As Erdogan set for another tour, Turkey deepens ties with Africa

Over the past two decades, Turkey has sought to present itself as an alternative external power in the African continent.

Erdogan visited Somalia in 2016 to open Turkish-sponsored projects, including health facilities and the largest Turkish embassy in the world [File: Mohamed Abdiwahab/ AFP]

East Africa’s largest indoor arena in Rwanda; a national mosque in Ghana; an army base in Somalia; and an almost 400km-long railway project which would help give landlocked Ethiopia direct access to major trade routes through the port of Djibouti.

These are just some of Turkey’s increasingly growing footprints across sub-Saharan Africa as Ankara has over the past two decades sought to present itself as an alternative player in a continent that has long witnessed fierce competition between traditional European powers and newcomers.

Nonetheless, Turkey’s outreach might bear more fruit as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to kick off another round of a diplomatic tour on Sunday that covers Angola, Nigeria and Togo.

Alongside the signing of new deals, the trip will also see business forums banding Turkish and local business people together in each country in a bid to cultivate relationships and agreements.

It also comes ahead of two major events – the Turkey-Africa Business Summit later this month and the third Turkey-Africa Summit in December – that the Turkish government has been preparing for.

Erdogan’s first stop will be in Angola, a country undergoing major political and economic transformation after almost four decades of Jose Eduardo dos Santos’s rule.

President Joao Lourenco, who visited Turkey three months ago, has been looking for ambitious actors to help diversify the heavily oil-reliant economy.

Alp Ay, Turkey’s ambassador to Angola, believes Ankara can be part of the country’s transformation.

“An Angola that embraces the global world with an active foreign policy and a stronger economic structure will benefit Angolans and the whole region. Hence, Turkey is ready to contribute to the reform process, especially in terms of diversifying economic resources, strengthening the infrastructure and creating new employment opportunities,” Ay told Al Jazeera.

Nigeria, the second leg of the tour, is Turkey’s top trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa with a trading volume of $754m in 2020. However, Murat Yigit, from the Istanbul Commerce University, says more can be done.

“Turkey’s relations with two prominent countries, Nigeria and Angola, which have enormous energy resources are currently far behind their potentials,” Yigit told Al Jazeera.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if they begin to play a role in Turkey’s energy supply,” he added.

An ambitious mission

The visits are a part of a longstanding drive to reconnect with the continent by Erdogan, who describes Turkey as an “Afro-Eurasian state” and has visited more African countries than any other non-African leader. By the end of the tour, Erdogan will have visited a total of 30 African countries as president and prime minister since 2004.

Historically, Ottoman Turks built strong ties with emirs, kingdoms and communities across the continent, particularly in what is now Morocco, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.

However, the ties suffered from a decades-old pause. The young Turkish republic, which was built on the ashes of the Ottoman empire, focused on its neighbours and Europe until it began changing course with the end of the Cold War.

As Turkey shifted to a more multi-dimensional paradigm in its foreign policy, the continent has become a core pillar of the new strategy that has seen the development of complex multilayered relations that now encompasses business, aid, diplomatic and military support.

Figures show how far Turkey has come. From $5.4bn in 2003, Ankara’s trade volume with the continent dramatically increased to more than $25bn in 2020.

Over the past decade or so, Turkey’s diplomatic missions have mushroomed across Africa. There are currently a total of 43 Turkish embassies, compared with 12 in 2009. Turkey’s flag carrier Turkish Airlines operates flights to 60 different destinations across 39 countries while the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency operates in its 30 coordination centres spread over the continent.

Ibrahim Bachir Abdoulaye, a Nigerien researcher at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, said the reason behind Turkey’s growing influence is that its engagement differs from those of other powers in its political discourse, the business and the humanitarian aid model.

“Turkey’s business model, unlike other actors, is fast, practical and impactful. Turkish products are favoured by Africans as they are cheaper than those from Europe and more quality than the Chinese products,” Abdoulaye told Al Jazeera.

A multifaceted approach


Nowhere is Turkey’s rising influence more apparent than in East Africa. In 2011, Erdogan’s visit to famine-stricken Somalia prompted the biggest humanitarian campaign in Turkish history, with the aid marking the beginning of Ankara’s massive state-building process in the country.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, Ankara is the second largest foreign investor, after China, with about 200 Turkish companies operating in Africa’s second most populous country. As the ties evolve, the Ethiopian government currently embroiled in a nearly one-year war in the country’s north has also reportedly shown interest in purchasing Turkish drones.

Further north, last year Turkish military and diplomatic support helped the United Nations-recognised government in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, repel a military offensive by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar. In Algeria, Turkey is one of the top foreign investors along with China, with a $3.1bn trade volume.

Meanwhile, multiple media reports have recently suggested that Morocco signed a $70m contract with the private Turkish company Baykar to require Bayraktar TB2 drones, a shining star of Turkey’s growing military industry.

In the western corner of the continent, Turkish state institutions and NGOs build mosques, deliver much-needed education healthcare, aid and education assistance to impoverished communities in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

Ankara has increased its trade volume sixteen-fold in the last decade with the regional powerhouse Senegal. Turkish firms have changed the scene of the capital, Dakar, with significant infrastructure projects such as an international airport, stadiums and Olympic pools.

A military cooperation agreement Ankara signed last July with Niger would allow a Turkish military presence in the country.

Turkey’s recent push in West Africa, however, rattled France which accused Ankara of axing France’s West African ties by playing on “post-colonial resentment”, as well as funding “French-speaking media” who foment resentment against Paris.

However, Abdoulaye said Erdogan’s political stance against global order and his criticism of the West resonate with people in power of corridors in African capitals.

“It’s important for African countries to diversify their partners, so they can balance growing Chinese influence and Western powers that try to maintain their hegemony with new actors,” he added. “Hence strengthening ties with Turkey will benefit African nations.”

Source: Al Jazeera