Turkey seeks larger footprint in Africa as tensions with West and region’s countries rise

Erdogan’s effort to widen Turkey’s military network generated concern in parts of the region.
March 04, 2018
Turkish Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar (R) hands a flag to a Somali soldier at the new Turkish-Somali military training centre in Mogadishu, last September.  (AP)
The other arc. Turkish Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar (R) hands a flag to a Somali soldier in Mogadishu, last September. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Seeking to expand its regional political and military influence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embarked on a 5-day swing through Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali, a move bound to antagonise other actors in the region. In late 2017 Erdogan toured Sudan, Chad and Tunisia.

Turkey’s row with the West over Syria has deepened as Ankara angrily criticised France and the United States for demanding that Turkey halt its offensive in the north-west Syrian region of Afrin.

Erdogan’s effort to widen Turkey’s military network generated concern in parts of the region. During his trip to Khartoum in December, Sudan and Turkey agreed that Ankara would rebuild a former Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and construct a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels, triggering criticism from Cairo. Ankara also plans to build a military base in Djibouti to add to its military installations in Somalia and in Qatar, which have riled Arab Gulf countries.

“[Erdogan] needs a new space because he’s out of manoeuvring space,” said Selim Sazak, a non-resident fellow at the Delma Institute, a think-tank in Abu Dhabi. “Turkey is on the wrong side of almost everyone” in the region.

During his visit to Mauritania, Erdogan offered to “share our experience in the field of defence,” Turkish news reports said. He announced that Turkey would donate $5 million to a regional force battling terrorism and trafficking in the Sahel.

With the Turkish pledge, a total of $515 million has been offered by several countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, to back the G5 Sahel effort spearheaded by France.

In Africa, the Turkish leader contrasted his approach with that of Europe’s former colonial powers, saying Turkey is not out for one-sided gains but for mutual benefits.

“We want to march side by side with Africa,” Erdogan said in Mauritania. He repeated his criticism of the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, part of a narrative aimed at bolstering his leadership stature in the Muslim world by acting as a defender of the faith.

In a speech in Mauritania, Erdogan called the host country “a land of Quranic schools, a land of the learned and the hafiz,” referring to Muslims who have learned the Quran by heart.

Emre Caliskan, of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, noted in an interview with Voice of America that “50% of African countries come from Muslim backgrounds and this gives leverage to Turkey in the eyes of Europe, in the eyes of the West and in the eyes of Africa.”

In the Maghreb, Turkey is interested in the potential back-channel role of Algeria, said William Lawrence, a former US diplomat who teaches at George Washington University. In recent years, Algiers has served as a quiet mediator between Turkey and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “I’m sure Algeria will continue to mediate,” Lawrence said.

Turkey and Algeria share a common concern over Egypt’s role and a willingness to engage Islamists in Libya and neither is enthusiastic about France’s active anti-terrorism strategy in the Sahel.

Turkey has been systematically expanding ties with Africa for years. The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has increased from 12 to 41 since 2003. Flag-carrier Turkish Airlines has 52 connections on the continent. Erdogan has visited about 30 countries there, Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported.

Economic relations were another goal of the Turkish leader, who was accompanied in Africa by a large Turkish business delegation. “Turkey’s foreign direct investment in the continent skyrocketed from $100 million in 2003 to $6.5 billion in 2017,” noted Anadolu.

Turkey has no oil or gas resources and is keen to diversify imports to ease dependence on Russia and Iran. Algeria’s role as a supplier could grow, especially because Turkey has started to operate two ships that serve as floating storage and regasification units for liquefied natural gas. Turkey is also looking for new markets for its food and construction industry, Sazak said.

Erdogan praised Algeria as “an island of political and economic stability in the region” and as Turkey’s “first trading partner in Africa.” He said both countries wanted to boost their bilateral trade volume to $10 billion, from $4 billion at present.

Another goal for Erdogan was to persuade African countries to close schools run by the network of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric accused by Ankara of being the mastermind behind the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016. Gulen denies the accusation.

“Thanks to our efforts, many countries have now shut down FETO-affiliated schools and handed them over to the Maarif Foundation,” Erdogan said before leaving on his visit. He was referring to the Gulen movement and an educational foundation created by Ankara in 2016.