Yavuz Baydar
Dec 27 2017

Erdoğan's Africa visit signals strong military ambitions, extended influence

In what is seen as a 'new challenge to weakening global stance of the USA,' Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to three African countries adds to an ongoing debate on his 'expansionist' vision that is gaining momentum.

In a four-day visit which began on Dec.24, Erdoğan met the leaders of Sudan and Chad, before continuing onto the last leg of his meetings in Tunisia.

His meeting with Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan, was of particular importance; this first ever visit of Sudan by a Turkish president is likely to stir a new debate.

Al-Bashir is the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killings of civilians in Darfur. Al-Bashir is currently unable to travel freely in certain parts of the world. With his government being challenged by an 'oil-for-gold' sanctions busting trial in New York, Erdoğan may have been hoping to send a statement to the U.S.A. through a firm handshake in Khartoum.

Al-Bashir was recently a guest in Istanbul, where he attended an Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) emergency meeting that issued a declaration on recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

While the meetings in Chad focused on trade and economic cooperation, the talks in Sudan encompassed a wider spectrum, extending into military cooperation, with a focus on training.

Erdoğan and al-Bashir signed agreements on the establishment of a high-level strategic cooperation council, in addition to trade and economic partnership. The agreements signed during Erdoğan’s visit are to facilitate Turkish investment in building Khartoum’s new airport in addition to private sector investments in cotton production, electricity generation and building grain silos and meat slaughterhouses. A memo was also issued  for cooperation in mining, agriculture and education.

Erdoğan and al-Bashir agreed to aim for trade between the two countries to reach 10 billion dollars, Turkey‘s Foreign Economic Relations Board said. (The U.S.A. lifted a trade embargo that had cut Sudan off from much of the global financial system two months ago.)

A significant top-level military summit also took place in Khartoum.

Akar

There, the Chief of Staff of Sudanese Army, Gen. Imad al-Din Mustafa Adawi was joined by his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, and the top general of Qatar, Gen. Ghanim Bin Shaheen Al-Ghanim. No statement was issued following the meeting.

As what can be seen as a step toward 'permanent military ties,’ al-Bashir agreed to allow Turkey to rebuild Suakin, a former Ottoman port city located on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Suakin was Sudan’s major port when it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but has been abandoned over the last century following the construction of a new port 60 km north.

According to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, the objective of the reconstruction is to to build a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.

Erdoğan said Turkey had been temporarily granted part of Suakin so as to rebuild the area as a tourist site and a transit point for pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to holy city of Mecca. He said the Suakin deal was one of several -  totalling  $650 million -  entered into with Sudan, emerging from two decades of US sanctions in October and is seeking to attract international investment. The countries also agreed “to build a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels,” Sudan's Foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour told reporters. Ghandour added that the agreement'' could result in any kind of military cooperation.”

The agreement comes some months after Turkey formally opened a $ 50 million military training base in Somalia. It is also followed by the reports that a new batch of Turkish troops were deployed to Qatar, as part of a joint defence agreement between the two countries. The new forces will join Turkish troops based at the Tariq bin Ziyad military base in southern Doha, where the top capacity is reported to be 5,000.

Al Jazeera reported that Turkey plans to gradually increase the number of its forces in Qatar to 3,000, according to the agreement between the nations and keep a brigade in the Gulf country.

Yasin Aktay, a senior member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), told Al Jazeera in an earlier interview that Turkey's military presence in Qatar "creates a balance in the region" that prevents potential clashes.

"Turkey is protecting its own interests through the base in Qatar, rather than taking sides between the parties at odds," he said.

Erdoğan's visit is likely to result in some agreements on increased trade between Turkey and Tunisia as well, although relations between the nations remain cool as compared to Sudan and Somalia. "In the past few years, there is a negative campaign against Turkey in Tunisia. I believe the president's visit will help to change this misperception of Turkey in Tunisian society," Çiçek told pro-government Turkish daily Sabah.

Mustafa Efe, the head of the Ankara-based Africa Strategic Research Center, also emphasized the country's common past with Turkey. "Tunisia was a part of Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. It is one of the countries in the region that resembles [Turkey] the most. The country is still full of Ottoman remnants," he was quoted by Daily Sabah, adding that ''this visit is proof that Turkey will not leave the region idle.’’

Erdoğan's visit leaves little doubt on the continuity of Turkish effort to enhance political and  military influence in Africa.

''This new period's discourse will be shaped by each country's own greatness. To be clear, Russian President Vladimir Putin had made that decision long before Mr. Trump. Under the circumstances, the Turkish president's rhetoric represents an effort to strengthen Turkey's economic cooperation with various countries on the basis of fairness and for Ankara to assume a new role in the great power rivalry. Such steps will inevitably mean that Turkey will deal with some turbulence caused by the changing nature of its relations with the United States,'' wrote columnist, Burhanettin Duran, in Daily Sabah.