Turkey’s coordinated foreign policy to win friends in Africa can be traced back, in recent times, to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s op-ed published in Aljazeera in 2016. The piece preceded his historic visits to Uganda, Kenya and Somalia that same year.
In the article, he outlined his worldview about Africa which was markedly different from Western narratives.
The Turkish president wrote: “Many people in the world associate the African continent with extreme poverty, violent conflict and a general state of hopelessness. The people of Turkey have a different view. We believe that Africa deserves better.”
The last two decades have seen some superpowers make moves to either curry favor with African leaders or make new friends. America and Europe’s influence in Africa have dipped over the years while Chinese influence continues to spread across the continent of some 1.2 billion people.
Russia is in the wings seeking to bolster its presence in at least 13 countries across Africa through striking military deals and other commercial contracts.
Turkish presence in Africa dates back to the Ottoman Empire where relations were mostly limited to North Africa and some parts of the Horn of Africa. The Ottomans also developed relations with other African states on diplomatic, economic and military levels. They established relations with the Kingdom of Timbuktu, present-day Mali and Kanem Empire, which can be traced to present today Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria and North Cameroon.
At its peak, the Ottoman Empire was one of the biggest military and economic powers in the world, controlling an area that included not just its base in Asia Minor but also much of southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, according to History.com. The decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire resulted in present-day Turkey losing its influence in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Africa.
Now, Turkey has set out to make friends in Africa as part of what some say is a neo-Ottoman agenda. It may be a little too late but Ankara is making some giant strives that cannot be glossed over. What is motivating Turkey’s adventure in Africa is mixed: economic, military and socio-cultural.
It all began when Ankara declared 2005 as the “Year of Africa” with a strong desire to help restore order in conflict-riddled countries such as Somalia and export its model of development to Africa. It obtained observer status in the Africa Union and three years later, organized the first Turkey-Africa summit with over 40 African leaders in attendance.
But it was Turkey’s entry into Somalia that drew the world’s attention to its activities in Africa. At the time, Somalia was unstable, a semi-failed state and there was widespread famine. Turkey’s move in Somalia started as a humanitarian move and later grew into a more comprehensive policy.
It opened schools, initiated developments, delivered aid funding, and also opened a military base to train Somali soldiers. Turkey’s move in Somalia is also underwritten by Islamic solidarity where Ankara wants to position itself as the ‘big brother’ in the Muslim world.
Sudan, a Muslim majority nation in northeast Africa, is another attractive country for Turkey, partly because of its Ottoman ties. Erdogan visited Khartoum in 2017 where some deals were signed with then Sudanese strongman, Omar al-Bashir.
Turkey, as part of the deal, committed to rebuilding a ruined Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (Suakin Island). Suakin was one time a launching point for African pilgrims travelling to Mecca. The bilateral trade worth $650 million also included Turkey constructing a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.
In Libya, Turkey has deployed hundreds of troops to ensure stability for the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. It interests in Libya is also pinned to its maritime agenda in the Eastern Mediterranean where its deep-sea operation has drawn an uproar from the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus and the Greek side.
Besides renewing and making new friends through economic and military deals, Turkey has also been using ‘schools and mosque diplomacy’ to win friends in Africa. For instance, the Turkish government built the largest mosque complex in Accra, Ghana on a 40-acre land in the capital of the country.
In Djibouti, a small nation in the Horn of Africa that hosts both Chinese and American military bases, Turkey opened the largest mosque in that country. A total of 6,000 people can perform prayers at the same time at the Ottoman-style mosque built on a 13,000 square-meter (140,000 sq feet) area.
Furthermore, Ankara also helped to renovate the Mosque of Islamic Solidarity in Mogadishu, Somalia. It is the largest mosque in the Horn of Africa, with room for up to 10,000 believers. Turkey has also financed the construction of mosques in other African countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.
Turkey’s involvement in the construction of mosques overseas is supervised by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet, as the authorities call it). It was founded in 1924, but grown to become a more overtly political organ with an ambitious global remit.
As a sign of its growing influence in Africa, Turkey has seen its embassies rise from 12 to 42 in the last 15 years. Meanwhile, trade volumes between Turkey and Africa countries have increased fourfold over the past 18 years, according to the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEİK).
The end goal for Turkey is to extend its influence beyond the circles of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), where it is the second-largest troops contributor. For years, Turkey has been knocking on the doors of the European Union to be made a member but to no avail. It has subsequently fallen out with its NATO and European allies.
To spite the West, Ankara has drawn closer to Moscow and recently purchased Russia’s air defence system. But making friends with Russia alone is not enough for its survival considering it ambition to dominate global world politics.
Therefore, closer ties with Africa does two things for Turkey: it opens up Africa’s market for Turkish businesses and counter’s any attempt by Europe and America to isolate it due to its recent adventurism in the Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and the acquisition of Russian hardware.