Following its withdrawal from Mali, France’s declining influence in West Africa has escalated into a legitimacy crisis. Popular protests against French presence have erupted in Burkina Faso, Guinea, the Central African Republic and Chad, and Paris’ relations with a number of West African capitals have deteriorated considerably in recent months. This phenomenon has proceeded in inverse proportion to Turkey’s growing influence in Africa to which testify a growing number of bilateral political, economic and security agreements between Ankara and countries in the region.
Capitalising on the fertile environment created by France’s shrinking profile in West Africa, Ankara has worked to establish broader and more solid alliances based on an array of interests ranging from the economic, technological and military sphere to culture, education and healthcare. Evidence of the strategic importance that Ankara attaches to its West African drive could be seen in the Turkish-African summit hosted in Istanbul in November 2021. The theme of the summit, the third of its kind, was “Enhanced Partnership for Common Development and Prosperity.”
Not surprisingly, the end of Operation Barkhane and the withdrawal of French forces from Mali gave Ankara an opening to boost its relations to West Africa in counterterrorism. In November 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a military cooperation agreement with Niger, stating that his country aimed to support Niger’s efforts to fight terrorism. In a similar spirit, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga said his country was open to cooperation with Turkey in defence industries, adding that Mali needed “friendly” countries such as Turkey to help it fight terrorism.
But this is far from the only context in which Turkey has expanded its footprint in the continent. Energy is another. With the growing discovery of oil reserves in the region, Turkey has achieved major inroads in joint oil exploration and extraction projects with a number of West African nations. In Nigeria, Turkey has stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the departure of International Oil Companies (IOCs) from Nigeria’s oil and gas sector.
In tandem with such ventures, Turkey has been developing political and diplomatic relations in the area. For example, President of the Chadian Transitional Military Council, Mohamed Idriss Deby, paid an official visit to Turkey on 27 October 21. This was followed by the Turkish-African summit in November, attended by 16 African heads of state and 102 ministers. Then, in February 2022, Erdogan undertook an African tour that included Senegal, DRC and Guinea-Bissau.
Turkey’s African drive seeks to achieve a number of aims, one of which is to market its defence manufactures. By the end of last year, Ankara had signed defence cooperation and sales pacts with Morocco, Ethiopia, Niger, Angola and Chad. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), Turkish arms sales to Africa had risen by 39.7 per cent as of December 2021, with exports reaching a record high of $2.793 billion in the first 11 months of that year.
More generally, Ankara seeks to invest in resources abroad as a means to boost its ailing economy. It is particularly interested in mineral resources (oil, uranium and gold), but also in developing African agricultural and livestock wealth. President Erdogan has frequently expressed how keen his country is to increase its volume of trade with Africa, which had topped $29 billion by the end of 2021.
Politically, Turkey’s drive to forge and develop ties with North and West Africa is informed by a desire to strengthen its ability to rival French influence in the area, on the one hand, and to counter moves by Paris that Ankara sees as contrary to its interests in the Mediterranean. Analysts therefore expect Turkey to invest the progress it has made in its African relations in offsetting the mounting pressures it has encountered, not just from France but from Western powers in general. In this regard, Washington still sees Africa as a strategic sphere for countering its Russian, Chinese and Iranian adversaries, and observers have noted its concern that the French withdrawal from the Sahel has given an opening to Russian influence. Accordingly, despite its tensions with Ankara over a number of issues, the US might consider supporting Turkish presence in West Africa as a counterweight to Russia and China’s growing influence there. If so, Turkey would naturally try to leverage this role to win concessions in areas of dispute between it and the West.
Ankara’s foreign policies are often a projection of its domestic policies and concerns. In this instance, Turkey’s growing presence in Africa is an asset under the belt of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as it approaches the critical elections in the spring of 2023. This would be all the more the case if, in addition to the economic payoffs, it could boast “victories” in its contentions with the West. Turkey has been unable to retrieve the standing it once had in the Arab region, but Africa offers the AKP an opportunity to revive its dwindling status. Turkish opinion polls have shown steady declines in the popularity of the ruling party and its leader, Erdogan, against the backdrop of rising consumer prices and lower living standards.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.