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Turkey seeks diplomatic and commercial space in Africa

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Turkey seeks diplomatic and commercial space in Africa

02 maggio 2022 13:13

The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hospital in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, bears the name of the president of Turkey. It has 47 ICU beds, more than any other in the country, but does not treat covid-19 patients. “If we did, we would have to isolate them,” explains Asir Eraslan, the director, “and we wouldn’t have enough space to deal with the victims of the bombs.” The latter continue to explode, due to an insurrection by al Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliated group, and clashes between rival clans.

Along one of the main streets of Mogadishu, full of armored vehicles and tuk-tuk rossi (motorized rickshaw), locals point out where the bombs slashed the crowd. During my visit, the security forces were looking for two suicide bombers.

Given the violence and the risk of kidnapping, Mogadishu attracts few foreigners. Few apart from the Turks. A Turkish company has refurbished and manages the port. Another operates a hotel and the international airport, from which Turkish Airlines flies daily to Istanbul. Turkish companies have repaired the city’s main streets and the parliament building, with funding from Turkey’s development agency. In what is its largest military base abroad, Turkish officers have trained and equipped more than 5,000 Somali soldiers and armed police.

The turning point of the last twenty years
Even more significant than Turkey’s strong presence in Somalia is perhaps its approach on the ground, favored by religious community. “In Somalia, one of the advantages of being Turkish is that you pray in the same mosques as everyone else,” says Kadir Mohamud, a Somali businessman. Non-Turkish companies and embassies tend to operate from the supervised “green zone” around the airport. “We are the only ones on the ground,” says Mehmet Yılmaz, the Turkish ambassador. With his herd of dwarf antelopes and stunning views of the Indian Ocean, his embassy is also the largest in Turkey in the world.

Somalia is a clear example of Erdoğan’s more general drive in Africa, in his quest for markets, resources and diplomatic influence. Just twenty years ago Ankara was little interested in Africa south of the Sahara. Instead, he looked west and dreamed of joining the European Union. But as relations with the West have cooled, Turkey has turned to the south. The turning point was 2011, when Erdoğan, flanked by Turkish entrepreneurs, humanitarian officials and Muslim charities, visited Somalia, then in the throes of drought and civil war. His visit, the first by a non-African leader in nearly two decades, marked the beginning not only of Turkey’s involvement in the Horn of Africa, but of deeper ties across the continent.

In construction, Turkish companies are ousting Chinese ones and Ankara’s presence is also increasing in the aid sector

In 2009, Turkey only had about ten diplomatic missions in Africa. Today he is 43. This diplomatic work has helped companies expand. Turkish Airlines, which in 2004 only flew to four African cities, now reaches more than forty. Trade with the continent has grown enormously, reaching 29 billion dollars in 2021, of which 11 billion with sub-Saharan Africa, an increase of almost eight times compared to 2003. The same is true for construction, a sector in which Turkish firms are ousting Chinese ones, no doubt aided by a decline in the money lent from China. Turkish officials estimate that Turkish companies have completed projects in Africa worth approximately $ 78 billion, including airports, stadiums and mosques. In 2021, Tanzania awarded a $ 1.9 billion contract to a Turkish company to build a modern railway line.

Turkey’s weight is also growing thanks to aid, previously distributed mainly through international agencies such as the UN, as in 2003 when about 60 per cent had been channeled in this way. In 2019, the share had dropped to 2 percent. Turkish flags are now present on food parcels, schools and wells. “Turkey is known for offering blank checks, particularly when economic or military aid is desperately needed,” said Abel Abate Demissie, who works for the British study center Chatham House, in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Military challenge
But there is also a less peaceful commitment. Erdoğan, who did not hesitate to send his army into the complex civil war in Syria, has also begun to flex his muscles in Africa. He sent, for example, Turkish soldiers and Syrian mercenaries to Libya to fight against Khalifa al Haftar, a warlord backed by Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Turkey and France, after quarreling in Libya, also clashed in West Africa, the Sahel and the Maghreb, where Erdoğan challenged French influence by playing on the image of France as a colonial oppressor. In Somalia, Erdoğan faced Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates when their squabble with Qatar, which is a friend of the Turkish government, resulted in a proxy fight in the Horn of Africa.

Turkish drones, which helped turn the tide of the civil war in Ethiopia, allegedly killed dozens of civilians

Turkey has also signed military pacts with several African countries, most recently with Nigeria, Senegal and Togo. Many wish to take advantage of Turkey’s experience in counter-insurgency activity. Interestingly, more and more African ambassadors appointed to Turkey are active or retired generals.

Turkey’s goal is not to get involved in wars, but rather to sell weapons. It is not on par with countries like Russia, which supplied 30 percent of all weapons sold to sub-Saharan Africa between 2016 and 2020, or China (20 percent), according to the Stockholm international peace research institute. . But Turkey’s sales increased sevenfold last year to $ 328 million. In the first two months of 2022, they approached $ 140 million.

Turkey’s flagship products are drones such as those currently bombing Russian tanks in Ukraine. They have been seen in Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Other countries, including Angola, Nigeria and Rwanda, are considering buying them. “Everywhere we went, they asked us for unarmed and armed drones,” Erdoğan said after a visit to Africa last year. Somalia also wants more weapons, but cannot obtain them due to a UN embargo. “Turkey is giving us all it can,” said Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur, Somali defense minister. “But at the moment they can only provide us with small weapons.”

Unlike the United States, Africa’s fourth largest supplier of arms, which does not sell to African countries that use them to commit war crimes, Turkey does not seem to care how its exports are used. Its drones, which helped turn the tide of the civil war in Ethiopia, allegedly killed dozens of civilians. Due to Turkey’s silence on the matter, Ethiopia sees it as one of its few trusted allies. Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known to his people as Farmaajo, used Turkish-trained soldiers against his rivals to stay in power after his term expired more than a year ago, says Sahan research’s Matt Bryden. , a study center based in Nairobi. “We don’t give orders and we don’t tell anyone what to do,” said an official from Ankara, the capital of Turkey.

A reciprocated interest
Like China and Russia, which have expanded their reach into Africa in recent years, Turkey boasts its non-interference policy as a point of sale. Erdoğan presents Turkey as a rising power and as a champion of a more just world order. “Turkey presents itself without any colonial baggage,” says Wamkele Mene, secretary general of the African Continental Free Trade Area (Afcfta). “And it’s an advantage”. Erdoğan goes further when he baselessly argues that colonialism persists. “The British, the French and the Western colonizers,” he said earlier this year, “continue to plunder Africa’s diamonds, its gold and its mines.”

In truth, Turkey is no stranger to the hard ways that African governments resort to. In 2021, his security officers in Kenya kidnapped Fethullah Gülen’s grandson, accused by Ankara of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup. He was kidnapped right outside the police headquarters, with the connivance of Kenyan officials, and brought to Turkey, ignoring a court order preventing his deportation. Turkey has also put pressure on African countries to close schools founded by Gülen’s Islamist movement.

Turkey’s interest in Africa is reciprocated. The number of African embassies in Turkey has tripled in two decades to 37. At least 14,000 African students have received scholarships to study in Turkey over the past decade. Africans are also buying property in Turkey, not least because paying $ 250,000 for a house allows them to have a Turkish passport. Ankara has emerged as a center of the Somali diaspora. Turkish TV series, which are winning audiences across the continent, are fueling Ankara’s persuasive power.


Although Turkish involvement in Africa has grown rapidly, occasionally leading to confrontation with other non-African powers, its economic, military and diplomatic reach is still far from that of the United States, China and the continent’s former colonial powers. The Chinese government estimates its trade with Africa to have been around $ 254 billion in 2021, surpassing Turkey’s $ 29 billion. Turkey’s military aid has nothing to do with that of Western powers. The United States has some 6,000 soldiers and support civilians deployed in Africa, where they fight al Shabab in Somalia and jihadists in the Sahel, and train African counter-terrorist forces across the continent. France also deploys about five thousand soldiers, many of them in the Sahel.

All this is reflected in public opinion. In a poll conducted for The Economist in March by Premise, a data company, 72 percent of Kenyans and 58 percent of Nigerians named the United States their most reliable military partner.

Yet Turkey seems ready to play a long-lasting game. His recent launch of Trt Français, a French-language edition of his state propaganda channel, clearly targets an African audience. And by providing military aid and assistance, Turkey hopes over time to reap lasting rewards. “Right now, we are the ones in need,” said Nur, Somali defense minister, speaking of Turkey. “But when there is an opportunity, we will give our friends a chance that others can’t, because they helped us when we needed it most.”

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)

This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist. Internazionale has a weekly newsletter that tells what is happening in Africa. You sign up who.

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