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Africa – Turkey: Erdogan’s charm offensive across the continent

By Joséphine Dedet
Posted on Wednesday, 1 December 2021 09:56, updated on Friday, 3 December 2021 11:40

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flanked (l. to r.) by his Togolese counterpart Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, Burkina Faso's Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Liberia's George Weah in Lomé, 19 October 2021. © Turkish Presidency/Murat Çetin/Anadolu Agency via AFP

On 17 and 18 December, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will hold a third major summit in Istanbul, where he will meet with the continent’s leaders. The aim is to strengthen the political and commercial ties that have been slowly woven over the past 20 years.

What did they say to each other, and why are they laughing so heartily? In this photo that was taken on 19 October in Lomé, Togo Erdogan – who rarely smiles in public – can be seen laughing with his Togolese host Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé and their Liberian and Burkinabe counterparts, George Weah and Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Perhaps it’s an indicator of the relaxed and easy-going relationship the Turkish president has with his African counterparts.

38 trips

It goes without saying that it must have been easy for Weah, the former Golden Ball winner, and Erdogan, who almost made a career out of football (a fan of Franz Beckenbauer, he played for a semi-professional club in Istanbul), to become friends. However, after 20 years in power, the Turkish head of state has become a connoisseur of the continent.

Following in the footsteps of a former foreign minister, the liberal Ismail Cem, he was the first Turkish president who took an interest in Africa, and the only one who has put his money where his mouth is, given that he has visited the continent 38 times (28 countries), always in the company of an arsenal of businessmen. The Covid-19 pandemic temporarily put a stop to his travels, which resumed in mid-October with a tour of Nigeria, Angola and Togo.

In the wake of this, the 3rd Economic and Business Forum was held from 21 to 22 October in Istanbul. The 3rd Turkey-Africa Summit, which many leaders from the continent are expected to attend, will also be held in the same city on 17 and 18 December. The main topics up for discussion will be the fight against terrorism, the Libyan and Somali crises, the coups d’état in Mali, Guinea and Sudan as well as the conflict in the Tigray region. Trade, cultural, academic and tourist relations with the continent, all of which are booming, are also on the agenda.

Anti-colonial spirit

The secret of this success story lies first and foremost in the pragmatism of Turkish diplomacy which, although often criticised when it is exercised in other areas, is best expressed in Africa. Free of any moralising discourse towards African leaders, it wants to be ‘humane’ towards the continent’s population, and plays – when necessary – on anti-colonialist sentiment and/or Muslim fraternity.

The second pillar of this success is the synergy between the actors in charge of representing Turkey around the world. Ankara’s spearheads into the continent are the embassies, which continue to flourish (43 today, compared to 12 in 2002), and Turkish Airlines, which serves 60 African cities and is resuming its flight schedules, despite being affected by the health crisis.

Tika (the Cooperation and Coordination Agency) has opened its 21st and 22nd offices in Africa, in Pretoria and Banjul. The CEOs of the business organisations Deik, Müsiad and Tüsiad are incessantly active. Turkish companies, both conglomerates and SMEs, have become formidable and over the past 20 years, the volume of trade between Turkey and Africa has increased almost fivefold.

A varied arsenal

Soft power is deployed in all directions through the Maarif Foundation schools, which currently train 17,500 students on the continent, and eight Yunus Emre cultural centres (the last one was inaugurated in Abuja by first lady Emine Erdogan).

New forms of communication have emerged, including video conferences between businessmen and diplomats, online Turkish courses, etc. On their small screens and the Internet, Africans are showered with Turkish series, which range from those depicting the shimmering reign of Suleiman the Magnificent to very contemporary battles between the secret agents of Teskilat (‘The Organisation’) and enemies that lurk in the Syrian desert or Emirati palaces.

These serve as an opportunity to exhibit a varied ‘made in Turkey’ arsenal: rockets, armoured vehicles and, of course, the famous drones that have proved their worth in the Libyan, Syrian and Azerbaijani theatres. This message has been heard loud and clear in African capitals. Last August, in Istanbul, dozens of African ministers flocked to the Idef exhibition, the Turkish military’s annual international showcase.

Turkey has also entered into military cooperation agreements with several African countries, including Burkina Faso (2019) and Niger (2020). They are currently holding discussions with Togo. The most well-known agreement was the one they signed with Libya in 2019, which resulted in Ankara foiling Marshal Haftar’s offensive against the Tripoli government and imposing itself as a major player in this conflict.

Nevertheless, its presence in Libya is seen as controversial. At the Paris summit on 12 November, the international community demanded “the withdrawal of all foreign forces, including mercenaries”. Ankara believes that its troops, who came at the Tripoli government’s request, “cannot be put on the same level as mercenaries brought by other countries.”

In 2017, the Turks set up their one and only African military base in Mogadishu, where they now train 1,500 members of the national army.

A new development – which does not please France – is that Turkey has left its strongholds in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan) and is heading west. In 2018, Ankara donated $5m to the G5 Sahel anti-terrorist force.

In September 2020, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, the foreign affairs minister, met with the coup plotters who overthrew Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Bamako. He was the first foreign official to do so. Finally, last October, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and then President of Chad Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno were asked if they would like “increased cooperation in defence, security and fighting against terrorism.”

All these facts and initiatives seem to indicate that Ankara has no plans to stop conquering markets or hearts anytime soon.

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