Turkey’s growing strategic inroads in Africa

By Dr. Md. Muddassir Quamar

Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in November 2002, Turkey has significantly intensified its engagements with Africa. The growing relations have provided Ankara a strong foothold in parts of Africa, especially since 2012. The initial push however had come in 2005 when Ankara adopted the “Open to Africa” policy and the year was declared “the year of Africa”. This shift in policy was part of the larger foreign policy reorientation that had started after the Cold War but gained momentum under the AKP. The AKP-government led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister (2003-2014) and later as president (since 2014) invested in improving relations with the neighborhood and put in systematic efforts toward gaining membership of the European Union (EU). The much emphasised doctrine of “strategic depth” and “zero-problem with neighbors” became the guiding principles for Turkish foreign policy. In the process, Turkey employed its linguistic, cultural and religious affinity with the neighbourhood to gain influence and increase economic ties. This was true for Balkans, Central Asia, Europe as well as West Asia and North Africa. This also led to the debate on Turkey’s effort to revive the Ottoman-era influence in North and Sub Saharan Africa which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.1 Though the Arab Spring protests and subsequent turmoil in the region seriously put Turkish foreign policy to test and led to worsening relations with countries such as Syria, Iraq and Egypt, it did not deter Ankara from pursuing its geopolitical and economic forays in Africa.

Diplomatic and economic relations

As part of its plan to improve relations with African countries, Turkey adopted the “Africa Action Plan” in 1998 with an aim to improve diplomatic and economic relations. However, due to internal problems, namely political instability, transition of power and economic downturn, the plan did not take off. Again in 2005, the AKP government initiated the “Open to Africa” policy which was to a large extent a re-packaging of the “Africa Action Plan” and started improving relations with the African countries. A number of Turkish embassies were opened as part of the policy. Thus, from a few embassies in 2005, the number of Turkish missions in Africa increased to 19 in 2009 and grew to 40 as of 2018. Further it significantly enhanced partnership with the African Union, hosted African leaders in Ankara and Turkey’s leaders travelled extensively to North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit was held in August 2008 and in the same year the African Union declared Turkey as a “Strategic Partner.”

The growing diplomatic relations were accompanied by enhanced commercial activities. Turkey also started undertaking developmental projects and economic aid in African countries. Thus between 2002 and 2012, Turkish developmental projects in Africa increased from US$9 billion to US$46 billion. According to Andolou Agency, the official Turkish news agency, as of 2015 Turkey’s development assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa was US$395 million.2 The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) started a number of economic aid projects in war-torn and poorer African countries including Somalia and Sudan by building hospitals and schools. As of 2018, the TIKA runs more than 20 economic aid projects in Africa.

Additionally, Turkey-Africa trade increased with growing bilateral relations. The volume of Turkey-Africa trade increased form a meager US$750 million in 2000 to more than US$23 billion in 2013. Though due to the global downturn, the volume of trade dropped subsequently to reach US$20 billion in 2017, it has shown signs of picking up again. Before the 2016 failed coup, the Gülen movement-affiliated Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkiye (TUSKON) was significantly active in Africa in promoting Turkish businesses but after the fallout between AKP and the Gülen movement as a result of the coup attempt, its activities have been curtailed by the state. Nevertheless, it had over the decade from 2006-2016 significantly helped promote Turkish businesses and industries in the continent. As part of its effort to promote trade, Turkey also organized the second Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in Malabo (Equatorial Guinea) in 2014. Further, Erdoğan has been undertaking visits to African countries and in February 2018 toured Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali with an eye on strengthen bilateral trade.3

Defense and strategic ties

While trade and economy have been a priority, in more recent times, Turkey has shown interest in enhancing strategic and military ties with African countries. This is part of Ankara’s larger foreign policy ambitions to gain strategic depth in the neighborhood and beyond. As part of the plan Turkey has over the last decade established overseas military bases in five countries including in Azerbaijan (2016), Iraq (2008), Syria (2016), Qatar (2016) and Somalia (2017) in addition to military presence in Northern Cyprus since 1974. Reflective of the Turkish ambitions, the military forays are not confined to securing border areas such as in Iraq and Syria. In fact, its bases in Qatar and Somalia have been opened with an aim to providing security to the respective regimes. The base in Mogadishu is the largest Turkish overseas military base. Inaugurated in September 2017, it will train 10,000 Somali troops and can train 1,500 troops at a time.4

Turkey has been building relationship with Somalia over the last decade and Erdoğan had visited the country in 2011. This led to forging of strong bilateral ties and resulted in Ankara enhancing its economic and developmental aid to Mogadishu. But with the establishment of the army base with 3,000 combat soldiers in addition to a large military paraphernalia, Turkey has gained a foothold in the troubled but strategically important Horn of Africa and an inroad in the Indian Ocean. Further, in December 2017 Turkey and Sudan signed an agreement granting Turkey a long-term lease for restoration of an Ottoman era port city in the Red Sea island of Suakin.5 The city has several Ottoman era structures including the port and during Ottoman era served as a stopover for Muslim pilgrims from Africa and Mediterranean going to Mecca. As per the agreement signed during the visit of President Erdoğan, Turkey will not only restore the old structures but also the port, and build a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels. This has alarmed neighbouring countries, especially Egypt, that doubts Turkey’s strategic ambitions and is concerned about its growing presence in eastern Africa.6

Geopolitical significance

Turkey’s growing strategic presence in Africa encompassing commercial, cultural, political and military ties is part of Ankara’s foreign policy ambitions. Turkey sees itself as emerging global power, leader of the Muslim world and an important actor in its neighborhood. Ankara wishes to play a larger role in the geopolitics in its neighbourhood and beyond including in Africa, and this had led to its growing forays in the continent. While some countries such as Somalia and Sudan have been welcoming of the growing Turkish presence, others such as Egypt and Algeria have been less forthcoming and view it with suspicion. In many ways Turkey is reviving its historic relations with Africa with an eye to strengthen economic ties and gain strategic depth, but for some this is a reminder of the bitter past and represents neo-Ottomanism.

Dr. Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow, West Asia Centre, IDSA.

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