30.05.2024 Author: Viktor Goncharov

On Turkish expansion in Africa Part One: Driving Motives of Turkish Policy in Africa

At the beginning of the 21st century, faced with serious delays in joining the EU, Turkey’s military and political leadership began to realise the need to fundamentally rethink its foreign policy priorities. It was within this paradigm that it began to view the African continent as a region where it could expand its presence and influence and find new partners to pursue an ambitious, independent foreign policy “without looking to the West”.

This vector of Ankara’s foreign policy became particularly clear after the Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power and based its foreign policy on the doctrine of “strategic depth” developed by Turkish politician Ahmet Davutoğlu. Its essence is that Turkey is supposedly destined to play an important role in world affairs due to its geostrategic position that allows it to project itself globally.

It should be added that after becoming head of state, the current president, inspired by the ideas of “neo-Ottomanism”, spoiled relations with all his neighbours and became disrespected in most countries of Europe and the Middle East. This was an important reason for Erdoğan to seek new partners on the African continent, where he pursued an assertive foreign policy, including one based on militant Islamism.

But an even more significant factor that made Ankara turn its attention to the Black Continent was the insistence of the “Anatolian Tigers”, Turkish export-oriented companies that played a leading role in the rise of the Turkish economy during the first decade of this century and are essentially the social base of the ruling party, to bring them to new markets for their products.

The priorities of the Turkish Foreign Ministry explicitly state that “relations with Africa are one of the key areas of foreign policy”. Ankara’s diplomatic presence on the continent has grown from 12 embassies in 2009 to 43 in 2021. It plans to increase the number to 50 in the coming years.

The importance of the Black Continent for Turkey can be illustrated by the fact that during his tenure as prime minister and then president, Erdoğan made more than 50 visits to African capitals.

One of the peculiarities of the Turkish approach to the development of foreign relations, including with African countries, is that Ankara prefers to choose as its partners the states that are in a state of deep socio-political crisis or even civil war, in which donor countries do not risk investing their capital, and which, being in a desperate situation, are forced to co-operate with it on the terms of the new Turkish “sultan”.

Ankara’s relationship with Tripoli is a clear example of this. When the pro-Islamist Government of National Accord, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, was on the verge of defeat at the end of 2019, Ankara rushed to its aid. Having signed a Memorandum of Military Cooperation with the Government of National Accord in November 2019, in January 2020 Turkey undertook a direct military intervention in Libya and subsequently achieved the establishment of two Turkish military bases on Libyan territory: the Air Force in Watiyeh and the Navy in the port of Misrata.

At the same time, as noted by The Associated Press, in exchange for military assistance Ankara put forward a condition to sign with it the Treaty on the Demarcation of Maritime Borders in the Eastern Mediterranean, under which it began to claim a huge area of the sea rich in hydrocarbons. As head of Libya’s transitional government, Sarraj realised that he had no authority to sign such documents. However, under pressure from Ankara and its proxies in the government, he had to take this step. According to a representative of the Government of National Accord, the Turks took advantage of “our desperate situation”. After the treaty was signed, Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay declared pathetically: “We are tearing up the maps of the Eastern Mediterranean, which were drawn up to isolate us on the mainland”.

But for the first time this methodology was tested in Turkey’s relations with the countries of the Horn of Africa, primarily in Somalia, a strategically important region of the world where, according to experts at the Italian Institute of International Political Studies, Ankara has been most successful in pursuing its multi-vector policy.

Having established a strong military and political presence in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, in recent years Turkey has been making active efforts to establish partnerships with the countries of the Sahara-Sahelian zone and West Africa, primarily to develop new markets for its industrial products, including military products, to gain access to the development of deposits of strategically important rare-earth elements and hydrocarbons, and in the future to create strongholds for the spread of its political and economic activities.

Recently, Turkish politicians have increasingly referred to Turkey as an “Afro-Euro-Asian country” instead of the traditional “Euro-Asian state”, ostensibly to emphasise the commonality of their historical destinies and interests. In 2020, at a meeting with Senegalese President Macky Sall, the Turkish president said, ‘We see the peoples of Africa as our brothers with whom we share a common destiny. We do not approach their painful problems from a commercial or political point of view, but from a purely human and absolutely honest point of view.

Ankara actively uses the slogan of Islamic solidarity in pursuing its political course in Muslim African countries. In addition to conducting purely religious propaganda, Ankara is actively engaged in restoring Ottoman antiquities and building mosques.

In the Horn of Africa, a large Ottoman-style Abdul Hamid II mosque was built in Djibouti in 2019, and in Somalia, the Nizami Mosque, which was recognised as the largest mosque in East Africa.

In West Africa, a large mosque was built in Bamako for the Supreme Islamic Council of Mali, the country’s most influential religious association, and another was renovated in the hometown of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Notably, in Ghana, a predominantly Christian country, the “Beştepe Millet Camii”, built in the style of Istanbul’s Ottoman mosques, was inaugurated in 2017 and recognised as the second largest in West Africa.

In the neighbouring Niger city of Agadez, the Great Mosque and the Palace of the Sultan of Aïr were also restored. This was an opportunity for the Turks, experts at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation note, to remind their partners of Turkey’s historical ties to the sultans of the region, one of whom, according to historical legends, was born in Istanbul in the 1400s.

As the Institute for Strategy and Security in Jerusalem notes, by building new mosques and restoring Muslim antiquities, Turkey is challenging Saudi Arabia and Iran, especially in countries such as Chad, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso and Burkina Faso.

One of the factors fuelling Turkish-African relations is the common desire on both sides to reform the structures of global governance of the world economy as well as the system of international relations. Many African leaders, as well as Erdoğan, have expressed the need to overhaul the Bretton Woods institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, where decisions are made by Western majorities.

By cooperating with African countries on this issue, Ankara expects, with their support, to achieve its recognition as a geopolitical player in the international arena, at least in the Middle East and Africa region. In order to achieve this goal, it constantly curtsies towards African countries in its official statements, supporting their aspirations for greater representation in various international organisations, especially the UN.

At the third Turkish-African summit in Istanbul in December 2021, the Turkish president denounced the “great injustice” of the current structure of international relations, in which 54 African countries with a population of 1.3 billion people have no place in the UN Security Council. And this thesis, along with harsh criticism of Paris’ neo-colonial policy in Africa, he constantly repeats during his numerous visits to the continent, which finds understanding in African circles.

As noted in the documents of the Turkish-African Business and Economic Forum held in Istanbul on 12-13 October 2023, Turkey, stressing its readiness for multilateral cooperation, “would like to win together, succeed together and continue to walk together with Africa”.


Viktor GONCHAROV, african expert, candidate of sciences in economics, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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