Turkey in Africa: New comers, old challenges

By Dr. Federico Donelli 


"The global growth is creating an international system in which countries in all parts of the world are no longer objects or observers but players in their own right. It is the birth of a truly global order."

With these simple words Fareed Zakaria, in his famous work "The Post-American World," succinctly summarized the process of shifting power, which has characterized the world order in the last two decades.

Among the results of this change are the nascent roles being played by middle and great emerging powers in international political economy. Politicians as well as media and public conventionally refer to them as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey).

Regardless of the different features and performances of these major emerging national economies, almost all of them are looking for natural resources and new markets so as to sustain their economic growth.

Therefore, from this globalist perspective, it is more understandable why the transformation of the global economy has generated an unprecedented demand for mineral and energy resources, making Africa a geopolitically competitive arena.

Among the newcomers or non-traditional extra-regional actors (there are also the traditional Western ones like the U.K., France, and the United States, which are historically partners of Africa), Turkey has earned a special place since 1998 with the launch of the Africa Action Plan.

However, Turkey’s recent interest in Africa is not driven only by economic material gains; rather, behind Turkish rediscovery of Africa, there is a complex set of factors: economic, geostrategic as well as humanitarian. 

Turkey rediscovery of Africa

Turkey’s agenda gained momentum in 2005 with the “Year of Africa”, which was considered a real milestone of Turkey’s first policy towards the African continent. Since then, the Turkish opening towards Africa has produced political and economic results, enriching the total trade volume and increasing Turkey’s visibility in the whole continent.

For example, all efforts promoted by Turkey led to the appointment of an observer (in 2005) and strategic partner of the African Union in 2008.

To sum up, we could divide Turkey’s opening to Africa into two distinct periods: The first stage between 2005 and 2011, commonly known as the “opening” period, which witnessed Turkey’s efforts towards breaking the ice in their reciprocal knowledge of one another. However, to be able to promote a mutual understanding with African countries, Turkey had to change its own perception -- and of course of the Turkish public -- about Africa and in particular Sub-Saharan Africa. This awareness-raising project about Africa has resulted in a consideration that the continent is not a weak and distant place but rather a place full of potential connections and opportunities.

During this period, Turkey operated in Africa like other non-western actors -- China, Brazil, India -- in the field of economic development and humanitarian aid. It has significantly increased its presence in Sub-Saharan Africa through trade agreements and bilateral projects in several different areas, such as health and agriculture. That does not mean that Turkey was completely disinterested in African political and security issues, but they just were not Turkey’s priorities.

Thus, Turkey established its presence through a number of multilateral projects, such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a program of the African Union adopted in 2001, with the aim of alleviating poverty and promoting economic growth and sustainable development, as well as joining several security operations, such as NATO’s counter-piracy actions in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa. 

Involvement in Somali crisis

The role assumed by Turkey in Somalia saw a shift of focus toward the political aspects of the problems plaguing the sub region, that is, the Horn of Africa. Indeed, since 2011 Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy has grown, and its reputation as a humanitarian state rings louder across the Sub-Saharan region. On the contrary, with its active involvement in the Somali crisis, Turkey has also assumed political responsibilities in the Horn of Africa, rather than acting merely as an economic power or a donor country. Turkey has increased its efforts to promote a new regional scenario to guarantee peace and stability, considering these two to be the most essential prerequisites for any other development.

Ankara marks its soft-power-oriented approach with interagency coordination between state institutions and civil society organizations through the implementation of humanitarian initiatives, development assistance policies, and contributions to the peace negotiations in Somalia. If Turkey's power and potential to improve normalization and the state-building process in Somalia were legitimized and welcomed by the international community, Turkey would likely gain the position of a strong and relevant actor in the region.

However, this role change has exposed Turkey to certain threats from non-state actors like Islamist militant group al-Shabab and paved the way for new potential frictions with regional actors (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Egypt) and other extra-regional actors (Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates). That is not something entirely new. Indeed, during the Cold War, the Horn of Africa emerged as one of the most highly penetrated local subsystems in the world; not only the two superpowers but Middle Eastern regional powers intervened in interstate and intrastate conflicts there. 

The greater Middle East

Nowadays, the Horn of Africa represents both a critical crossroads of global places of interest and clashes, and an body_abstract extension of the so-called “greater” Middle East. From this latter perspective, the eastern region of Africa could internalize dynamics, tensions, and rivalries like those in Middle Eastern geopolitics, which is exacerbated by the civil war in Yemen.

Therefore, there is a high risk of spillover as well as spread of sectarianism. The earliest visible example of this is the current trend of securitization that involves all the Middle Eastern countries that operate in the region. In less than a year Turkey, just like the other extra-regional competitors, has strengthened its military presence on the ground, mainly to counter Iran’s increasing leverage in the region. Even though several countries (Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti) have officially severed their ties with Iran after the turmoil in Yemen, Tehran’s political influence in the region remains substantial. That is why Saudi Arabia has signed several agreements with Djibouti and, more recently with Sudan, aimed at enhancing military cooperation as a response to Iranian activism.

However, the most powerful country is the U.A.E., which in 2016 opened a military base at Assab in Eritrea. The base includes an airbase, a deep-water port, and a facility for military training. Moreover, the Emiratis have recently signed similar deals with the semi-autonomous Somali regions of Somaliland and Puntland. Therefore, even though Turkey’s opening of three military training camps in Mogadishu is officially aimed at helping the country train a professional army and improve security in Somalia, we should also see this as a move in an environment of harsh regional competition.

To conclude, it would not be wrong to predict that in the upcoming months the Horn of Africa will play a pivotal role in Middle Eastern countries’ security interests at a time of international uncertainty and regional conflicts. How Turkey will be able to balance its strategic interests in the region through its praiseworthy humanitarian approach and despite the domestic turmoil it faced last year remains the primary challenge to figuring out what kind of role it can hold as an emerging power.

[The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow of political science and international relations at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Genova, Italy. He is currently a visiting researcher at Istanbul Sehir University’s Center for Modern Turkish Studies.]

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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