Erdogan Reinforces Turkish Expansion in Africa

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With the sharp decline of Western influence in Africa in recent decades, a new and quite influential player — Turkey — has become significantly stronger on this continent.

Turkey’s current relationship with Africa is only 20 years old. According to some reports, as early as the late 1980s, a group of Turkish diplomats working on the African continent developed a strategy to “open Africa.” Ankara, having proclaimed a course to build a multi-vector policy, is consistently implementing its strategy of deepening and expanding ties with Africa in four main directions.  This is, above all, an increase in political influence, trade and economic ties. The Justice and Development Party (JDP), which came to power in Turkey in 2002, has actively pursued a policy of Turkish expansion on the continent, and African countries with their markets have been a real blessing for Ankara in this regard.

Another very important direction in Ankara’s activities in Africa was the intensification of the ideological influence and the struggle on the continent against the ideological enemy of today’s Turkey – Fethullah Gülen, the closure of his numerous FETO schools in African states.

In recent years, it has become increasingly important for Turkey to consolidate its position in the military sphere in Africa. And it is not just sending pro-Turkish fighters and weapons to Libya and a number of other African states. The new military base in Somalia, the first Turkish base in Africa and the largest outside the country, indicates Ankara’s interest in military expansion in Africa. Reuters reported the other day, citing four informed sources, that Turkey is expanding its exports of armed drones to Africa after their successful use in international conflicts, concluding new agreements with Morocco and Ethiopia. However, the agency predicts that any drone deliveries to Ethiopia could lead to friction in the already strained relations between Ankara and Cairo, which is at odds with Addis Ababa over the Blue Nile hydroelectric dam. There are reports that Cairo has allegedly already asked the US and several European countries for help in freezing the deal.

Ankara’s focus in Africa has so far been on training local personnel. This, as has long been known, solves two problems at once: on the one hand, these personnel are taught the skill of thinking in Turkish standards in the Turkish system of coordinates. On the other hand, a pro-Turkish lobby is being formed, with an eye on the future – today the person is a young promising engineer in an African country, and tomorrow he will be a boss in some local government agency. All the more so because Africa has already proven itself as a venue for meteoric career advancements.

Minerals, raw resources, abundant land, water, vegetation and other resources, as well as a population of more than 1 billion people are increasingly attracting Turkey’s interest in the African continent. First, Turkish expansion affected the North African states, which are geographically, historically, culturally and religiously close to Turkey. And then Ankara ventured into Tropical Africa, where Turks sell $5 billion worth of goods today instead of $750 million in 2004. The largest consumers of Ankara’s exports such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have proved to hold strong positions in Africa.

Given the potential of the African continent, Turkey has taken a number of serious steps toward rapprochement with African countries since the early 2000s, significantly increasing the number of Turkish Embassies in the new African states from 12 countries (2009) to more than 40. In 2005 Turkey became an observer country in the African Union, and in 2008 was already a strategic partner in the aforementioned Union, with an obligation to contribute $1 million annually to its activities. Turkey became an observer in almost all African sub-regional organizations (EAC, ECOWAS, SADC, COMESA, etc.), and in 2013 joined the African Development Bank as one of its “non-regional” members.

The first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit was held in Istanbul in 2008, and the second took place in Equatorial Guinea in 2014. The first Turkey-Africa Business Forum was held in Istanbul in 2016. At the end of this year Istanbul will host the 3rd edition of the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum (21-23 October), as well as the 3rd Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit (December 18). Turnover increased from $4.3 billion in 2002 to more than $25 billion.

Turkey is actively trying to take on a special role as a protector of Africa, to present the case as if it has historical reasons for doing so. To confirm this, the Turkish Foreign Ministry website’s background information on relations with the region includes an entire section devoted to the chronology of their formation, which is quite revealing. In particular, the history of relations with this continent is presented in such a way that the Ottoman Empire was supposedly an outpost of anti-colonialism in North Africa and protected the lands of East Africa from European encroachment.

During his tenure as Prime Minister and President since 2002, Erdogan has made 38 visits to 28 African countries. The last time a Turkish leader visited Africa was in 2020, when he went to Algeria, Gambia and Senegal. On October 17 of this year he began his next tour of Africa, visiting Angola, Nigeria and Togo.

However, a number of African countries have a mixed opinion of Erdogan’s policy. Thus, on the eve of his arrival on October 18 in Nigeria, the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) of that country, according to the publication of the Nigerian English language newspaper Daily Post, issued a stern warning to President Erdogan, demanding that he stop persecuting the leader of the opposition Hizmet (“Service”) movement, Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. This Muslim human rights group accused the Turkish leader of “arbitrary arrest, torture, political killings, long imprisonment of opposition figures and critics, particularly members of the Hizmet Movement.”

But it is not only MURIC-like human rights organizations that pose a problem for Erdogan’s expansionist policies in Africa today. The Gulf states, with the exception of Qatar, see Turkey as a competitor. As Ankara lays the foundation for its long-term presence in the Black Continent, the Arab states are taking steps to neutralize Turkish influence. This applies both to military support for forces hostile to Ankara, which is clearly visible in the example of Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, and to an increased diplomatic presence in individual countries. In a public speech, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed accused Erdogan of trying to create an “Ottoman Caliphate” in Africa. Ankara now recognizes that Erdogan’s recent actions must largely be viewed through the prism of regional competition, and the question of how far the Arabian centers of power are willing to go in choosing a response is cause for concern. In fact, it has been suggested that the conflict in Libya could be an overture to a more sophisticated struggle between Middle Eastern players for Africa.

Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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