When Turkish-trained security forces cracked down hard on protesters in the Somali capital of Mogadishu last month, a spotlight was turned on the growing African entanglement of a new non-African player: Turkey.
Troops from the Gorgor Special Division, trained at Turkey’s TURKSOM military base in the Somali capital, were widely criticized for their violent dispersal of oppositionists protesting a disputed scheduled election.
Oppositionist and former Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khairi described the Special Division’s actions as “a direct attempt to get rid of us”, while a February 19 statement from the UN Somalia Mission called for “full respect of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”
Tempers have since calmed in Mogadishu, yet the incident placed Turkey in a tricky position.
“Turkey is very popular in Somalia and is widely considered an impartial, brotherly country,” Abdinor Dahir, a Horn of Africa political analyst at the University of Oxford, told Asia Times. “However, in fragile states like Somalia, international actors should make sure that the troops they have armed remain apolitical and are not used for the wrong reasons.”
That will be increasingly difficult as Ankara continues its diplomatic, humanitarian, security and economic push into the giant continent. That push is now being boosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly assertive security and foreign policy.
“It is now possible to claim that Turkey aims to become an economic, humanitarian and military power in sub-Saharan Africa,” Dr Ali Bilgic, a Turkish foreign policy expert at Loughborough University, told Asia Times.
In East Africa, this has led to a clash for influence with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while in the Sahel Turkey has rubbed up against former colonial power France.
How this plays out will have important consequences for Africans and Turks, from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf of Guinea.
Years of Africa
Turkey began its African push in earnest back in 2005, with the initial impetus provided by economics rather than politics.
“With manufacturing and construction two main sectors of the Turkish economy, Ankara realized these could be very complimentary for Africa,” Federico Donelli, author of Turkey in Africa and an international relations researcher at the University of Genoa, told Asia Times.
Turkish businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), particularly in education, flowed in. Official diplomatic efforts then followed wherever these unofficial groups achieved success.
Turkish Airlines also began flying to a range of Sub-Saharan African countries, with Istanbul now the chief intercontinental air hub for much of the region. Embassies and consulates then opened wherever the wheels touched down.
After becoming a “strategic partner” of the African Union in 2008, the next phase of Turkish involvement began in 2011.
That year, “The visit of a Turkish delegation to Somalia marked the beginning of the period of Turkey as a ‘humanitarian actor’ in Africa, in addition to being an economic partner,” says Bilgic.
Suffering decades of war and economic collapse – and a severe drought in 2011 – Somalia welcomed aid from Turkish humanitarian organizations such as the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).
Turkey also helped in a major effort to re-stabilize the country, while Turkish investment also flowed.
Turkish companies now run both the port and airport in Mogadishu, while Turkish oil and gas companies are currently readying to work offshore.
Now, a new phase of Turkish involvement is underway.
“What is important nowadays in the Turkish-African relationship is not Turkish policy towards Africa, but the policy of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party towards Africa,” adds Donelli.
During the initial phases of Turkish involvement, foundations owned and operated by followers of Turkish Islamic cleric Fetullah Gulen were on the vanguard.
He was then a close ally of Erdogan, with Gulen’s NGOs opening schools, colleges and universities across Sub-Saharan Africa.
That alliance ended abruptly in 2014 with Erdogan moving against the powerful Gulen, shutting his Turkey-based schools and other establishments.
The conflict intensified in 2016, when Erdogan blamed Gulen’s supporters for organizing a failed coup attempt against him.
“Africa then became a battleground for the fight between the Turkish state and the Gulenists,” says Donelli.
Ankara began pressuring African governments to transfer control of Gulenist establishments to its own Maarif Foundation.
Yet, as many sons and daughters of the African political elite had by then been to Gulen’s schools, there was often a negative reaction to Erdogan’s pressure.
At the same time, the clash marked a shift in Turkey’s Africa policy to one now increasingly driven by Erdogan’s agenda rather than by purely humanitarian or business concerns.
That agenda has become increasingly assertive as Erdogan has taken more direct control of Turkish foreign policy, seeking to expand his nation’s global reach. This has been particularly evident in North Africa.
There, Turkish troops back up the National Accord government in Libya, while Egypt, the UAE and France back the rival administration based in Benghazi.
In addition, a “common mistake”, says Bilgic, “is to separate Turkish geopolitical interests in North Africa from Turkish involvement in the rest of Africa. They are highly related. Franco-Turkish competition in North Africa might spill down to sub-Saharan Africa.”
This includes West Africa, where Turkey has made a major impact recently, sending food aid to Gambia and Covid-19 medical aid to Niger and Chad. In 2020, Turkey also signed a defense industry agreement with Nigeria.
Somalia, however, remains “Turkey’s gateway to Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Dahir.
Since 2017, the Horn of Africa country has also been the location for Turkey’s largest overseas military base – TURKSOM.
“We should not forget the importance of the Turkish military base in Somalia,” says Bilgic, “where relations started out on purely humanitarian terms.”
Recent events in Mogadishu may therefore act as a warning of the risks – as well as the benefits – of Turkey’s growing African involvement.
“Any future political conflict in which the Turkish-trained security forces become involved, or further opposition criticism of these troops, may negatively impact Turkish popularity in the country,” says Dahir.
Although “Turkish officials say Turkey can compete in Africa with France and China, this is unrealistic. Turkey should instead pay more attention to the thing it’s done really well for the last 15 years – a humanitarian diplomacy welcomed by many African countries,” says Donelli.