Africa has been occupying a significant place in Turkish foreign policy since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to power in 2002. This policy officially started in 2003 when the Turkish government announced its new strategy toward Africa in a document called “Strategy for Enhancing Economic Relations with Africa."
As the growing interest in Africa continued, the government announced 2005 as the Year of Africa. The enhanced cooperation between Turkey and the continent further strengthened following the first and second Turkey-Africa summits that took place in 2008 and 2014 in Istanbul and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, respectively. As the continuation of these initiatives, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited African leaders to the third summit which took place recently in Istanbul with the participation of 16 African heads of state and tens of other ministers and delegates.
Apart from this fruitful institutional cooperation, Turkey’s bilateral engagements with its African partners have also been developing at a significant pace. This has been the case when it comes to Turkey’s strengthening relations with countries such as Somalia, Libya, Algeria and Ethiopia to name but a few. Turkey’s active engagement policy with Africa is mostly related to Ankara’s new foreign policy understanding. During the past few years, the Turkish leadership has realized the importance of diversification of foreign policy engagements. As a result, Ankara actively engaged with African states to set up new partnerships in diplomacy, economy and military activities.
On the other hand, the African countries have also welcomed Turkey’s recent push for increasing engagement with the continent. The main motivation for the African leaders to welcome Turkey’s new initiatives in Africa was the unique approach that Ankara had toward the continent.
While trying to advance its interests, Turkey has also aimed to contribute to the sustainable development goals of African countries. This understanding of equal partnership and the win-win approach has been a new dynamic for the countries in Africa that have historically suffered from colonial powers such as France and Britain. In addition to that, Turkey has supported African countries to overcome the destructive legacies of the colonial past by strengthening them with financial and military capabilities as well as democratic values. That means partnership with Turkey is an asset for both Turkey and regional countries, especially in this climate of emerging African economies.
Therefore, interaction is built in two ways. While Turkey has redesigned its policy toward Africa, the countries of the continent have largely welcomed Turkey’s new initiatives. It should be noted that the increasing trade volume and military engagements in recent years are a result of the mutual trust and relationship between Turkey and African countries based on solid foundations. While African nations experience difficulties in finding reliable global partners, they easily remedy this by enhancing cooperation with Turkey as Ankara offers African actors various political, economic and military tools to meet their development goals as well as security needs.
The economy is the key element in Turkish-African cooperation. While Ankara’s main economic partners are in the North Africa region, Turkish export and investments are increasingly spreading all over the continent, including the West, East and sub-Saharan Africa.
First of all, with its win-win approach, Turkey has become a strong economic and political alternative to traditional powers. In this sense, Turkey has taken decisive steps and developed crucial projects not only in the natural resources and precious metals sectors but also in the construction, industry and service sectors throughout the continent, including West Africa.
In addition, Turkey's trade volume in the eastern part of the continent has been unequivocally increasing. At this point, Turkey has become a strong competitor against China and the United States, especially in Horn of Africa countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Adopting a more comprehensive and development-oriented economic policy, Turkey's trade volume with Sudan and Somalia, against the aggressive expansionist economic policies followed by China within the scope of the “Belt and Road” project, has reached $500 million (TL 6.2 billion) and $300 million, respectively. In addition to these countries, Turkey's economic relations with Ethiopia, whose economy is one of the largest in the continent, gained momentum and reached a trading volume of $1 billion by 2021.
Given these increasing economic activities, as of 2021, Turkey’s trade volume with Africa has reached more than $20 billion. Within this framework, considering the last 10 years’ economic indicators, the trade volume that has scaled up in Africa has progressed gradually and the most important share comes from France. Therefore, these activities of Turkey have met with strong opposition by some of the traditional actors of the continent, particularly France. Paris has considered Ankara’s increasing engagement in this part of the continent as an alternative to its colonial influence in the region.
Another important dynamic of Turkey-Africa relations is military cooperation. Due to continuing political instability and security threats in various parts of the continent, many of the African governments resort to military means to find solutions to their related concerns. As there are limited providers of such security needs, there is always a chance for new players to engage in terms of military cooperation.
It is increasingly observed that one of the actors in this regard is Turkey. These engagements range from opening a military base in Somalia or supporting a legitimate actor to fight against military threats such as the one in Libya. In addition to such direct engagements, there are other formulas that Turkish-African military cooperation takes place such as assisting armies with professional expertise, providing military equipment, and selling high-tech defense capabilities such as drones and missiles.
During the past years, there have been unconfirmed reports of various drone sales or potential commercial activities in this regard between Turkey and some African countries. Such reports have the possibility to be true given that Turkish drones have become a strategic asset for Turkish defense exports in recent times. While Turkish-made drones made a significant contribution to the country’s military engagements in Libya, Syria and Iraq, they were also a game-changer in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The drones were also the most active instrument of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in Ankara’s fight against terrorist groups such as the PKK and its Syrian branches.
In light of this background, there is a high possibility that some African countries may have asked Turkey to provide them with drones. It is important to note here that there is an increasing need for such military capabilities in Africa, particularly for the countries that have been subjected to domestic and regional armed threats. Therefore, Turkey, like other suppliers of military hardware, including the U.S., France, Russia, China and Iran, can be considered as a natural supplier of defense equipment, including armed drones.
While there have been unconfirmed reports of such exports from Turkey to African countries, there is also criticism toward Turkey in this regard. Some international commentators claim that Turkish-made drones have been violating human rights in some of the battlefields and therefore Turkey has the responsibility for such actions. It should be underlined that Turkish drone exports would only be possible if the deal is made with a legitimate government of a state who has serious concerns or threats from an armed group. Therefore, following the transfer of such military hardware, the responsibility of the results of using that material would have also been transferred to that government who use them. Therefore, even if there are human rights violations, it cannot be claimed that Turkey has responsibility for such actions. Additionally, such defense sales are no different from a common practice of defense exports like those made by the U.S., Russia and France to many African countries.
In conclusion, it is clear that the partnerships Turkey has established with many African countries in the field of defense, such as in the case of Libya and Somalia, make significant contributions to the sustainability of peace in the continent. This situation is a positive reference factor for other African countries. This reference element also helps to deepen the partnership between Turkey and African countries.