Türkiye’s foreign policy shifted from secular and Western-aligned to a more Muslim-focused approach under President Erdoğan’s leadership since 2003. Erdoğan’s government’s foreign policy has been characterized as neo-Ottomanism, which emphasizes Türkiye’s Ottoman past and desires a more significant presence and influence in former Ottoman territories.
After years of neglect, the country shifted its focus to Africa in 2005, declaring it the “Year of Africa.” Since then, the Erdoğan government has signed trade and cooperation agreements with 45 African countries, with Turkish contractors completing projects worth $70 billion. Türkiye’s trade with Africa has grown significantly in the last two decades, increasing from 5,4 billion dollars in 2003 to 34,5 billion dollars in 2021. The volume of projects undertaken by Turkish contracting companies rapidly expanded and reached 77,8 billion dollars in the African Continent. Türkiye has established joint Business Councils with 45 African countries.
However, Türkiye’s focus on Africa has shifted from trade, investment, and charity programs to defense cooperation, specifically in selling Turkish-made drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Russia has established itself as the preeminent force in the African arms market, responsible for an impressive 49% of the continent’s imports between 2015 and 2019, as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports. Yet, there is currently a growing interest in Turkish weaponry, especially in Baykar Makina Sanayi ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi (Baykar)-manufactured TB2 Bayraktar UAVs. Baykar is a company run by Selçuk Bakraktar, who is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law. In recent years, UAV demand has increased significantly after the UAV was credited with shifting the direction of conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region of Azerbaijan.
Türkiye’s growing domestic capabilities and pursuit of new security partnerships have aligned with African countries’ desire for diversified security policies. African states are eager to benefit from Türkiye’s expertise in counterinsurgency, security sector modernization, and defense industry advancements. This interest is reflected in the increase of African embassies in Ankara, from 10 in 2008 to 37 in 2021, with many ambassadors being active or retired generals. African countries seek to strengthen their defense capabilities amid ongoing regional instability.
Türkiye’s arms exports to African states have experienced a significant surge, with the continent increasingly becoming a market for Turkish-manufactured weaponry such as UAVs, armored vehicles, sensor systems, surveillance systems, mine clearance vehicles, and rifles. These defense companies offer competitively priced military hardware without any attached conditions. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly, Türkiye’s defense and aerospace exports to Africa skyrocketed from $82.981 million in 2020 to $460.6 million in 2021, indicating the burgeoning interest of African countries and the market’s vast potential.
The country has been supplying drones to prominent African nations such as Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Rwanda, and Algeria. In April 2021, Moroccan media reported that its Royal Armed Forces acquired 13 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones from Türkiye for $70 million. Additionally, Africa Intelligence noted that Nigeria purchased ten small, armed Songar UAVs from Türkiye’s Asisguard in May.
Libya remains a lucrative market for Ankara, despite multiple instances of violating a UN arms embargo by providing drones and military equipment to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). The Bayraktar drones were instrumental in defending Tripoli against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in 2019.
Ethiopia also emerged as a significant market for TB-2 drones. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly, Turkish defense and aviation exports to Ethiopia soared from $235,000 in January-November 2020 to $94.6 million in the same period in 2021. However, these sales have drawn concerns from Egypt and Sudan, which engaged in a longstanding dispute over Nile water usage with Ethiopia. At the same time, Algeria is unhappy with Morocco’s Turkish drone acquisition. US authorities have also expressed apprehension about Türkiye’s drone sales to Ethiopia, potentially violating US restrictions on arms sales to the Addis Ababa regime. Various media outlets reported the Ethiopian government’s use of Bayraktar drones in the conflict-ridden northern Tigray region, where thousands of civilians were killed and millions displaced.
The Erdoğan government has been expanding its focus on African countries embroiled in armed conflicts. In February 2022, Türkiye secured security and economic deals with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where separatist rebels have threatened civilians. The DRC is now considering purchasing Turkish-made drones. Nigeria, another significant market, seeks to acquire Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones for its army.
Tunisia received its first batch of armed Turkish drones in September 2021, while Rwanda is reportedly interested in Turkish drones for military operations in Northern Mozambique. In November 2021, Erdogan announced that Niger would purchase Bayraktar TB2 UAVs, HÜRKUŞ trainer aircraft, and armored vehicles from Türkiye. Chad is also developing defense ties with the Turkish defence sector.
Türkiye’s defense exports extend beyond northern and western Africa, as Kenya’s military has ordered 118 armed personnel carriers from Turkish manufacturer Katmerciler. With a military base in Somalia and a growing presence in Libya, the country is establishing itself as a lasting power in the region.
Its increased UAV exports to Africa have boosted trade volume. Still, its policy of arming the continent could lead to regional tensions in the long term, potentially jeopardizing its other investments and credibility. The African Union has been working to prevent foreign interventions and coups and maintain peace on the continent. However, Ankara’s support for autocratic African leaders and advanced weapons sales threaten Africa’s democratic progress.
In addition to arms sales, Erdogan’s government has disseminated anti-Western propaganda in Africa. French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Türkiye of fostering anti-French sentiment on the continent. Erdogan’s administration appears to benefit more from conflict, particularly in western Africa and the Horn of Africa. The sale of drones is exacerbating the security situation in Africa, potentially leading to unrest and subsequent refugee flows to Europe.
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