Turkey has been working relentlessly to expand its influence in Africa, aiming to boost its strategy to emerge as a global actor in the region. At the same time, the Turkish government has endeavoured to strengthen relations with countries that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
Since 2015, Erdogan has visited Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Sudan, Chad and Tunisia. Since first becoming Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan has visited a total of 23 African countries 39 times.
Turkey’s policy choice of engaging with Africa has resulted in a three-fold increase of its bilateral trade volume with the continent since 2003, reaching a value of $18.8 billion in 2017. Trade volume with Sub-Saharan Africa stood at $6 billion in 2015 and total Turkish investment in Africa is estimated to have surpassed $6 billion.
Currently, Ankara has diplomatic representation in 41 countries on the continent, an increase of 12 missions since 2009, while state-controlled Turkish Airlines now flies to 51 destinations in 33 African countries.
“Africa has natural resources that Turkey needs for its manufacturing and industrial sectors, including oil and gas, and Africa needs income, infrastructure and jobs,” said Dr J. Peter Pham, vice president for research and regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Centre.
Referring to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report released in January, Dr Pham said that Turkish investment and business opportunities presented by six African countries ranked among the ten fastest growing economies in the world: Ghana, number one in the world and in Africa, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Senegal and Tanzania.
According to the World Bank’s figures, African economies are expected to grow by about 3.2% in 2018 and 3.5% in 2019. Considering that this number also includes a number of resource-rich countries, which have been depressed by commodity prices, the median growth rate of non-commodity rich African countries is much higher.
“Turkey has a long history with North African countries,” says David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. In 2016, Turkey had more than $10 billion in trade with Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.
Now Turkey is expanding into African countries below the Sahara Desert. A Turkish company is building a multi-billion dollar railroad across Ethiopia and Tanzania. The state-owned Turkish Airlines flies to more than 50 African cities.
Most of Turkey’s ties to Africa are about business, says Shinn, who believes Turkey wants to invest in private African companies and expand its exports. However, a report by the International Crisis Group showed that there is more for Turkey in Africa than just business.
Turkey is the latest country to intervene in Somalia and its involvement has produced some positive results. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s courageous visit to Mogadishu in August 2011 at the height of the famine and his decision to open an embassy gave fresh impetus to efforts to establish lasting peace.
Turkey’s presence on the ground is relatively small, but because of its timely famine relief and the apparent strength of its commitment, as well as the gratitude of Somalis, its contribution is seen as colossal.
In addition to its embassy, there are about a dozen governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with a limited presence on the ground working in Mogadishu. But the Somalis’ dream of a quick and comprehensive recovery has created great expectations in the regions that are not receiving Turkish assistance, particularly because of their highly visible activities in Mogadishu.
Vocal Somali criticism of the two conferences (civil society and government) held in Istanbul from late May to early June 2012 serve as an important reminder about the volatility of and multiple fault lines in Somali politics, according to the report.
Turkey has opened its largest, and so far only, military base in Somalia. Yet there is more to it than just protecting the Somalis.
Dr Ayman Shabana, African affairs expert at the Future Centre for Advanced Research and Studies, says that there are more reasons for the Turkish base in Somalia than what Ankara has announced.
Ankara’s quest to establish a military base in Somalia reveals new tools in Turkish foreign policy towards Africa: the use of hard power elements, after managing to achieve several breakthroughs in Africa by using the elements of soft power. “This raises questions about the reasons and the timing of this shift and its possible replication in other African countries,” Shabana said.
Turkey says that the establishment of its military base in Somalia, with the training of more than 10,500 Somali soldiers by 200 Turkish military instructors, aims at restoring security and combating terrorism, adding that these complement its efforts to bring peace to Somalia.
Shabana stressed that the real purpose of establishing this base goes far beyond this, for four main reasons.
First, Turkey is keen to protect its economic interests in Africa in light of the following: Turkish-African trade amounted to $20 billion in 2015 and it is planned to reach $50 billion by the year 2023. In addition its direct investments in Africa stood at $ 6 billion by the end of 2014, including $100 million in Somalia.
Second, expanding the Turkish military influence in the Horn of Africa and conducting joint military exercises with armies in the region. Ankara has already signed security agreements with Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda to train their security forces in combating terrorism.
Third, opening new markets for Turkish military industries, which have witnessed significant development in recent years.
The fourth reason is to balance Iran's influence in the Horn of Africa, one of the strategic areas in which Tehran seeks to find a foothold, especially after the repercussions of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on Iran's regional influence in the Middle East
Turkey’s presence in Somalia goes back to the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey built small communities along the Somali coast. However, its recent interest is linked to politics as well as economics.
Mehmet Ozkan, Professor of International Relations and Turkish affairs expert, said that Turkish foreign policy in Africa is initiated via humanitarian and aid interventions for the purposes of reconstruction, and is followed and accompanied by economically driven activities including the building of infrastructure, creation of food security, healthcare, development of human capital and finally developing a credible local governance system.
“This would typically be followed by a higher level of political intervention attempting to subtly influence policy and decision-making in the recently reconstructed countries and regions,” said Ozkan.
Diplomatic relations together with trade/economic relations compose the main pillar of Turkey’s soft power strategy. However, this is strengthened by cultural influence and state aid programmes. Turkish official institutions have become belated actors in these areas due to the early success and wide penetration of mostly religious Turkish civil society organisations (CSOs).
However, as relations with certain CSOs were becoming strained domestically, this resulted in a proliferation of official programmes where they adopted a central position within cultural/aid policies in Africa. In this respect, the Turkish Development Agency (TIKA) has turned into the most important actor.
On the one hand, Turkey’s involvement in Somalia and Djibouti has proved its long-term commitment to the continent but at the same time its engagement has increased questions on the transformation of Turkey’s soft power.
In retrospect, Ankara’s Africa policy and the positive response it received from African countries went beyond the imagination of many. Until the 2010s, many African countries believed Turkey’s sudden interest in African affairs to be primarily trade/ economically motivated, thus they largely concentrated on the short-term benefits at the expense of the Turkish government’s long-term contributions.
Before the Somali experience and the opening of military bases, Turkey behaved in the region as an economic actor much like India, Brazil and China. Now, Turkey is trying to openly manoeuvre into areas and, through use of its power, discern whether it can generate a political role in Africa similar to that of the USA, France or the UK.