By Mert Can Yazici
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst
Towards the end of 2021, the Third Turkey-Africa Summit, which had been postponed for two years, was held in Istanbul. The two-day Summit was portrayed by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a new phase in Turkey-Africa relations which has gained significant momentum in recent years. [i] Despite the shadow of the Omicron variant, many high-level attendees were present at the Summit, including Félix Tshisekedi, the current chair of the African Union; Nana Akufo-Addo, the President of Ghana representing ECOWAS; Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda; and Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria.
From a broader perspective, Turkey is not the only country that has recently shown interest in Africa or held summits with African leaders. In recent years, traditional actors in Africa such as France, as well as many emerging actors such as China, India, and Japan have organised summits in the “Africa+1” format in increasing numbers. As Folashadé Soulé points out in a recent article, Africa+1 summits attract not only external actors seeking to increase their influence in Africa, but also African leaders for many reasons, such as diversifying their countries’ economies and achieving cooperation in various fields such as infrastructure. [ii] It can be argued that such summits are crucial both in terms of being an indicator of the importance given to the development of relations by both sides and institutionalising these relations. In this context, before the Third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, the Summits held in Istanbul in 2008 and Malabo in 2014 played an important role in the steps taken to institutionalise Turkey’s relations with Africa. [iii]
While Turkey may seem like just another actor that has increased its interest in Africa at first glance, Ankara has long promoted itself as a “unique” and “benevolent” actor. [iv] After the Cold War period, when its relations with Africa were quite limited with few exceptions, Turkey started its “opening to Africa” policy in 1998 as part of its quest to diversify its foreign policy. The implementation of this policy gained momentum during the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi- AKP) government that came to power in 2002. Especially after 2005, Turkey has significantly increased its diplomatic presence in Africa, with many high-level visits and a dramatic increase in the number of embassies across the continent. In addition, a multifaceted engagement was established with African countries, including scholarships to African students, growing trade ties, Turkish Airlines flights to African destinations, construction projects as well as humanitarian aid distributed through government agencies and Turkish NGOs in the field. [v] While carrying out this multi-track policy, Turkey both developed an anti-colonial discourse by emphasising the European actors’ colonial past, and distanced itself from China’s African policy, positioning itself as a new alternative for African countries. [vi]
The main importance of the Third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit is that it reveals the evolution of relations that initially developed based on trade and humanitarian aid to a point that gradually includes cooperation on global governance issues. [vii] This is compatible with the main reasons why Turkey, which has become increasingly isolated in the international arena in recent years, shows an increasing interest in Africa besides economic motives. For instance, President Erdogan called on African countries to join forces around the slogan “the world is bigger than five”, which he has been voicing for several years, by expressing in his speech at the Summit that it is “great injustice” that Africa is not represented at the UN Security Council. [viii]
Furthermore, the last Summit was instrumental in establishing mutual trust in security and defence issues, which has emerged as a new area in relations. In particular, African countries seem to be the most interested in Turkish drones, which have shown their usefulness in Syria, Libya, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. During his visit to Africa shortly before the Summit, Erdogan also pointed to this with his words “everywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAVs.”[ix]
However, it may be necessary to be cautious about this new phase in Turkey-Africa relations for several reasons. First, drone exports to African countries, many of which have recently started to be associated once again with coups, instability, and civil wars, may damage Turkey’s soft power in the continent that has been built with great effort over the years. [x] Second, despite the rapid developments in Turkey-Africa relations in recent decades, the Turkish society’s interest in Africa and the level of knowledge about African countries remain very low. The government’s Africa policy is rarely discussed in Turkey, which has a rapidly changing domestic agenda and has recently experienced a serious currency crisis. Finally, although Turkey has gradually increased its presence as a new actor in Africa in recent years, it would be very misleading to compare its capacity with big actors like China. [xi]
Nevertheless, as relations with Africa continue to progress towards a lasting place in Turkish foreign policy, it seems that there will be much to be said about Turkey’s engagement with Africa in the coming years.
[iii] Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu. E. (2020). Turkey’s African engagement: A critical analysis. Emi Vergels (ed.), In Eurasia goes to Africa (pp. 47-61). European Policy Center.
[iv] Donelli, F. (2018). The Ankara consensus: The significance of Turkey’s engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa. Global Change, Peace and Security, 30(1), 57–76 https://doi.org/10.1080/14781158.2018.1438384
[v] Eyrice Tepeciklioğlu. E. (2020). Turkey’s African engagement: A critical analysis.