Africa and Turkey: a promising partnership?


A fortnight ago, Turkey remembered the first anniversary of the brutal 15 July failed coup attempt that left over 250 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Waving flags, Turkish citizens turned out in overwhelming numbers and were addressed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a rally on Istanbul’s Martyrs Bridge (formerly the First Bosphorus Bridge) to commemorate the coup’s victims.

Remembrance of the bloodiest power grab attempt in the country’s political history was not only confined to Turkey however. A few days after the anniversary, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) reported that three children’s parks in the Somali capital of Mogadishu had been named after some of those who lost their lives that night: Prof. Dr. İlhan Varank, Sergeant Major Bülent Aydın and Abdullah Tayyip Olçok.

Close Turkish-Somali relations were hailed by TİKA Somalia Coordinator Galip Yılmaz, who said, “The people of Somalia prayed for Turkey on July 15 and organised a rally the following day. Our brotherhood will continue till eternity.”

At a meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart Mulatu Teshome Wirtu earlier this year in Addis Ababa, President Erdoğan greeted Ethiopia with similar praise, as one of the first allied countries to show solidarity to Turkey’s government by denouncing the conspirators. During the meeting President Teshome also pledged to help undermine the operational capacity of the followers of US-based cleric and prime coup plotter suspect Fethullah Gülen, known in Turkey as the Fetullah Terror Organisation (FETÖ), declaring that Ethiopia would transfer control of all linked educational institutions in the country over to the Turkish Maarif Education Foundation.

FETÖ, which was unanimously condemned last October by Islamic scholars participating in the Istanbul Eurasia Islam Council summit as a terrorist group “exploiting religious and humanitarian values for their ultimate goals”, has links to numerous schools across the world: a cause for concern to Ankara. Turkey has attempted to address this by lobbying other African partners to follow Ethiopia’s example, successfully negotiating the transfer of these schools to Turkish control in countries such as Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia and Senegal.

A Somali children’s park is named after Turkish coup victim Abdullah Tayyip Olçok, July 2017


Turkey’s growing ties with many African states are not linked solely to its struggle against FETÖ however. As one of the fastest growing areas globally in 2016, owing in part to the continent-wide explosion of the mobile phone industry, Sub-Saharan Africa is open for business and has attracted renewed interest in Foreign Direct Investment from many countries. For its part, Turkey as a more recent partner is also seeking a larger piece of the action, pursuing multilateral and bilateral relationships in the region politically, economically and in other fields such as infrastructural development, education, security and humanitarian support.

“Turkey has never turned its back on Africa and its African brothers and sisters”

Diplomatically, Ankara has pulled out all the stops, with President Erdoğan making a record number of visits to the region as a non-African leader, having travelled to over 23 countries more than 30 times as Prime Minister and then President. He has made numerous trips to the continent in the last two years, visiting Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea and the Ivory Coast between February-March 2016 and Somalia, Uganda and Kenya in June last year, as well as making trips this year to Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar in January and Ethiopia in February.

Speaking at a gala dinner of the Congress on Health in Africa, held at Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul, on 21st July, President Erdoğan said: “Although it has experienced stagnation in its relations with the continent in the last century due to various reasons, Turkey has never turned its back on Africa and its African brothers and sisters. Despite having been through so many trying periods, our country has exerted maximum effort to stand in solidarity with our African friends.”


President Erdoğan & his wife Emine meet Africans outside Dolmabahçe Palace before Congress on Health in Africa gala dinner, 21 July 2017. Photo: Turkish Presidency


The pace at which Turkey has cultivated these new ties has been rapid. In 2009, Turkey had only 12 embassies across the continent of which 5 were in North Africa. The number now stands at 39 with Ankara stating its desire for every African capital to ultimately have a Turkish embassy. In return, 33 African countries, with Tanzania among the newest to do so, have also opened their own embassies in Turkey. Moreover, Turkish Airlines, which will carry across routes to 41 African states this year, has become the continent’s largest airline network and has established Istanbul as a critical transit point for many African travellers.

Turkish Airlines is the African continent’s largest airline network

Turkey’s increased engagement with the region began in earnest in 2005. This occurred firstly on a multilateral level when the country became an observer in the African Union (AU), a multinational body working towards “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in [the] global arena.” Turkey later expanded its relationship with the bloc becoming a Strategic Partner in 2008 and by supporting the AU’s growth, development and anti-poverty New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) programme. Moreover, between that year and 2014, Turkey also increased its involvement in the region by contributing naval forces to NATO counter-piracy initiatives off the continent’s Horn in the Gulf of Aden.

Shortly after becoming an AU Strategic Partner, Turkey also sought out far-reaching bilateral relations with individual African states, perhaps the most famous being the country’s almost romantic bond with Somalia. With the outbreak of civil war in the East African country, Ankara had closed down its embassy in 1991; relations would only be re-energised in 2011 when as Prime Minister Erdoğan made an official trip to Mogadishu, laying the foundations for a long-standing and intimate partnership while setting another record as the first non-African leader to do so since George Bush Senior’s New Year visit in 1992-1993.

Many were delighted by the Turkish Prime Minister’s appearing without body armour and accompanied by his wife Emine. There were even reports of Somalis naming their sons ‘Erdoğan’ in appreciation of this confidence-inspiring gesture. Turkey built upon this by swiftly establishing a presence of 500 aid workers in Mogadishu after Al-Shabaab jihadist militants were pushed out of the city in the August of that year, and invested around $400 million in state-building, development and aid in the time between that visit and mid-2016.

Turkish investment has assisted the construction of hospitals staffed by Turkish doctors, schools and roads, as well as the renovation of Mogadishu’s Aden Abdulle International Airport with Turkish Airlines as the first major airline flying in after two decades and Favori LLC, another Turkish company running the terminal since September 2013.

Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, renovated by Turkish firm Favori. Photo Goobjoob News, Oct. 2015


Illustrating shared Islamic ties between the two nations, funds were also put towards building an Ottoman-style mosque in the Somali capital, the ground-breaking ceremony of which was attended by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ and Development Minister Cevdet Yılmaz in the February of that year.

Having contributed earnestly to the reconstruction of the Somali state through these infrastructural developments, Ankara is also establishing itself as a partner in sustaining these strides by helping to strengthen the country against threats to its security and stability by jihadi terrorists. In the coming months Turkey will be opening a military training camp within the East African country that will be overseen and led by 200 Turkish officers, and will boast facilities equipped to train over 1,500 soldiers at once when complete.

The initiative was hailed by Somali Foreign Minister Yusuf Garaad Omar who said “This military training camp established by our Turkish friends will be the first professional training camp for the Somali army. That is why it is very important to us,” while speaking to Anadolu Agency in the Turkish capital last month.

Ethiopian President Teshome keen for Turkish investment “in much needed areas of infrastructure, manufacturing & energy 

Ankara is also planning to expand humanitarian and economic engagement with neighbouring Ethiopia. During their February meeting, Presidents Erdoğan and Teshome stated their aims to deepen the strategic partnership between their two countries by initiating negotiations for a preferential trade agreement. Praising the meeting as “fruitful and productive” President Teshome added that “We have recognised that additional effort is needed to further strengthen and deepen cooperation through economic interdependence by expanding trade and investments,” and that he and the Turkish President had also “discussed how to take new actions to further enhance Turkish investment in Ethiopia in much needed areas of infrastructure, manufacturing and energy.”

More recently, the country was also visited by Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmet Yıldız in his role as chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) last month. Mr Yıldız was leading a fact-finding mission in East Africa to investigate the effects of famine and drought in the region with a view to alleviating it.

This month, Turkey has also sought to gain ground in developing ties further south in the continent as Hasan Yavuz, a special adviser to President Erdoğan met Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu at a recent AU summit to discuss potential Turkish educational support for the country. Zambian official sources quote Mr Yavuz as saying that, “The Turkish government is prepared to build schools and rent buildings in Zambia for education purposes. The schools to be built will be from kindergarten to secondary school”.

Mr Yavuz’s statement was welcomed by Susan Sikaneta, Zambia’s ambassador to Ethiopia who added that “Zambia would like to learn from Turkey, a country leading in construction, agriculture and even in the clothing industry”. Building on the Turkish government’s commitment, last week Mr Yavuz led a delegation on a three-day trip to the country.

Business leader Danisa Baloyi describes Turkey’s approach in South Africa as “win-win”

A similarly positive reception emerged following a meeting between Turkish investors and Danisa Baloyi, the head of the National Black Business Caucus (NBBC) an influential South African business association, earlier this month. Ms Baloyi praised what she referred to as the “win-win” Turkish approach, calling it an alternative to the “traditional profit-driven policy” pursued by other countries. She also drew attention to numerous suitable sectors for cooperation from Turkey including agriculture, textiles, media, telecommunications, mining and tourism among others. Her words were accompanied by the signing of a goodwill agreement between the NBBC and Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) marking another step towards closer Turkish-South African business ties.

With already extensive investment in the continent, and a positive reception from a variety of countries across various fields and sectors, Turkey appears on course to be a major partner, actor and influencer in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Main picture: Second Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit, in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, 19-21 Nov. 2014