What is the presence of Turkey in Africa ? President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday began a new visit to the African continent, which has become a major axis of Turkish influence strategy for the past twenty years. Above all cultural and economic, the Ankara offensive is now taking a security and strategic turn.
Not a year goes by without him going to Africa. Recep Tayyip Erdogan will complete, Thursday, October 21, a tour of Angola, Nigeria and Togo, two months before the third Turkey-Africa summit to be held in Istanbul in December.
At the end of this tour, the Turkish president will have visited 30 African countries since coming to power, a sign of all-out activism on the continent.
Little commented on in the media, monopolized by Russian and Chinese ambitions in Africa, the success of the Turkish influence strategy is, however, a new variable to be taken into account in regional balances.
Turkey’s interest in Africa dates back to the 2000s. While the doors of the European Union are closing, the country is looking for new outlets and begins a proactive policy, first in East Africa, in Ethiopia and in Somalia in particular, before focusing on the west of the continent.
“There is this desire to play an original card”, sums up Jean Marcou, professor at Sciences Po, associate researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IEFA) in Istanbul, joined by France 24 “It is a strategy global which aims to appear as an emerging country, less threatening than China, but which at the same time stands out from the former colonial powers with a neo Third Worldist discourse quite popular in Africa “.
In ten years or so, relations between Turkey and African countries have progressed dramatically. The number of Turkish embassies has more than tripled. With 43 representations, Ankara now has one of the densest diplomatic networks on the continent.
Closely interwoven with the interests of Turkish diplomacy, the development of economic relations is one of the most striking aspects of the dynamics at work for two decades. Since 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister, the volume of trade between Turkey and Africa has increased fivefold, from 5 to 25 billion dollars, recalls RFI.
Agro-food power, the world’s leading flour producer, Turkey has become an essential trading partner in countries where food security remains a major issue.
This African anchoring was notably based on the multiplication of air links operated by the company Turkish Airlines between Istanbul, the economic capital, with almost all the major African cities.
Turkey and Africa : Drones and weaponry
The Turkish president’s tour in Africa should once again focus on the economy with a series of agreements expected in the field of hydrocarbons in Nigeria or agriculture and industry in Togo. But defense issues will also be on the menu.
For Ankara, the instability and the terrorist threat hanging over the Sahel countries constitute an opportunity to forge strategic partnerships. A large delegation from the agency that heads the Turkish military industry is also on the trip.
“Turkey produces a lot of military equipment: frigates, armored equipment, missiles, but its great success is undoubtedly the drones which have proven their worth in the field”, explains Jean Marcou.
Reliable and inexpensive, the TB2 attack drone has indeed demonstrated its effectiveness on four fronts in recent years. In Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in Libya to stop Marshal Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, in Syria against the troops of Bashar al-Assad or in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
True national pride, Ankara wants to make it a new vector of its power in Africa. Twenty times cheaper than a fighter plane, it does not require heavy infrastructure and can prove extremely useful for countries in conflict with their neighbors or facing rebellions.
Ethiopia, Morocco and Tunisia have already expressed interest in purchasing Turkish drones.
Beyond the issue of arms sales, Turkey is also present militarily in Africa with the largest base located outside its borders, in Somalia. The country also signed a controversial security agreement with Niger in 2020, the contents of which have been kept secret. It would include sending Turkish soldiers to Niger to train and support Nigerian forces in their fight against the terrorist organization Boko Haram.
With the reconfiguration of the Barkhane mission in the Sahel, some diplomats are worried about seeing Turkey infiltrate the voids left by the French army and militarily support the countries of the region.
Turkish influence has recently shone in Mali. In August 2020, after the coup d’état that deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the Turkish Foreign Minister was the first senior foreign official to meet with the coup leaders.
“Without overestimating what Ankara can do, the countries very invested in Africa, like France, keep an eye on Turkey, analyzes Jean Marcou. In the redefinition of international balances, the country can play the spoilsport and complicate a little the more gives it “.
For the moment, it is mainly through targeted investments that Ankara seeks to extend its sphere of influence in the Sahel. To conquer minds and hearts, the country relies in particular on a clever “soft power”, playing on religious affinities in countries with a strong Muslim tradition.
Thus, the powerful Diyanet, the Turkish administration of religious affairs, spearheading this policy, has been developing charitable works for several years and funding the establishment of mosques. The latest is a replica of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, a masterpiece of Ottoman art, inaugurated in July in Accra, Ghana. It is the second largest mosque in West Africa.
However, facing China or the European Union, Turkey is far from being a leading player in the economic development of the Sahel, recalls the International Crisis group in a note published at the end of July. “While the European Union and its member states have injected more than $ 8 billion into the central Sahel since 2014, for development cooperation alone, data from Tika (Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency) indicates that Turkey spent just $ 61 million between 2014 and 2019 on development assistance. “
A rising power, Turkey continues to advance its pawns in Africa despite the difficulties. Main setback of his diplomacy in recent years: the closure of Gülen schools, named after Fethullah Gülen, the preacher accused of being behind the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016.
Most of these schools, which played an essential role in the training of African elites, had to cease their educational activity under pressure from Ankara. Since then, Turkey has sought to regain control of this presence through a religious foundation, the Maarif Foundation, present in 31 African countries.