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Why Turkey is making friends in West Africa

Erdogan appears to believe that the time has come for Turkey to be a political actor in the African continent
The then Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Bamako in 2018 (AFP)

While US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently visited Sudan to push for more Arab nations to normalise ties with Israel after the UAE deal, aiming to create a new geopolitical configuration in the broader Middle East, Turkey is working towards a new alliance in West Africa that promises to extend its strategic rivalry with France. 

This became more visible earlier this month with the Turkish foreign minister’s visit to Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal

Last month's military coup in Mali was not particularly relevant for Turkey, but it offered a powerful motive for Ankara to expand its activities in West Africa.

Turkey has kept an eye on Mali since the previous coup in 2012, establishing connections with various civil-society actors. But before Ankara acts on Mali or any other West African crisis, it must first finish laying the regional groundwork.

The Libya crisis is forcing Turkey to transform its soft power into political-security influence - and West Africa is key to this approach

Amid the increasing rivalry between Turkey and France over Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, tensions may soon extend to, and deepen in, West Africa, as Ankara expands its political and military influence. 

In July, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Niger and signed military cooperation and other agreements. This likely sets the stage for Ankara to open a military base in the country, in addition to its existing ones in Qatar, Libya and Somalia.

Secondly, military cooperation and a possible military base bolster Turkey's Libya involvement and act as a buffer against a potential Egyptian threat to Turkey in Libya.

Regionally, it is a win-win: the agreement between Turkey and Niger will strengthen Ankara's influence in West Africa, and in return, African countries will receive Turkish support to help resolve the Libyan crisis.

Turkey's interest in Niger has two dimensions. For one, there are religious networks in the country that are inclined towards Turkey. This social support, along with political cooperation, makes Niger a trustworthy ally in an environment where many countries, such as Egypt, are actively working against Turkey.

Securing allies

In general, Ankara has been focusing on securing regional allies, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in January visiting Algeria and lauding it as "one of Turkey's most important gateways to the Maghreb and Africa". Yet, he does not want to put Algeria in a difficult position with regards to France; what Erdogan wants is implicit support for - or at least not an overt rejection of - Ankara's newly developing West Africa policy. 

The outreach to Algeria appears to be bearing fruit: earlier this month, Algeria's foreign minister was in Turkey to discuss regional cooperation.

Erdogan and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune sign bilateral agreements in Algiers on 26 January (Murat Kula/Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)
Erdogan and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune sign bilateral agreements in Algiers on 26 January (Murat Kula/Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP)

Turkey's Africa policy is not based merely on short-term calculations. For the past two decades, Ankara has been opening to Africa, with relatively major successes at the economic, political and societal levels. Since 2003, Turkey has opened dozens of embassies in Africa, with one recently being announced for Togo.

Turkey's interests in Africa have incorporated soft power elements, and increasingly hard power instruments. In Somalia in the early 2010s, Turkey made humanitarian overtures, and it has since deepened the relationship, gaining military and political power in the region. Ankara's involvement in Niger and Mali may replicate Turkey's East Africa policy. 

Ankara’s West Africa policy also has implications for the Turkey-France rivalry. While Turkey has in the past opened to Africa through soft power policies, it now sees Africa as a geopolitical playground, upon which it can unflinchingly take on France or any other country. Erdogan appears to believe that the time has come for Turkey to be a political actor in Africa.

Soft and hard power

In West Africa, Turkish soft power institutions are already active. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency supports many development projects, Turkish Airlines connects the region to the world, and the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities has brought close to 1,000 students on full scholarships to Turkey from the region, most studying politics, economics and engineering. 

Now, the Libya crisis is forcing Turkey to transform its soft power into political-security influence, well beyond North Africa - and West Africa is key to this approach.

Libya conflict: Turkey is looking for a 'third way' in Sirte
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Ultimately, Erdogan's West Africa approach has several implications. It is likely to deepen the Turkey-France rivalry, possibly affecting Turkey-EU relations. It may also create an opportunity for possible cooperation with other European powers, such as Italy or Spain, especially on security and migration issues, breaking the monopoly of France as EU anchor in the region. 

For the US, Ankara's increasing presence in West Africa could act, to some extent, as a counterbalance against rising Chinese influence. US Senator Lindsey Graham has encouraged the notion of Turkey becoming an alternative to Chinese influence in Africa, adding that it could also open new areas of cooperation between Turkey and the US. 

As Turkey's newly developing West Africa strategy is shaped, the country's foreign policy will surely invite more attention and debate in the years ahead. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Mehmet Ozkan
Mehmet Ozkan is Non-Resident Fellow at Center for Global Policy in Washington DC, USA. You can follow him twitter at @_MehmetOzkan