Turkey scrambles for Africa: Ankara eyes new empire in old backyard

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Turkey is due to open its largest overseas military base in Somalia, the latest move signalling a return to old imperial stomping grounds

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Mozambique in January (AFP)
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Last update: 
Wednesday 9 August 2017 9:50 UTC

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Within a month Turkey will open its largest overseas military facility in Africa. Ankara's largest diplomatic representation is in Africa. Its national airline flies to more destinations in Africa than any other international carrier.

Africa to Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government represents untapped economic opportunities and a return to lands that were once under its imperial rule.

The government in Ankara was determined to establish a foothold in Africa after watching global economic rivals China and India target African markets for years.

If you were to think of any one country that should be present in Africa, that country would be Turkey

- Ahmet Kavas, former Turkish ambassador to Chad 

Extra urgency has been added to Turkey's push into Africa as the UAE, fast becoming Ankara's main regional foe, increases its own military presence on the continent. The UAE is building a series of military bases in Africa to expand its regional reach.

Even though the UAE's primary focus seems to be northern Africa - Libya specifically, where it militarily and financially backs the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar - its alliance with African Union member Egypt could undermine Turkish efforts all over the continent.

Turkey's renewed focus on Africa began in 2005 and by 2008 a diplomatic drive was launched. Ankara gradually increased the number of its diplomatic representations on the continent to 39. The number of African diplomatic missions to Turkey also increased from eight to 33.

Ahmet Kavas, a former Turkish ambassador to the republic of Chad and an adviser at the prime ministry on Africa affairs, told Middle East Eye that Turkey's presence in Africa made more sense than that of any other country.

"If you were to think of any one country that should be present in Africa, that country would be Turkey," said Kavas. "The anomaly was the 20th century when we were largely absent from the continent and the western Europeans stepped in."



Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets a Tanzanian boy in Dar es Salaam in January (AFP)

Turkey's gateway

For Turkey, Somalia remains its main gateway to Africa.

Ankara has been active militarily in Somalia since 2009, when it joined the multinational counter-piracy task force off the Somali coast.

That was the stepping stone for Turkey to seek a bilateral agreement to build its own military outpost in the country.

On 3 August, Abdirrashid Abdullahi Mohamed, the Somali defence minister, announced that work on the Turkish military training base in Mogadishu was completed after two years and would become active in September.      

The facility is Turkey's largest overseas military camp and has the capacity to train more than 1,500 troops at a time.

More than 200 Turkish military personnel will be based at the centre to train the Somali armed forces and provide security for the compound, according to the Turkish mission in Somalia.

The new mission compound in Mogadishu was completed last year and is Turkey's largest diplomatic representation.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is one of the most frequent visitors to Somalia despite its precarious security situation. He has visited the country three times since 2011.

The last visit in 2016 was just mere hours after a bomb exploded in a Mogadishu hotel frequented by foreigners.  

Yasin Aktay, an AKP politician and former deputy chairman of the party, told MEE that while Turkey currently has a lot invested in Somalia, it need not be the only gateway into Africa and the scope to expand relations with countries such as Sudan and Tunisia existed.

"Why have just one gateway to such a large continent? Countries like Sudan and Tunisia with whom we have good ties can be other entry points for us as well," said Aktay.



Turkish security patrols around the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu opened in 2016 (AFP)

Gulen country

When the AKP government began its push into Africa in 2005, it relied heavily on soft power to find leverage in Africa, particularly in eastern and southern Africa.  

The primary tool it relied on for this soft projection of power was Fethullah Gulen's educational institutions.

That approach backfired after the one-time allies became mortal foes.

Authorities now hold Gulen, a US-based Turkish Muslim preacher, and his followers responsible for a botched coup attempt in Turkey last July.

However, the Gulen movement is now firmly entrenched in African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa.

Ankara has had to resort to a mixture of coaxing and threats to get various African governments to shutter much-needed Gulen-funded or Gulen-run schools.

This pressure to shut down institutions Ankara once heavily promoted along with the not fully convincing reasoning that the entirely Turkish and Turkish-focused Gulen movement presents a threat to those countries has damaged Ankara's credibility in those countries.

Ankara is looking to counter this by increasing the presence of government-approved institutions in Africa, both aid-related and educational.

They know the extreme danger posed by the Gulenists

- Ahmet Kavas, former Turkish ambassador to Chad 

An initiative was launched in Ankara last week to encourage Turkish student volunteers to engage in aid and development projects in 18 African countries.

A sign of the importance the government places on increasing its presence in Africa was visible from those attending the event. They included a Turkish deputy prime minister, the head of Turkey's development agency and Erdogan's son, Bilal, who heads a number of now influential foundations.    

Turkish universities are also providing more scholarships to African students. The hope is that it will benefit Turkey in the future when these students rise to positions of influence in their countries.    

According to Kavas, who is currently chairman of Afam, a Turkish think-tank focused on Africa, African countries are well aware of the dangers posed by Gulenist institutions and are acting swiftly to expel them from their countries.

"They have 33 diplomatic representations in Ankara and are well aware of Turkish sensitivities. Yes, education is important and they ideally don't want to disrupt it but they know the extreme danger posed by the Gulenists," said Kavas.



The Mogadishu embassy is one of 33 currently operating in Africa (AFP)

Economic drivers

Erdogan has brushed aside criticism that Ankara is behaving like a colonial power when it comes to its dealings with Africa.

He has used every opportunity to slam the West and burnish his own party's credentials by saying unlike Western colonialists, Turkey is interested in win-win relationships with its African partners.

Economic considerations remain the prime driver for Turkey's push into Africa.

The commissioning of large infrastructure projects by African governments could provide a major boost for Turkish contractors in the construction and mining industry.

The Sudanese would prefer to work with Turkish firms because they feel a cultural and religious affinity

- Yasin Aktay, AKP politician

The Turkish construction industry, one of the major drivers of Turkish economic growth in recent years, was dealt severe blows after losing lucrative markets in northern Africa, the Middle East and Russia as a result of conflict and crises.

Aktay, who was in Sudan last week, said Sudanese officials had expressed their keenness on Turkish investment and expertise to develop their mining industry.

"With all the petroleum resources left in South Sudan, the government of Sudan is keen to benefit from its vast mineral wealth," he said.

"The signs are that the US will lift its sanctions on the country because the latest extension was only until October. This has all countries lined up to benefit from Sudan's mineral wealth.

"But the Sudanese would prefer to work with Turkish firms because they feel a cultural and religious affinity with Turkey."

Aktay also said a resolution was close to the bureaucratic problems that have plighted a project where Ankara leased around seven million hectares of prime agricultural land to work jointly with local Sudanese farmers and help meet Turkey's food demands.



A Turkish frigate docks in Port Sudan in 2014 (AFP)

EU 'forcibly' returns African migrants

Turkish Airlines, the country's flag carrier, has played a massive 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 well.

The EU has reportedly quietly been using Turkish Airlines flights to forcibly return African migrants.

The forced returns are being done under the readmission agreement signed between Brussels and Ankara in 2013 under the migration deal.

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Under the readmission agreement the EU can send all unauthorised migrants back to Turkey for deportation to their countries of origin.

The readmission part of the migrant deal is at risk after the EU reneged on the promise of visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens in return.

The Ankara government is determined not to lose any more in terms of military positioning to regional rivals, and economically to global rivals in lands once under its reign.

Success in Africa also ensures the AKP a win-win scenario to present for domestic consumption with crucial elections scheduled for 2019.

And for Kavas, he feels it is a historic responsibility for Turkey to be in Africa.

"Turkey has an ancient and close relationship with the continent going back more than a thousand years with our presence extending all the way from northern Africa to modern day Kenya. We are not outsiders there."

This article is available on Middle East Eye French edition.