Hamish Sneyd | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
Analyses of ‘big power’ engagement in Africa is often fixated on former European colonial powers, the United States, Russia, and most prominently in recent years, China. Yet over the past two decades, Turkey has engaged in a rapid diplomatic expansion throughout the continent and has established itself as a seemingly reliable development partner for African states. However, as is common with Africa’s external engagements, Turkey’s continental ambition is not without baggage. While positives do exist, Turkey-Africa relations are not purely altruistic, but rather a potential reinforcement of malgovernance in pursuit of commercial interests and an addition to the clutter of geopolitical struggle that has historically undermined Africa’s overall development prospects.
As part of its “insightful and agile diplomacy”, Turkey has become entrenched in multiple areas of Africa’s continental affairs including the political, security, economic, and socio-cultural realms. Turkey-Africa relations have blossomed since Turkey became an observing member of the African Union (AU) in 2005, later becoming a strategic partner in 2008. The Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, formalised in 2008, has been the political springboard for thriving relations.
Turkey’s early engagements with Africa emphasised humanitarian aid–an essential pillar of Turkey’s Africa policy. Turkey’s notable humanitarian and development success via its intervention in Somalia in 2011 won Turkey notable favour throughout the continent, despite Somalia’s internal conflict and deadly famine. Turkish involvement in Somalia later extended to security capacity-building with the establishment of a Turkish military training base in Mogadishu in 2017. Turkey has also become a diverse security partner for West African states, with Turkey having established military cooperation agreements with Togo and Senegal in the past two years. African states such as Angola, Tunisia and Morocco have also turned to Turkey for advanced combat technologies.
Turkey also holds significant economic influence in Africa with a 2020 trade volume of $US25.4 billion and $US70 billion worth of Turkish continental infrastructure development projects. Turkey’s foreign direct investments also extend to energy, agribusiness, and soft power cultural projects–heavily emphasising Turkey’s socio-religious affinities with Muslim African countries.
While Turkey’s security and economic influence in Africa is comparatively minor to established powers like the US and China, Turkey presents not only an alternative partner for African states, but also a prime case study for middle power ascendancy within the international community.
While Turkey’s engagements have largely been viewed in favourable terms, there are underlying concerns. Under President Erdogan, Turkey’s foreign policy has been interpreted by academics and international observers as a projection of Erdogan’s own desire to establish Turkey as a global power, particularly in Africa. Turkey’s presence in Africa has led to an increase in diplomatic vitriol and geo-strategic competition amongst Turkey’s Middle Eastern rivals the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt–all of which label Turkey’s continental ambitions as a neo-colonial ‘Ottoman caliphate’. This has resulted in Egypt and the Gulf States trying to exert more influence in the region. Given Africa’s experience of the devastating effects of hegemonic struggle, it’s difficult to view Turkish and all other forms of hegemonic ambitions as overly positive.
Though, analysing African states as the victims of such geo-strategic competition is short-sighted and detracts from their agency. As was common practice during the Cold War and the contemporary multipolarity of the international system, African states could take advantage of this competition with long-term strategies to increase state capacity and extract meaningful development outcomes as seen in the China-Russia rivalry for Guinea’s mining resources.
Where concern is justified vis-à-vis Turkey-Africa relations is the potential reinforcement of continental malgovernance. In a similar fashion to China, Turkey prides itself on its non-discriminatory engagement, favouring economic development over the often-hollow western conditionalities of good governance and democratic reform. Given Turkey’s own democratic backsliding under President Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic nature undoubtedly reinforce malgovernance within Africa, assisted by Turkey’s and other actors’ propensity to shield poor governance to the detriment of Africa’s non-elite populations. This is of course in contradiction to Africa’s development ambitions as illustrated by the AU’s Agenda 2063 which seeks an “Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law”.
Despite these concerns, Turkey has championed for African causes including increased African representation on the United Nations Security Council and continuous COVID-19 humanitarian medical support. Turkey has established itself as an alternative development partner with immense interest in continental affairs. African countries have reciprocated this interest with the establishment of 37 African embassies in Turkey’s capital of Ankara, along with a flourishing African diaspora making valuable economic contributions both to Turkey and to their original countries. While reservations regarding Turkey’s altruistic intentions remain, it’s undeniable that Turkey-Africa relations will continue to play a significant role within the international relations of Africa.
Hamish Sneyd is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.