In the last decade, the recent rise in terrorism in Africa (such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab terrorist organizations in Niger and Somalia), the consequences of the Arab Spring on the continent, and intra-African conflicts have all led to an increase in defense spending and weapon acquisitions by African countries. The Ethiopia and the Tigray War, the rising tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia arising from the dam problem, and uprisings in Sudan are some of these internal conflicts. For these reasons, African nations have resorted to armaments in the last years. The total defense spending of African states increased as a result, rising from around USD 19 billion in 2000 to USD 45 billion in 2014. The overall amount spent on the military in 2021 was not far from USD 60 billion. The rate of increase in military spending is noticeably higher in conflict zones (i.e. Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, and Somalia). Algeria is the leading spender on defense in Africa, spending close to 7% of its GDP on the military, which is the highest percentage on the continent. These substantial investments served the dual purposes of increasing Algeria’s security and strengthening the People’s National Armed Forces, the country’s primary armed force. As a result of its significant public spending, Algeria possesses the second-most powerful army in Africa, behind Egypt. Despite recent increases in total military spending on the continent, Africa even still accounts for roughly 2% of global military spending.
On the other hand, although Russia is the largest arms supplier to the African countries, it is no secret that Türkiye, which has made significant recent investments in its defense industry, is looking for new markets in Africa for selling its drones which has become very popular in recent years. In order to expand the markets available to Erdogan’s defense conglomerates, Türkiye has so far signed bilateral agreements with Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire. These agreements call for cooperation in industrial production, the acquisition and maintenance of military and defense equipment, as well as technical and logistical support, information sharing, and field research. Indeed, recent crises in other parts of the world, such as the war in Ukraine and the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, have tested and grown the Turkish military products. Particularly Selçuk Bayraktar, a son-in-law of Türkiye’s president, Erdogan, is heavily involved in the production of the aforementioned drones (he is the chief technology officer of the Baykar Company and the inventor of the first Turkish drone). In this context, Erdogan’s strategy now places a significant emphasis on security and the military links with Africa, giving the relationship between Türkiye and African countries a new dimension. Increased defense industry cooperation and the growth of Turkish UAV and SİHA (Turkish Drones) sales to the continent demonstrate that Türkiye now plays a role in the continent other than providing humanitarian aid. These changes transcend military accords and collaboration. Certainly, this trend has been fueled by the efficiency of Turkish Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the Turkish government’s political and economic need to resurrect its projection into the continent.
Although the majority of the attention from the outside world is focused on Türkiye’s UAVs, its defensive capabilities go far beyond drones. Africa receives a variety of supplies from the Turkish defense industry, including infantry weapons, naval equipment, helicopters, and armored vehicles. While economic ties with Africa have improved, the sale of Turkish drones has also benefited Türkiye’s economy, which is undergoing high inflation and fluctuation, to find a good market. But, the sales of drones also further the political goals of the Turkish government. As instance, Ethiopian authorities wanted to buy Turkish TB2 aircraft because they are enduring the effects of the civil conflict in Tigray. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared his intention to purchase drones when traveling to Türkiye in 2021. Following protracted negotiations, President Erdogan authorized the sale of combat drones to Ethiopia during the visit, but he demanded in return that, in addition to the financial gain from the sale, 10 schools connected to the Gülen movement have to be closed and their management subsequently transferred to the governmental organization, Maarif Foundation. This agreement was approved by Ethiopia. Ethiopia is not the only country in Africa where Turkish UAVs find a sizable market. In Africa, countries like Morocco, Angola, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, and those in the Sahel region that face threats from terrorist groups, particularly Mali, have all expressed a strong desire to acquire Turkish drones.
Why Turkish drones are attractive for Africa?
The fact that Turkish arms can be purchased at a lower price than those of the other countries, and that deliveries are quicker because Turkish diplomatic procedures are faster and easier, is one of the main factors contributing to Türkiye’s rising position as a credible alternative to traditional arms exporters such as Russia, China, France, and the United States on the African continent. Yet, Erdogan’s Türkiye’s reputation and relations with other countries in the area started to suffer as a result of the drone sales. For instance, if Turkish drones sold to Morocco are used in the Western Sahara, there may be problems in the relations between Algeria and Türkiye. On the other side, it was revealed that following the sale of drones to Ethiopia, threats were made against Türkiye’s embassy in Ethiopia. In addition, a security evaluation prompted the Turkish embassy in Addis Ababa to relocate its operations to neighboring Kenya. Targets included Türkiye, whose drone sales to Ethiopia were believed to have changed the course of the civil war in Tigray. Yet, Türkiye, a NATO member, has also received warnings from its western allies against unrestricted arms sales.
The development of Türkiye’s relations with African countries, its achievements in trade and diplomacy, and the establishment of its institutions on the continent through soft power, notably in the first decade of the 2000s, may be overshadowed by arms sales. Türkiye’s win-win approach of opening up to Africa with humanitarian aid may damage its reputation in the eyes of African governments and people through weapons and arms sales, which are elements of hard power. Erdogan’s aggressive strategy appears to be dismantling Türkiye’s long-term political, economic, and cultural gains in Africa. In truth, Erdogan had long claimed that, in contrast to the Westerners, his approach to the continent was far from colonialism. It should be remembered that unchecked arms sales may result in security issues in the continent and indirectly encourage conflicts, which may have international consequences. It is debatable if this is a new offense added to those the Erdogan regime has already committed.
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