privileged relations

Turkey/Africa: Erdogan’s allies – Macky Sall, Ali Bongo

By Joséphine Dedet, In Istanbul

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Posted on June 19, 2023 09:00


As Turkey continues its diplomatic advance into Africa, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is strengthening ties with his counterparts across the continent. Certain leaders enjoy a particularly privileged relationship with him; find out who.

Africa made up the largest delegation of Turkey’s friends, with 17 heads of state, prime ministers or parliamentary presidents among the 47 leaders present at Erdogan’s inauguration ceremony on 3 June in Ankara. The presidents of Central Asian republics were also represented at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and the subsequent state dinner held at the Çankaya Palace. It is here that they witnessed an unexpected duo formed by the president of Azerbaijan and the prime minister of Armenia.

Eastern Europe and the Balkans were also widely represented, from Bulgaria to Hungary, including Russia and Ukraine, two belligerents with whom Turkey maintains cordial relationships and successfully balances its position. High-level figures from several Gulf and Middle Eastern states (United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon), as well as from Asia (China, Pakistan, among others), were also in attendance.

In his inaugural speech, President Erdogan addressed the countries, including numerous African states, that aided Turkey during last February’s earthquake. “We will not forget your demonstrations of friendship,” he said. He further thanked “the heads of state and government who shared our joy by calling us just after the election results”. He told them: “Alongside all this, we will not forget the attempts at interference [implying from Western capitals] in Turkey’s electoral process through their magazine headlines.”

This tribute to Africa and the criticism levelled at the Western world (particularly France) reflect Ankara’s policy in recent years and the Turkish people’s growing mistrust of Americans, represented only by their ambassador, who met Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the Cuban prime minister, and Westerners in general.

Eloquently, the West was only ’embodied’ at a high level by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who once again requested Turkey not to oppose Sweden’s entry into the organisation. It was as if political dialogue between the West and Ankara has been reduced to this military alliance, where Turkey is as controversial as it is essential.

Since the launch of their African policy in 2005, the Turks have consistently expanded their influence on the continent thanks to their business acumen, effective para-state network, and the experience of a state leader who has been in power for two decades. Among Erdogan’s ‘new’ interlocutors are Angolan João Lourenço, Togolese Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé (present in Ankara on 3 June), and Liberia’s George Weah (conversations are relaxed between this 1995 Ballon d’Or winner and Erdogan, who almost pursued a career in football).

The rapport is also very cordial with Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh and Algeria’s Abdelmadjid Tebboune, even though the latter, sparing in his travels abroad, did not personally attend the inauguration ceremony any more than Lourenço did. The presence of South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa at this event marks a real first. Pretoria, whose relations with Ankara have so far been rather cool, appears to be turning a diplomatic corner. Meanwhile, let’s review the leaders who maintain privileged relations with their Turkish counterpart.

Among West African nations, it is with Senegal that Turkey, initially more rooted in the eastern part of the continent, has cultivated the deepest ties. The initial visit of Erdogan to Dakar dates back to 2013, a time when he was still prime minister and Macky Sall was already president. The two men have known each other for a considerable period, maintain excellent relations, and affectionately refer to each other as “my brother”.

As a distinct sign of interest, Erdogan has travelled to Senegal four times in his presidential capacity (in 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022), supporting the blossoming bilateral economic relationships ($540m in annual trade exchanges) and the notable presence of Turkish corporations, among which the giants Tosyali (steel industry), Karpowership or Çalik (energy), along with Limak and Summa, who co-manage the Blaise-Diagne airport with the Senegalese state.

The same company, Summa, has constructed several iconic infrastructures, such as the Abdou-Diouf Conference Centre, the Dakar Arena or the Diamniadio stadium, inaugurated by Erdogan in 2022 alongside his Senegalese counterpart. The event also saw the presence of four African heads of state and Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA.

Macky Sall, who had confirmed that he would be present in the Turkish capital on 3 June for Erdogan’s swearing-in, ended up cancelling his trip on the night of 2-3 June, amid violent disturbances in his country. President Erdogan is closely monitoring the situation, particularly through the intermediation of Nur Sagman, his former ‘Madam Africa’, whom he appointed as ambassador to Senegal last February.

Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine, and Umaro Sissoco Embaló, alongside his wife Dinisia Reis, share a remarkable camaraderie that extends beyond politics. Their interactions are marked by warmth and mutual respect.

The attempted coup d’état that President Embaló successfully thwarted in early February 2022 served as a unifying force between the Guinean leader and his Turkish counterpart, who had also endured a similar incident in July 2016. Their most recent meeting (prior to their reunion at Erdogan’s inauguration ceremony on 3 June) took place in Ankara last March. During their discussions, they discussed pressing issues handled by President Embaló in his capacity as the incumbent president of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), and pledged to invigorate bilateral trade, currently valued at $5m annually.

In late February 2022, President Erdogan planned to conclude his tour encompassing Democratic Republic of the Congo and Senegal with an official visit to Bissau. However, due to the imminent eruption of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, he was compelled to hastily return to Ankara to participate in a NATO video conference. Undoubtedly, an official visit to Bissau will soon find its place on the Turkish President’s agenda, signifying the significance of this burgeoning relationship.

The Gabonese head of state clearly appreciated being mentioned by President Erdogan in his inaugural address. However, he has had fewer occasions to meet his Turkish counterpart than Macky Sall or Umaro Sissoco Embaló. Nonetheless, the two leaders are close and enjoy a good rapport. They share a passion for football, and Erdogan is likely not indifferent to the fact that part of the Bongo family, once Catholic, embraced Islam many years ago.

Erdogan’s sole visit to Gabon dates back to 2013, when he became the first Turkish government leader to address a parliament in sub-Saharan Africa. As for Ali Bongo Ondimba (ABO), he has travelled to Turkey twice (in 2012 and 2015), and attended the swearing-in ceremonies in 2018 and 2023.

Two recent episodes likely solidified the personal bonds between the two leaders. First, in 2018, the abduction of several Gülenists in charge of a Turkish school in Akanda by the Turkish secret services (MIT) – an operation that could not have taken place without the consent of the Gabonese authorities. Then, in January 2021, the resolution of the Mozart crisis, during which pirates took hostages off the coast of Nigeria. The Turkish ship ended up near Port-Gentil, with the Gabonese providing assistance that was warmly acknowledged by the Turks.

Reflecting this cordial relationship, trade exchanges are on the rise. They reached $72m in 2020, up from $24m in 2010, and Turkish investors are now eyeing several sectors, such as logistics, timber, fishing, construction, and waste management.

Erdogan’s relations with both the current Somali president and his predecessor, Mohamed Farmajo, are nothing short of excellent. Every summit, diplomatic conference, or swearing-in ceremony involving African nations presents an opportunity for the leaders of Turkey and Somalia to showcase their unwavering friendship.

In 2011, Erdogan became the sole foreign head of state to visit famine-stricken and war-torn Somalia, actively involving Turkish public authorities and entrepreneurs in the reconstruction efforts of the failed state. This act transformed Somalia into a showcase for Ankara’s political, economic, and humanitarian engagement in East Africa, skillfully paving the way for Turkey’s expansion of influence on the continent.

Mogadishu, in particular, serves as a nerve centre of this influence. The Turks have constructed their most imposing embassy in the world in the city, alongside the largest and most modern hospital on the continent. In 2017, they also established their first and only military base in Africa, with 200 Turkish soldiers training 1,500 members of the national army in the fight against al-Shabaab. Furthermore, in 2020, the Albayrak Group secured a new 14-year contract to manage the port of Mogadishu (they also manage the port of Conakry in Guinea).

The Turkish presence in Mogadishu reflects their growing involvement in Somalia and underscores their ambition to play a significant role in Africa’s development. Through their extensive diplomatic, economic, and military engagement, Turkey is positioning itself as a key player on the African continent, with Mogadishu as a prime example of their expanding influence.

Erdogan’s relationship with his Libyan counterparts remains consistent; whether it was with Fayez al-Sarraj, the former prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), or now with Abdulhamid Dabaiba, Erdogan has forged privileged connections. These relationships are founded on two fundamental principles. First, Erdogan asserts that only the UN-recognised authority in Tripoli holds legitimate power, thereby excluding any engagement with Marshal Khalifa Haftar and representatives from the Tobruk-based Parliament.

Secondly, and crucially, the military agreement and the agreement on the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, signed between Tripoli and Ankara in November 2019, are regarded as immutable and inviolable by third-party nations. The delineation of maritime borders represents a vital interest for Ankara, which staunchly defends its stake in the gas-rich region, contested by neighbouring countries, such as Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Greece, and the two parts of Cyprus.

Turkey’s unwavering commitment to the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, coupled with its strategic interests in the Mediterranean, underpins Erdogan’s approach in Libya. The maritime agreements serve as a cornerstone of Ankara’s regional ambitions, solidifying its position in a geopolitically significant area.

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