Turkey and Africa's deepening ties in a multipolar world
At the nexus point between Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Istanbul often has distinguished guests pass through.
Earlier in October, Germany's outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel was treated to splendid views of the Bosporus as she worked with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to address bilateral issues.
But last week the city played host to a pantheon of African dignitaries for the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum at the dazzling Istanbul Congress Centre in the city’s Sisli neighbourhood.
Invited to the conference were senior diplomats, businessmen, bankers, journalists and significantly a coterie of African ministers of trade, commerce, industry, and finance, but also President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in his capacity as African Union chair and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Mahamat. “It’s like a Champions League,” one Turkish businessman joked outside the centre.
"Erdogan has beaten a path to African capitals, having visited 30 countries across Africa on 46 occasions, equalling the next two European heads of state combined"
Businesspeople clad in sharp suits, colourfully embroidered agbadas, and dashikis inquiringly loitered outside the reception halls, seeking potential clients, frequently exchanging business cards and brochures with everything from medical equipment to logistics machines for warehouses.
High-level government officials were ferried back and forth, escorted diligently by teams of Turkish assistants and security details.
The third of its kind, the forum aims to connect movers and shakers across the continent with their Turkish counterparts to further develop “our economic, commercial and business partnerships”.
Though Tshisekedi and Mahamat were the highest-profile AU officials present, the Congress Centre’s sleek modern reception halls, and scarlet theatres also hosted the secretariat of those responsible for developing the African Continental Free Trade Area, Wamkele Mene and the interim President of the African Business Council, Amany Asfour.
The forum took place just a day after a Turkish delegation led by President Erdogan returned from a four-day diplomatic tour to three African countries. The combination of these efforts underlines the importance Turkey places on its relations with its African partners.
But as the guest list at the conference also makes clear, many African countries and business people are keen to explore new avenues through which they can enhance cooperation with their Turkish counterparts.
Turkey's increased focus on Africa
Most narratives of Turkey’s engagement with the continent begin with then prime minister Erdogan’s declaration that 2005 would be the “Year of Africa”, however, the groundwork for future engagement had already been laid.
In 1998, foreign minister Ismail Cem developed the Action Plan for Africa, part of a wider agenda by the late FM to design a multi-dimensional foreign policy for Turkey. But it was Erdogan’s government that sharpened Cem’s vision, and energetically implemented it after 2003, marking a significant shift in Turkish diplomacy. Since then, the stats speak for themselves.
Turkey had barely any embassies on the African continent in the early 2000s, but that number has increased from 12 to 43, with Togo being the most recent addition. Since 2003, trade volumes between Turkey and Africa have increased fivefold from $5bn to $25bn - in sub-Saharan Africa the increase was tenfold in 2020 - with a target being set to double that figure at the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum.
"Turkey had barely any embassies on the African continent in the early 2000s, but that number has increased from 12 to 43. Since 2003, trade volumes between Turkey and Africa have increased fivefold from $5bn to $25bn"
Erdogan has beaten a path to African capitals, having visited 30 countries across Africa on 46 occasions, equalling the next two European heads of state combined. This diplomatic activism earned Turkey observer status at the African Union in 2005, and three years later it was declared a strategic partner.
Turkish Airlines, the country’s flagship carrier, now even boasts more destinations in Africa than Asia, increasing from four across North Africa in 2004, to 61 this year. “To be able to fly almost anywhere in Africa makes business that bit easier for us and our partners,” Bedri Kucukahmet, the director of a construction firm active in the Ivory Coast who attended the conference, tells The New Arab.
“We don’t have to travel to third countries, and now that we often get to meet our business colleagues, we don’t lose time identifying markets, supply gaps and new opportunities to grow.”
Whilst Turkey’s policies of engaging the continent have supported these emerging business synergies, the impressive numbers don’t reveal much about Ankara’s strategy, or how its presence is felt across the continent.
As outlined in an article in 2017 by presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey wants to approach its African partners with a “multi-levelled approach”, but importantly within a context of a “multi-polar world.”
East Africa, arguably one of Africa’s regions most exposed to Turkish influence, exemplifies the multi-dimensional extent of Ankara’s outreach. “They’re very active,” a member of Djibouti’s chamber of commerce told The New Arab at the conference.
Djibouti’s Abdulhamid Han II Mosque is the country’s largest and was built following a request by Djibouti’s president during a visit by Erdogan. It isn’t the country’s only major Turkish infrastructural project. A Turkish state agency financed and completed the Ambouli Friendship Dam, with multiple TIKA programs operating across the country.
Already adept and leveraging its relations with extra-continental powers, Djibouti’s ambassador to Turkey described Ankara as a “strategic partner”.
"Turkey can offer its own experience. Different from that of Western countries and other emerging players"
Ethiopia’s relationship with Turkey has also significantly grown, as both countries have seen a deterioration of ties with traditional Western allies. Like Djibouti, aid and infrastructure projects have been an important means for Ankara to gain a foothold, but Ethiopia is also Turkey’s most important FDI destination on the continent.
Those ties were recently further upgraded with Turkey changing from a trade and investment partner for Ethiopia to a security one, with reports emerging of the sale of Turkish drones.
This has built up trust between Ankara and Addis Ababa, with Ethiopia seeking Turkey's mediation in its border dispute with Sudan, an offer Khartoum has also said it would be willing to accept.
Somalia however is probably the clearest example of Turkish engagement showing the way it can change gears and demonstrate its efficacy in Africa, where successive Somali leaders recognise the potential of opting for Ankara as opposed to China or a Western country.
Abdinor Dahir, an independent researcher, previously told The New Arab that Turkish assistance to Somalia began with a humanitarian focus, but as trust developed the “relationship became more comprehensive and expanded into development assistance and state-building”.
This now includes everything from construction projects - lucrative contracts - to upgrading and managing critical infrastructure, and over the last few years Turkey has also taken an important role in training Somalia’s military.
Humanitarian diplomacy is a critical part of Turkey’s arsenal when reaching out to African countries to develop trust-based ties, says Federico Donelli, author of the book ‘Turkey in Africa’, but “infrastructure agreements and trade contracts are the goal”. As Africa becomes an arena of increased competition, says Donelli, many development models will be on offer.
In this regard, Turkey differentiates itself in Africa from other powers in that it combines the security assistance and aid provided by Africa’s traditional European partners, with an eagerness to deepen trade ties and improve infrastructure, like China. “Turkey can offer its own experience. Different from that of Western countries and other emerging players,” Donelli tells The New Arab.
Libya has similarly been an important target of Turkish aid, business interests, and security cooperation, where Turkey stepped in to stop Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli in 2019.
Rwanda, which hosts the Turkish built, largest indoor arena in east Africa, is also reportedly eyeing Turkey’s drones, with Kenya seeking out Turkish armoured vehicles. Morocco was also an unlikely purchaser of Turkish drones, with a batch arriving in early September.
Though Turkey has played it safe in east Africa, not challenging the region’s hegemons, in North Africa it has been tenacious where needed and in parts of West Africa it has been occasionally confrontational, directly confronting French interests.
"African countries are now trying to share their eggs among several baskets because Western countries tend to place conditions on aid which African countries need, so many are increasingly turning east instead"
But as Erdogan’s recent tour across south and west Africa also demonstrates, Ankara has also adeptly identified important countries seeking out new partners which it can work with to break into new key sectors and markets across the continent.
Angola and Nigeria for example have made their interest in obtaining Turkey’s drones clear during Erdogan’s recent trip, to which he said Turkey will share “opportunities and capabilities'' in the security sector. They also set ambitious trade targets as well as the prospect of cooperation in the energy sectors of the oil and gas-rich African states.
Africa's search for new partners
On the first stop of his recent Africa tour, President Erdogan addressed Angola’s parliament, where he said “the fate of humanity cannot and should not be left to the mercy of a handful of countries that were the victors of the Second World War.”
This wasn’t just a characteristic shot at what Erdogan has long described as archaic political structures presided over by a handful of global powers, but was an important message which resonated with African publics and also African leaders.
Earlier this month, Algeria recalled its ambassador from France following what it considered “irresponsible” remarks about Algeria’s political system. Mali also had a diplomatic spat with its former colonial power France, after Macron questioned the legitimacy of the country’s post-coup government, prompting Mali to request restraint from Paris against making “derogatory remarks.”
Ethiopia has similarly fallen out with its Western partners after harsh condemnations of Ethiopia’s war in its Tigray region which has precipitated a humanitarian disaster.
“Anti-Western sentiment is on the rise in Africa, and especially against France,” Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian geopolitical risk firm, tells The New Arab.
The challenges aren’t just on the political level, however. A survey of Africa’s thought leaders, politicians, and business people registered a year on year decline in African attitudes towards France since 2019, with Turkey, the UAE and Qatar among those gaining ground.
Whilst Macron has previously accused Erdogan of contributing to anti-French “post-colonial resentment”, the ties developing between African countries and non-traditional partners are as much a story of African agency as it is Turkish initiative, says Nwanze, as African countries also attempt to leverage a multipolar world to their advantage.
"Turkey appears as a new kid on the block, especially in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and African countries need to hedge against any other relationships souring"
“African countries are now trying to share their eggs among several baskets because Western countries tend to place conditions on aid which African countries need, so many are increasingly turning east instead.”
A recent example that caused alarm in Paris and Washington DC was Mali’s decision to seek out the support of Russian mercenary group Wagner, after which it boldly went ahead to pursue talks with the jihadists it had spent almost a decade fighting with French support.
Whilst China and Russia have had a longer presence on the continent, giving African countries new options, Turkey has emerged as a key destination of choice for many African leaders following disenfranchisement in some cases with European powers or America, and in others with a need to balance against their influence.
This summer alone Turkey has hosted five African heads of state from some of Africa’s most influential countries, and the chairman of the AU commission. “Turkey appears as a new kid on the block, especially in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa,” says Nwanze, “and African countries need to hedge against any other relationships souring.”
This is where the interests of some African countries may find important common ground with Turkey. Though the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum generated a lot of energy, the main event will be later this year at the Turkey-Africa Summit in December which the recent tour “prepared the ground for”, says Donelli.
This next summit is not only likely to enhance Turkey’s security cooperation with African counterparts but is also “likely to mark a greater and shared commitment to reform of global governance”.
Faisal Ali is an Istanbul based multimedia journalist. He writes about East African politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @fromadic92