Turkey moving to become a major player in Africa
When, in 2005, he first set foot on African soil, on a tour of Ethiopia, South Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had two goals: to take his country out of its almost exclusive relationship with the West and to open up previously untapped areas to Turkish trade.
The Turkish government had made a first attempt to improve ties with Africa back in 1998. Liberal foreign minister Ismail Cem drew up an “action pact for Africa”, but it was never implemented because of the serious economic crisis in Turkey. The coming to power of Erdogan’s Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi and the rise of the pious and dynamic Anatolian bourgeoisie in business changed the scene. In the wake of Turkish Airlines – which now serves 60 African cities – and giant conglomerates that have set out to win business on the continent, small Turkish companies are also seeking opportunities.
Fifteen years after Erdogan’s first visit, Turkey is now a big player. The government is a “strategic partner” of the African Union and a non-regional member of the African Development Bank. Its trade with Africa has grown from $3bn in the early 2000s to more than $26bn in 2019.
There are many Turkey-Africa business forums; the most recent took place by video–conference on 8-9 October 2020. Turkey’s major business lobbies, Tüsiad and Müsiad, and the Deik (council for economic relations with foreign countries) are active on the continent. They are supported by TIKA, the Turkish development agency, which has 22 offices in Africa and finances projects in the construction, agriculture and health sectors. It also renovates buildings from the Ottoman period, such as the Ketchaoua mosque in Algiers.
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This is part of Ankara’s soft power, which is not limited to the Turkish drama series that are all the rage in North Africa. Construction of hospitals, such as the one in Mogadishu, free medical operations and the donation of a fleet of buses in Conakry – the list of gestures of generosity from the state, NGOs or private companies is long. In addition, there is the work of the seven Yunus Emre cultural centres and the Maarif educational foundation, present in 31 African countries.
Political ties are also well-established. Like Russia and China, Turkey generally tries to avoid telling other countries what to do. In resolving crises, such as the one in Mali, it advocates the use of ‘African solutions’, or, failing that, those from the United Nations. It is also lobbying for a better representation of the continent in international institutions.
Regarding other actors in Africa, the Turkish government’s discourse is sometimes less smooth. Erdogan is often quick to castigate France’s colonial past, the world’s indifference to the ills that afflict the continent or the base mercantile interests of its competitors, to whom he opposes a “win-win”, egalitarian and fraternal relationship.
While defending Ankara’s political interests – such as its intervention in Libya – Erdogan has encouraged foreign affairs minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu and his administration to acquire African expertise. Among their objectives: the organisation of a third Turkey-Africa summit and the opening of an embassy in each country of the continent. There are now 42, and soon 44 with Togo and Guinea-Bissau.
Erdogan has developed friendly relationships with several leaders, such as Guinea’s Alpha Condé, Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou. His affinities with Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj led to the signing of an agreement on the Turkish-Libyan maritime border in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan’s good ties with Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and the fact that he was the first foreign head of state to visit war-torn Somalia enabled Ankara to open a military base in Mogadishu, where 200 Turkish soldiers are training the national army.
This article is available as part of the print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Africa in 2021 – Who will be the winners and losers of the post-Covid era?’