself as not being a former colonial power.
While Ankara funded $5m of the regional Sahel G5 force in 2020, it also signed a defence pact with Niger raising suspicions in France and the UAE of an upcoming military base. Turkey also has other tools in its pocket, including its international defence consultancy firm SADAT which is involved in training mercenaries and its National Intelligence Organization.
Ideology and anti-Gülenism
Ideology is another important aspect as President Erdogan’s AKP advances. “Pan-islamist Neo-Ottomanism, which is its own form of jihadism. The ideology is a mix of ultra-nationalism and political Islamist views with opportunity-driven jihadist activism” says Ozeren.
“Unfortunately, Turkey’s foreign policy has been too focused on proxy warfare [similar to the Iranian model in the Middle East] by taking advantage of the existing social, local, geopolitical tensions and training different groups. These proxies are then used in the country and/or exported further” he adds.
Turkey’s internal rivalries also play out on the continent.
After Erdogan’s former ally Fethullah Gülen was accused of a coup attempt in 2016, his Hizmet organization (also referred to as Fetullah Terrorist Organization by the government) which operates schools across Africa, were dismantled.
In May 2021, Gülen’s nephew Selahaddin was kidnapped by security forces in Nairobi and taken back to Turkey. The move indicated how close Ankara’s cooperation with African states has afforded Erdogan’s regime significant leverage.
Turkey’s economic crisis could put a brake on some of these ambitions. “Inflation is high and rising, economic growth is stalling, foreign exchange reserves have plummeted, many goods are in short supply or simply unavailable.
With per capita GDP having fallen from $12,600 in 2013 to $8,500 in 2020, Turkey’s 85 million people have faced dimming prospects for the better part of a decade,” wrote Anne Krueger, a former chief economist at the World Bank, for Project Syndicate.
“The lasting effects of the current economic crisis might shift Turkey’s narrative [not necessarily actions] in Africa”, says Ozeren.
As the country needs foreign investment “it could go towards a conciliatory sentiment with regional rivals such as the UAE and Egypt though it is unlikely the AKP will be willing to lose any gains made thus far” he adds.
Turkey’s foreign policy strength has also been dichotomous: looking for consensus within regional institutions such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the EastMed gas Forum, while holding on to its assets, including military bases.
By Loza Seleshi
This article was first published in the Africa Report