Late last year, the Turkish authorities opened their largest military base abroad in the Somali capital Mogadishu as a step towards consolidating ties with Somalia and establishing a presence in East Africa. Since then they have been seeking a military base in Sudan as the second Turkish base in Africa.
Turkey signed an agreement with Sudan at a joint press conference in Khartoum this week at the end of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s three-day visit to Sudan. The agreement allows Turkey a military presence on the Red Sea in Sudanese territorial waters.
Sudan is also leasing the Red Sea Suakin Island to Turkey, according to the new deal.
Urgency has been added to Turkey’s push into Africa as the UAE, one of Ankara’s regional foes, is increasing its own military presence on the continent.
The Turkish military base in Somalia is supposed to contain three military schools and other buildings, and Turkish officers are supposed to train more than 10,000 Somali troops at the base.
Mohamed Abdel-Kader Khalil, editor of the Turkish Affairs magazine, said that “the Turkish choice of Somalia was not random but was based on several reasons. Somalia has an important coastline and is a main entrance to the Red Sea. It is free of any other military bases, giving the Turks a relatively free hand in Mogadishu.”
African specialist Hani Raslan said that “the opening of the base is the culmination of a long process and plans set in action many years ago. Turkey started its push into Africa in 2002 from an economic perspective and then moved to a political and a security role.”
“This has made Turkey one of the most important actors in the Horn of Africa and East Africa region. The Turkish moves are also not limited to Somalia, but include Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. The Turks have also tried to build relations with Eritrea, but they have not been welcomed in Asmara,” he said.
Sub-Saharan Africa is seeing an impressive surge in growth and urbanisation, and it has abundant natural and human resources. The continent recorded an annual average growth rate of five per cent over the last decade and is expected to continue this trend in the coming years. Six out of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are now in Africa.
Turkey’s Trade and Economic Enhancement Strategy towards Africa lies behind the growth in Turkey’s bilateral relations with the African countries since 2003, when an economic boom in Turkey was accompanied by a renewed interested in Africa and a desire to grow trade volumes between Africa and Turkey.
Trade tripled in value to $16.7 billion in 2016 from $5.4 billion in 2003. The strategy was updated during the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in Equatorial Guinea in 2014, and its objectives have been modified to increase Turkish investment in Africa.
Relations between Turkey and the African continent constitute one of the prime orientations of Turkish foreign policy. In 2013, Turkey gave a further boost to its policies in Africa, turning them into a reinforced political-economic partnership. “If we were to think of any one country that should be present in Africa, that country would be Turkey,” commented Ahmed Kavas, a former Turkish ambassador to Chad.
According to a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think tank, the role of Turkish soft power was emphasised when Erdogan’s AKP Party government began its push into Africa in 2005 and particularly Eastern and Southern Africa.
Educational institutions associated with controversial and now exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen were used to spearhead the Turkish push, only backfiring when Gulen fell out with Erdogan and the AKP.
However, the Gulen Movement is now firmly entrenched in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. Ankara has had to resort to a mixture of coaxing and threats to get African governments to shutter Gulen-funded or Gulen-run schools on the continent.
It has been looking to counter these by increasing the number of Turkish government-approved institutions in Africa, both aid-related and educational, and an initiative has been launched to encourage Turkish student volunteers to engage in aid and development projects in 18 African countries.
Turkish universities are also providing scholarships to African students. The hope is that these will benefit Turkey in the future when the students rise to positions of influence in their countries.
In 2009, there were only 12 Turkish embassies in Africa, five of them in North Africa. There are now 39. There is also a growing number of African embassies in Ankara, now standing at 32 and up from 10 some years ago. Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, Tanzania and Mozambique are all planning to open embassies in Ankara.
Of Turkish development assistance to Africa, Khalil said that “Turkey’s approach is based on a combination of humanitarian and development assistance. Turkey has been providing substantial numbers of scholarships to African students. Between 1991 and 2014, the total numbers of scholarships was 4,380, but this has been substantially increased, and in 2015-16 Turkey provided 1,239 scholarships for students from Africa.”
“In addition to technical training programmes undertaken by different ministries and institutions, around 200 junior diplomats have attended the International Young Diplomats Programme” organised by Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992. “The Programme also organises exclusive training programmes for individual African countries like Somalia, Madagascar, South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria and Namibia,” Khalil said.
“In the development context, Ankara has taken an active role in settling the conflict in Somalia. It hosted the Istanbul Conference under the auspices of the United Nations in May 2010, which resulted in the Istanbul Declaration as a road map for settling the conflict,” he added.
According to Raslan, “Turkey has chosen to become involved in reconstruction and relief work in Africa. In Somalia, it started with the reconstruction of the Mogadishu port and parliament and built about 10,000 housing units and a large hospital equipped with the latest equipment.”
The Turkish construction industry has been one of the major drivers of Turkish economic growth in recent years, and it was dealt severe blows after losing lucrative markets in North Africa, the Middle East and Russia as a result of various crises.
In line with its increased diplomatic presence in Africa, Turkey has opened commercial consulates in 26 African capitals. The Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Council has established business councils in 19 Sub-Saharan African countries. Turkey has signed trade and economic cooperation agreements with 38 African countries, in line with efforts to establish a sound contractual basis for mutual economic relations.
Turkey attaches importance to peace and stability in Africa and contributes to United Nations missions deployed on the continent. It is currently providing personnel and contributing financially to seven of the existing nine UN peace-keeping missions in Africa.
Turkey has been providing training to military personnel from African countries, and these have increased significantly in recent years, with 570 trainees received in Turkey in 2015.
Khalil commented that “the beginning of the Turkish interest in Somalia was through the idea of training the Somalis. Then it developed into a military base on a 400 hectare site in parallel to security agreements with Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. The opening of the Turkish military base in Somalia comes in the same framework that aims to promote Turkish influence in Africa.”
“The establishment of the base indicates Turkish objectives in an area that has extreme political, military, security and economic importance. Turkey is imposing itself as a powerful force in the strategic balance of the security of the Red Sea and the Straits of Bab Al-Mandab and in the Gulf of Aden, which is especially important for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Sudan.”
“Turkey also aims to find markets for its military industries on the African continent, aiming to increase its economic and trade exchanges and to expand its influence in this region at the expense of the Arab states,” Raslan said.
Turkish Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, has played an important role in helping Turkey’s expansion into Africa. The airline flies to 51 destinations on the continent, more than any other international airline.
But there has been a dark side to this vast African network, as the EU has reportedly quietly been using Turkish Airlines flights to forcibly return African migrants to their countries of origin. The forced returns are being made under the re-admission agreement signed between Brussels and Ankara in 2013, which allows the EU to send migrants back to Turkey for deportation.
According to Raslan, the Turkish push into Africa should “draw our attention to the importance of allocating our own national security resources through long-term plans. Otherwise, we will miss out on developments elsewhere and will remain the prisoners of inward-looking movements and speeches that do not produce anything.”
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper