Beset by troubles, Turkey turns to Africa

As Turkey has fallen out of favour with many of its neighbours and supposed allies - from wealthy Gulf states, to Europe and the United States - President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to open his country more towards Africa, and been mostly received with open arms.

Under Erdoğan, Turkey has emerged as the leading producer of household appliances in Africa and the Middle East, representing more than 62 percent of appliances sold in Africa in 2018. Last year, Turkish exports to North Africa increased more than 10 percent, and by 12 percent to other African states.

Turkey is no China, which has signed more than 40 free trade deals in Africa and seen its trade leap 2,000 percent in two decades. But Turkey’s trade with Africa hit an estimated $26 billion last year, nearly a four-fold leap since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, according to pro-government Daily Sabah.

Visiting Nigeria and Morocco last week, Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan promised Turkey would have an even greater focus on the continent in 2020. Indeed, this Africa-driven growth is crucial for the Turkish economy, which remains mired in crisis, with high unemployment and stubbornly high inflation.

But there is potentially a political issue. Particularly in the Maghreb, much of which was for centuries a part of the Ottoman Empire, and in Muslim majority states, a visit by Erdoğan can be disconcerting because of his and his party’s links to political Islam.

“There’s always a fear that he could somehow trigger a wave of Islamic populism,” Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at Dutch think tank the Clingendael Institute, told Ahval in a podcast.

Ankara’s vision for Africa appears to be: establish economic ties that can lead to political and ideological links, which Turkey can then ride to a nearly Ottoman level of influence.

The first step has some appeal for local leaders, said Harchaoui, as Turkish goods tend to be cheaper than competitors’ and Turkish traders are generally liked because they are willing to spend time in-country, rather than just fly in to sign a deal and depart.

Over the past decade, Turkey is widely seen to have rescued Somalia from its nadir of violence and chaos, rebuilding Mogadishu and providing billions in aid. Today Turkey maintains a military base in the capital, where it trains Somalian troops.

In Sudan, Turkey has several major projects, including one that involves control of the former Ottoman port of Suakin. But these projects have been in doubt since last year’s overthrow of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

“It is first and foremost about commercial trade,” said Harchaoui, adding that Turkish officials look to use economic activity to develop Islamist links. “They go hand in hand.”

Libya is another example, where some $18 billion in construction contracts that pre-date the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi may have led to links with Islamist elements within the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Because of their maritime borders deal, Turkey sees its eastern Mediterranean energy hopes tied to the GNA. But it is also intervening militarily in Libya in support of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups.

“Turkey's interventions, old and recent, in the continent, follow an expansionist and aggressive agenda without many scruples,” French-Syrian journalist and analyst Majed Nehme wrote this week in the Arab Weekly.

Turkey’s geopolitical foe, the United Arab Emirates, has on the other hand tied its regional strategy of countering Islamists to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. Yet Harchaoui explained why it is not enough to say the UAE is only looking to defeat political Islam.

“The only way to crush political Islam is to crush any form of democratic opening,” he said, likening the UAE to Egypt for its absolutist view of the Sunni world. “You have to make sure that every form of dissent, even if it has nothing to do with political Islam, is eliminated.”

The Turkey-UAE tussle in North Africa has gone public. UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash on Sunday accused Turkish officials of low political language that sought to cover up reality. Ankara, he tweeted, “interferes in Arab affairs and reproduces colonial illusions”.

Some Libyans are of Turkish origin, remnants of the Ottoman period, though there is dispute about the percentage of the population they represent. Turkey’s leader has claimed Turks represent as much as one of every four Libyans.

“It’s certainly not that order of magnitude,” said Harchaoui. “Erdoğan is issuing those kinds of reckless, irresponsible statistics. It only contributes to ethnic polarisation inside Libya. Libya has enough intra-Libya hatred problems.”

The Turkish presence is greater in western Libya, where the GNA is based. But despite reports of Haftar directly targeting Turkish-origin Libyans, Turkey’s intervention is losing support among the Turkish diaspora in Libya, according to Harchaoui. Many view Turkey as a bully in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria, and as increasingly undemocratic. Turkey’s deployment of Syrian mercenaries in Libya is also seen as deeply problematic.

“I know a lot of Libyans of Turkish origin that are deeply ashamed of the fact that the only nation interested in defending the internationally recognised government in Tripoli happens to be Turkey,” said Harchaoui.

Still, across much of Africa Turkey has been getting a warm reception. Thanks in part to a free trade agreement, trade between Turkey and Morocco has leapt six-fold, from $435 million in 2004, to $2.6 billion in 2017. Ankara has opened a dozen new embassies, while Turkish Airlines has added direct flights to all of Africa’s economic hubs.

While in office, Erdoğan has visited 28 of Africa’s 54 countries, far more than any previous Turkish leader. Last week he added Gambia to the list, following a meeting with his Algerian counterpart.

Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune took office six weeks ago, and his focus has been on getting the Algerian economy up and running. Algeria is Turkey’s second-largest African trade partner, while Turkey has since 2017 replaced France as Algeria’s top trading partner.

The Libyan war is costing Algeria an additional $500 million a year in increased security along its 1,000-km border with Libya, a total that could rise with Turkey’s deepening intervention, which includes the influx of some 6,000 Syrian mercenaries. Still, the presidents agreed to create a high-level cooperation council and boost trade by nearly 60 percent, to $5 billion.

Explaining the friendly meeting, Harchaoui said Algerian officials blamed the UAE more than Turkey for the violence and instability in Libya, and are little concerned about Islamism at the moment.

“Political Islam right now in Algeria is not seen as the number one problem,” said Harchaoui. “We’re not in a situation where political Islam is the bogeyman ... They don’t like the ideology of Erdoğan, but it’s not the number one concern right now.”

With some African partners, Ankara is able to set political concerns aside. Despite tensions between Turkey and Egypt since the 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt is Turkey’s largest trade partner in Africa, reaching some $5.2 billion in total trade in 2018.

Perhaps even more surprising is a reported rapprochement with the group Turkey blames for the failed coup in 2016. The Gülen movement is viewed as a terrorist group by the Turkish government, which has been hunting down its alleged members across Turkey and the world. But in Africa, some AKP-friendly businesses have been bold enough to begin renewing ties and re-establishing partnerships with Gülen-affiliated firms, according to Barin Kayaoğlu, assistant professor at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. 

Maybe Erdoğan meant what he said in a 2018 visit to Senegal, when he spoke of wanting to walk side by side with Africa to build a new world order. “Having a shared history makes it our responsibility to build the future in close cooperation,” he said.