Making Turkey great again

Is Turkey’s expanding African footprint also a proxy battleground for Erdoğan’s Middle East and European rivalries?

Without much fanfare, Turkey has steadily spread its political, economic and even military foothold across Africa. It’s gone from just 12 embassies and US$100 million in foreign direct investment in 2003 to 42 embassies and US$6.5 billion in 2021. Plus a five-fold increase in trade from 2003 to 2019 and 51 African cities now served by Turkish Airlines.

Turkey’s ambassador to South Africa Elif Ülgen says embassies will also be opened in Guinea-Bissau and Togo this year, with Eswatini and Lesotho in the pipeline. ‘Turkish footprint in Africa is getting larger than most European countries in a very short period of time,’ former United Nations Economic Commission for Africa chief Carlos Lopes tweeted this week.

Turkey no doubt sees untapped economic opportunity in Africa as other Middle Eastern and Western powers do. But its expansion into the continent also seems to be part of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s broader and seemingly boundless ambition to make Turkey great again. In a sense, to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, which disintegrated at the end of World War I.

Since 2003, when he became prime minister until now as president, Erdogan has visited Africa 27 times. Ali Bilgic, a Turkish foreign policy expert at Britain’s Loughborough University, points out that 2005 was ‘The Year of Africa’ in Turkey.

It obtained observer status at the African Union (AU) in 2005 and in 2008 became AU ‘strategic partner’, co-hosting the first Turkey-Africa summit in Istanbul. The second Turkey-Africa summit was held in Malabo in 2014. The third, due to be held last year in Istanbul, was postponed because of COVID-19.

Turkey aims to become an economic, humanitarian and military power in sub-Saharan Africa

Turkey’s growing official development aid reached US$3.9 billion in 2019. It has also shown a China-like propensity for building large state infrastructure, e.g. an Olympic swimming pool in Senegal, an expanded port and its biggest overseas military base in Mogadishu, and a large mosque in Djibouti, the Financial Times reports.

Erdogan has impressed African countries with his tangible commitment to the continent. In 2011, he paid his first official visit to Somalia when few foreign leaders were venturing there because of the high risk posed by al-Shabaab. In 2016 he visited again to open a Turkish embassy in Mogadishu – a rare event as most countries, including South Africa, run their diplomatic relations with Somalia from afar. Ülgen calls this embassy the ‘flagship’ of Turkey’s African presence.

Erdogan’s 2011 visit was to provide famine relief, marking the start of Turkey as a ‘humanitarian actor’ in Africa and economic partner, says Bilgic. Last June, for example, Turkey shipped medical equipment to Niger and Chad to help fight COVID-19.

But all this benevolence shouldn’t blind us to Erdogan’s strategic ambitions in Africa. Like other second-tier powers that have recently come to Africa, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India, Erdogan seems to have realised that a solid African presence is essential for any would-be global player.

Of the US$6 billion invested by Turkish companies in sub-Saharan Africa, US$2.5 billion has gone to Ethiopia

Since 2015, Turkey has also become a rising power in the defence industry, Bilgic says. ‘Turkey’s military base in Somalia and training of Somali military are some signs of Turkish geopolitical efforts to establish Turkey as an important political and military power in the Horn of Africa. In 2020, Turkey also secured agreements with Nigeria in the area of defence industry,’ he says. ‘Turkey aims to become an economic, humanitarian and military power in sub-Saharan Africa.’

He says one cannot separate Turkish economic, political, humanitarian and military objectives from each other. ‘In that sense, Turkey is following the steps of many developed Western powers in Africa. However, unlike them, Turkey presents itself as an “Afro-Eurasian” state – so not an external power with a colonial past, but someone from the continent, a partner.’

Ülgen agrees that Turkey has an advantage in carrying no colonial baggage but disagrees that its expansion into Africa has anything to do with asserting power or ‘making Turkey great.’ There is no overall ‘Africa strategy’, she insists. Each country is dealt with on its own merits.

It’s purely about providing business opportunities to Turkish companies – and wanting to make a difference to Africa. She notes that the links go back to the Ottoman era and that 32 African countries have embassies in Ankara, ‘which shows the desire for good relations is mutual.’

Turkey’s intervention in the Libya war was decisive in halting Haftar’s advance on Tripoli

Others, though, would see Africa also to some degree as a proxy battleground of Turkey’s Middle East and even European rivalries – and its growing presence in sub-Saharan Africa as partly designed to counter the influence of its Middle East nemeses, the UAE and Egypt.

This analysis would to some extent explain Turkey’s strong friendship with Ethiopia, backing it for example in its stand-off with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam it’s building on the Blue Nile. Of a total of US$6 billion already invested by Turkish companies in sub-Saharan Africa, US$2.5 billion has gone to Ethiopia, says the Financial Times.

Turkey’s aggressive entry into the Libyan civil war in 2019, on the side of the United Nations-backed Tripoli government, was motivated by a mixture of economics – to secure off-shore gas concessions – and some of the same geopolitical interests. Opposing Tripoli was General Khalifa Haftar, de facto chief of staff of the rival Libyan government in Benghazi, backed by the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and to some degree France.

Turkey’s intervention in the war – backed financially by its Middle East ally Qatar – was decisive in halting Haftar’s advance on Tripoli. It created the stalemate that led to a ceasefire in October 2020 and a political agreement among all major players that should culminate in December’s elections.

In the course of its engagement in Libya, Turkey bumped up against not only its Middle East rivals but also France. This led to a potentially explosive moment when a French warship stopped a Turkish vessel suspected of delivering arms to Tripoli.

Bilgic says analysts commonly err in separating Turkey’s expansion into sub-Saharan Africa – which seems to be mainly about trade, aid and investment – from its geopolitical interests in North Africa, particularly Egypt and Libya. ‘They are highly related,’ he says, and adds that the France-Turkey competition in North Africa ‘might spill down into sub-Saharan Africa.’

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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