ISTANBUL — Turkey is trying to expand its political, economic and military footprint in Africa in a move that could sharpen tensions between Ankara and countries in the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Algeria, Gambia and Senegal during the last week of January, bringing the number of African countries he has visited in recent years to 28, a government tally stated.
The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has almost quadrupled since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, from 12 then to 42 today, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Trade volume between Turkey and Africa rose from approximately $4 billion to more than $23 billion during the same time.
Increasing exports to Africa could help the Turkish economy emerge from a crisis, a priority for Erdogan, who has seen the AKP’s approval ratings decline. During his visit to Algeria, Erdogan said Turkey wanted trade with Africa to grow to $50 billion.
Since 2017, Turkey has replaced former colonial power France as the top foreign investor in Algeria, with nearly 1,000 Turkish businesses in the North African country, state media said. In the first 11 months of 2019, Algerian-Turkish trade exceeded $4 billion, making Turkey the fifth-largest trade partner with Algeria after China, France, Italy and Spain, official Algerian figures stated.
Turkey is also the second-biggest investor in Ethiopia with an investment of $2.5 billion, Mekonen Hailu, director of public relations of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, told the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency.
Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsan Pekcan has said “2020 will be our Africa year.” She said Turkey planned a Turkey-Africa partnership summit in April and would be “knocking on Africa’s doors even more.” The Turkish flag carrier Turkish Airlines flies to dozens of African destinations.
Turkey’s Africa policies include a “soft power” component. Erdogan’s wife, Emine, opened Turkish-built schools and a mosque in Gambia during her husband’s state visit there.
Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York, said the latest Erdogan visit combined short- and long-term aims.
“There are clearly short-term political benefits to Erdogan’s trips abroad. They highlight his leadership in giving Turkey a larger role on the world stage and in building Turkey’s overseas economic relations,” Eissenstat said via e-mail
“But, in fairness, political considerations at home notwithstanding, Turkey, under the AKP, really has engaged in a serious long-term strategy to build ties with Africa. At its core, I think Erdogan’s trip is aimed at maintaining and building on that success.”
Turkey’s efforts to acquire a bigger role in Africa started in 2005 and have been supported by military deployments. Long before Erdogan decided to send military personnel in support of the internationally recognised government in Libya in recent weeks, Ankara sent soldiers to a base in Mogadishu in 2017 to train Somali forces. A deal between Turkey and Sudan for the reconstruction of historical buildings on the island of Suakin in the Red Sea sparked speculation, denied by Ankara, that Turkey wanted to build a naval base there.
Following a controversial maritime agreement with Libya last November, which triggered protests by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, Erdogan said in January that Somalia had invited Turkey to explore for oil in its offshore territory.
Turkey has been a major source of aid to Somalia following a famine nine years ago as Ankara seeks to increase its influence in the Horn of Africa to counter Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, Erdogan became the first non-African leader to visit Mogadishu in two decades. Turkish engineers are helping build roads in Somalia and Turkish companies run Mogadishu’s airports and seaports
Ankara’s efforts may pay off now. Speaking on his return flight from a Libya summit in Berlin on January 19, Erdogan said Turkey would take steps in line with the Somali invitation for oil exploration.
“There is an offer from Somalia. They are saying: ‘There is oil in our seas. You are carrying out these operations with Libya but you can also do them here.’ This is very important for us,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by news broadcaster NTV. “Therefore, there will be steps that we will take in our operations there.”
However, not every government in Africa is happy about Turkey’s advances. Algeria, as Tunisia before it, refused to support Turkey’s stance in the Libyan conflict, while Egypt, whose relations with Ankara have soured since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Muhammad Morsi in 2013, is wary of Turkish initiatives.
Zach Vertin, a visiting fellow of the Brookings Doha Centre, said not all Turkey’s steps in Africa have come as part of a grand strategy.
“While officials in Ankara report that they have come to appreciate the soft-power value of their investments in Somalia, Turkey’s presence was not envisioned as a long-term strategic project at the outset,” Vertin wrote in an analysis last year.
“Its gradual assumption of a prominent role has been more learning experience than calculated power play, one accompanied by domestic debate about how its posture is perceived — not only in Somalia but across the continent.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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