Published by: Radwa Ramadan El-Sherif
Over the years, Turkey’s role in the African continent has increased consistently, and this translated into stronger ties between Turkey and Africa. Turkey’s policies toward Africa evolved within the framework of a win-win policy and are mainly driven by economic, humanitarian, and security dimensions. Furthermore, Turkey has emphasized the fact that the principles of equal partnership and mutual benefits will be the main drivers in Turkey-Africa relations.
The relations between Turkey and many African countries come amid intense competition between Western and Asian powers, which are battling to increase their influence on the continent and access to its natural resources; The global competition in the continent emerges from the belief that Africa is a major player in the international system, given its increasing role on the global stage.
Africa came at the top of the Turkish agenda for 2021 in light of the President Erdogan’s diplomatic trip to several African countries, the Economic and Trade Forum, which was held last October.
Finally yet importantly, the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, which took place this month in Istanbul at a time when systemic divisions in the global system are deepening; France, China and even Russia are trying to re-establish their hegemony on the continent. On the other hand, conflicts in the continent continue to expand, as the number of military coups has increased in the recent years.
What does the summit mean at this point?
For Africa, it is seen as an opportunity to deepen and develop cooperation with Turkey in new areas; In addition to economic, educational and development aid, many African countries wish to increase their military cooperation between the continent and Turkey.
Currently, most of the continent’s countries consider Turkey as an actor with whom strong relations can be built on a political and security-centric basis, rather than an actor focused on aiding economic development, and thus this summit represents the cornerstone of this transformation.
As for Turkey, Africa has always been a continent in which strong relations based on mutual and common interests were established. It provided the opportunity for Turkey to reconnect with the continent through the African Action Plan, which drafted in 1998. This process encouraged strategic partnerships and cooperation at the bilateral level and gradually became institutionalizing the Turkey-Africa Summits held every five years.
Turkey continues to deepen its relations with Africa in all political, economic and cultural fields, especially education, which are very important tools for creating and maintaining lasting, strong and deep relations between the societies.
To what extent Turkey’s approach to Africa differ from the West?
One of the reasons lies in the problematic relations between the West and Africa through France and America, where there is still racism and discrimination against African Americans and this situation is inevitably reflected in African- American policy.
The anti-French sentiments of political Islamist groups also prompted Turkey – which has a fraught relationship with France – to present itself as an alternative security partner, which helped exacerbate tensions, as Turkey supports political Islamist movements in the region and in North Africa, as it is looking for new allies after the collapse of the group.
On the other hand, France does not admit its mistakes and pays compensation to Algeria. Tensions still exist between France and Algeria due to the humanitarian crimes and massacres that occurred during the period of French colonialism. Hence, the turbulent essence of relations between the West and Africa under colonialism reinforces the search for alternatives.
Here, comes the role of Turkey, which emerged as an alternative player that does not have a colonial reputation like the Western countries when it comes to engaging with African countries.
Africans appreciate the Ottomans’ struggle against the colonial powers. Although Turkey was not present and active in the region for a long time compared to the Western countries, Turkey has a natural advantage in increasing its influence, unlike Western countries, exploiting the political discourse that plays a major role in shaping Turkish foreign policy.
In fact, Turkey’s movements into the continent represent an exercise in projecting soft power, with Turkey’s activities in the region mostly focused on the development support and commercial engagement.
In its agenda of movements into Africa, Turkey also relies on religious discourse, taking advantage of political Islamist movements in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Niger and Senegal, with the aim of weaving networks of Turkish influence and interests outside its territory. The Turkish discourse is also accepted by some Africans, especially since Erdogan adopts a hostile discourse. Western practices and accused of looting the wealth of the continent.
Turkey also has another significant advantage, which is that it does not have a colonial history on the African continent. On the contrary, it has a generally positive reputation, and this in particular will make Turkey easily converge with these countries in the political sphere, and cooperate in various matters on regional and global issues.
To sum up, since Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Turkish-African diplomacy has witnessed a quantum leap, as the number of Ankara’s embassies in Africa increased from 12 to 42, which confirms Turkey’s attempt to strengthen its presence in Africa, which is rich in wealth.
The Turkish model, which stems from strong national ambitions and dreams of a historical empire, is based on its expansion project on the use of military force on land and sea along with economic and diplomatic tools. The weakness and fragility experienced by African countries such as Libya and Somalia represents an ideal situation for exploitation by many of the ambitious middle powers, led by Turkey, which repeats the first case of the scramble for Africa by European powers during the imperialist period.
But Turkey’s real weight in the current and future regional balance should not be overestimated. Yes, Turkey has gained a new political, economic and cultural influence ground in many African countries during the past decade. However, Turkish efforts must be evaluated in light of the fact that Turkish policy encounters many constraints such as the situation of the inherent fragility of its economic, financial and political system, which generates a fundamental contradiction with the internal reality of the country.