When one thinks of Turkey and Africa what naturally springs to mind is the Turkish campaign to prop up the Government of National Accord in Libya or perhaps its bitter feud with the Sisi regime in Egypt over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Attention is rarely devoted to Turkey’s role beyond the former Ottoman-controlled territories in north Africa and, to casual observers, it may come as a surprise to learn that Turkey’s diplomatic and business ties extend across the whole continent.
While Turkish expansion into Africa has its roots in the late 1990s, the last decade has seen the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursue its drive with renewed vigour. Illustrative of this has been the president’s numerous tours of the continent: west Africa in March 2016; east Africa in June 2016; south-east Africa in January 2017; and north-west Africa in February 2018. Data on Turkey’s political and economic engagement with Africa has reflected this expansion, with bilateral trade rising from roughly USD 16.8bn in 2008 to USD 23.8bn in 2018. Over a similar period, Turkey also increased its number of embassies on the continent from 12 to 37.
Historically, the main string to Turkey’s trading bow has been its expertise in construction and infrastructure. Although this sector has long been dominated by China in Africa, Turkish firms started to make their mark in the early 2010s and, in 2017, the Istanbul-based construction giant Yapı Merkezi was notably awarded a rail contract to connect Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania to the Indian Ocean, at a cost of USD 3.1bn. Other companies followed in Yapi Merkezi’s wake, with Turkish contractors Limak and Summa completing the construction of Senegal’s Blaise Diagne International Airport in 2017 and Kalyon İnşaat signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to construct a “metrobus” line in Mali last year. This Turkish involvement in Africa’s construction sector is only likely to grow, as these firms build strong reputations across the continent.
Aside from construction, Turkey has also made big strides in the energy sector. This has primarily been achieved through Karpowership – a subsidiary of the Karadeniz Energy Group – which sells kilowatt-hours, generated on its floating plants (“powerships”), to national electricity operators. Since it secured its first contract on the continent with Ghana in 2014, it has grown to supply Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sudan, The Gambia and Sierra Leone – accounting for 80% of electricity production for the latter two. In August 2019, Karpowership joined forces with Japanese firm Mistui O.S.K. Lines – under the brand “KARMOL” – to provide LNG-to-powership services. KARMOL is known to be targeting Morocco and South Africa as potential new markets and, given that its floating power stations require less person-to-person interaction than constructing land-based power stations, it is well-placed to take advantage of the social distancing restrictions put in place because of Covid-19.
Previously, educational establishments linked to the now exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen were a key driving force for business and diplomatic relations for Turkey across the continent. However, after Gülen fell out with the Erdoğan regime and was blamed for the coup attempt in 2016, such Gülenist institutions quickly became detrimental to the Turkish government’s interests in Africa. This not only forced the Erdoğan regime to look for new tools of engagement but also meant that the closure of Gülen-linked schools became a central aspect of its diplomatic relations with the continent. In this respect, Erdoğan has had some success, having signed MoUs with 26 African countries (as of 2018) to transfer control of these establishments to the Maarif Foundation, which is the Turkish state’s own educational brand – established in 2016 for precisely this purpose.
With the loss of the Gülenist institutions, Turkey shifted its focus towards Turkish Airlines as the primary representative of its soft power in Africa. The airline – of which the Turkish government holds a 49 percent stake – has a near-ubiquitous presence on the continent, with Istanbul now serving as a central transit hub for Africans flying to other destinations worldwide. In February this year, the airline added its latest destination in Africa – Malabo – which brings its total destinations on the continent to 60, up from only 14 cities in 2011. This has seen Turkish Airlines claim a greater percentage, not only of airline passengers travelling to and from the continent, but also for cargo, with its air freight division increasing its market share from 0.7 percent in 2010 to 2.22 percent in 2018.
Importantly, Turkish Airlines’ selection of destinations has also been quite strategic. For example, it became the only international carrier to serve Mogadishu in 2017, which granted Turkey a special status in Somalia and cemented its role as a significant player in the country’s reconstruction. This decision reflects the way in which Turkey seeks to exert soft power on the continent, positioning itself as a benevolent partner that is willing to invest where others will not. This was similarly illustrated in Tanzania, when Turkey refused to follow other donors in pulling out of the country after a corruption scandal in 2016.The Erdoğan regime has been keen to distance itself, not only from Africa’s former colonial powers but also China, emphasising that it does not wish to “exploit” Africa’s natural resources. While this may seem disingenuous, given its growing role in the energy sector, it appears to have struck a chord amongst many African leaderships.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya has garnered significant media attention; however, this focus risks overlooking its vast commercial and diplomatic network in Africa. While it would be wrong to suggest that Turkey is in a position to challenge the dominance of long-term economic partners such as the US and China, it is becoming an increasingly influential power in the African context. Although its primary soft power tool – Turkish Airlines – has been affected by Covid-19, it could yet play a key role in reviving many African economies as they start to re-open, further cementing Turkey’s position as an assertive power on the continent.
This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s July 2020 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.