For the past two decades, in search of new spaces of influence, Ankara has invested heavily in Africa, both economically and diplomatically, but also militarily. Türkiye’s African policy is the preserve of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has made 38 trips to 28 African countries to date. We note that three main institutions at the state level demonstrate Turkish settlement on the African continent during AKP; these are the TİKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), the Maarif Foundation and the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs).
TİKA, the main aid and technical support institution of Türkiye, carries out projects in many areas such as education, health and agriculture around the world and Africa, where it has 22 offices. According to the latest data, the total official development assistance provided to African countries is close to USD 3 billion, with nearly 400 humanitarian and technical cooperation projects carried out on the continent over the past 10 years. In particular, the intervention of Turkish authorities in the drought experienced in Somalia in 2011, both in the state and private sector, as well as the country’s continued support in the form of several development projects, have led to talk of TİKA on the African continent. TİKA’s operations have grown significantly since the AKP took office. However, when the institution’s recent expenses were examined, it was discovered that there were issues with transparency. It is claimed that no accounting records for letters of guarantee and cash collaterals were made in the procurement of goods and services and bids conducted by the Program Coordination Offices abroad. Additionally, from 2008 to 2014, no activity reports are available on the TİKA website. There is no information available on the activities and purchases made between these times. It should be noted that TİKA was run by Hakan Fidan, actual President of Turkish Intelligence Service, between 2003-2007. Since then, the institution is said to have been transformed into an organization that collects information from abroad for Erdogan.
Another tool that works for Türkiye’s engagement on the continent are the Maarif Schools. The Maarif Schools were created and commissioned by Erdogan himself who, after blaming the Gülen Group for the failed coup attempt in 2016, ordered the takeover of active Gülen schools in Africa and pressured African states to do so, especially those who depend on aid from the Turkish government. According to reports in media sources affiliated with the AKP government, the Maarif Foundation operates 175 educational institutions in 25 African nations.
Religion in the service of Erdogan’s diplomacy
When forming partnerships and gaining influence with Muslim-majority nations in Africa, Türkiye likewise makes reference to its Muslim identity. It is important to note that although secularism is one of the foundational principles of the state and is represented in the Constitution, its meaning in Türkiye differs slightly from that elsewhere. The AKP government, uses religion as a key instrument of foreign policy. The Diyanet’s potential as a tool of state foreign policy has not gone unnoticed, and its involvement with Africa has been growing. In 2019, Türkiye had 15 advisory offices and religious service attachés on the continent. The African Religious Leaders’ Summits organized by the Diyanet are among the most important activities of the institution. The first summit was held in 2006, the second in 2011 and the third in 2019.
Turkish engagement and Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanist rhetoric has thus far borne some fruits. But various factors are slowing down Turkish initiatives. Going through a serious economic crisis, Türkiye’s financial resources are dwindling, which hinders the development of long-term projects. More generally, Ankara is finding it difficult to launch continent-wide policies and has to focus on African countries with which it has historical ties. The Turkish government is thus trying to strengthen its relationship with North African countries, correcting the sometimes unfavorable memory left by the Ottoman Empire. It is also developing relations with East Africa, where Muslim populations are important, using religious arguments. The active involvement in the construction of mosques of Diyanet, the public body that manages the majority of Hanafi Sunnism in Türkiye, is indicative of this policy and its orientations.
The Turkish dilemma in Africa: between soft power and Erdogan’s ambitions
On the other hand, in addition to the soft nature of the overall approach and policy, a substantial change and evolution in the direction of the hard component is also noticeable. In fact, Türkiye, which set up its first military base in Somalia in 2017, continues to expand its activities in the defense field, including promoting and selling military equipment it produces to African countries. There is particular interest from several countries in Turkish drones. Morocco and Tunisia, which had ordered Turkish combat drones, started receiving deliveries in September 2021. This interest is partly a consequence of the Turkish army’s intervention in Libya in 2020. The use of drones was indeed instrumental in repelling the offensive of the Libyan National Army (LNA), notoriously led by Khalifa Haftar, and helped turn the tide of arms in favour of the Tripoli government.
‘SIHAs’ (Silhalı İnsansız Hava Arıcı – Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), Turkey’s combat drones, have become one of the main topics of Erdogan’s tours and visits to Africa, such as the one in October 2021, as it seems to have contributed to Erdogan’s goal of tripling the volume of Turkish-African trade before the celebration of the Republic’s centennial in 2023. In fact, the Turkish president is counting heavily on the acceleration of defense exports (especially the sale of SIHA). It should be noted that in Africa, many states are facing secessionist movements or jihadist rebellions, making the continent a potential market for the sale of arms and armed drones. Türkiye sold $83 million in defense industry products to Africa in 2020, and by 2021 this had risen to $288 million.
However, it may also be difficult to become a major arms supplier without acquiring the image and reputation of being an actor interfering in the internal affairs of African countries. This growing military orientation could therefore undermine the favorable image resulting from years of Turkish efforts towards soft power based humanitarian aid and religious rhetoric in Africa. Domestic political concerns also underlie this shift in Turkish policy towards Africa, as it seeks to strengthen Erdogan’s support base ahead of the 2023 elections. In this context, creating an image of a strong country that can leverage its new technological assets is an attractive propaganda tool for Erdogan, especially considering that one of his sons-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, is heavily involved in the process of manufacturing the drones in question.
Türkiye’s military activities on the African continent have been increasing on daily basis, and this new approach is undoubtedly beginning to affect the country’s African policy in general. This goes hand in hand with maintaining the image it has been trying to build over the past decades as a nation depending more on rather soft power, depending on humanitarian action. Due to its involvement in regional conflicts, Türkiye has found itself at odds with other actors on the continent. Moreover, Türkiye risks to destroy its own soft power gains by selling additional drones, fomenting local unrest or intensifying military rivalry in Africa. In particular, pro-government media reports of Turkish arms sales in Africa, which have the potential to change the direction of conflicts in the region, may alter the perception of Türkiye in the eyes of African populations. This could lead to Türkiye being placed in the same category as other regional powers, which it has criticized for years for seeking advantages in Africa.
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