As Erdogan set for another tour, Turkey deepens ties with Africa

East Africa’s largest indoor arena in Rwanda; a national mosque in Ghana; an army base in Somalia; and an almost 400km-long railway project which would help give landlocked Ethiopia direct access to major trade routes through the port of Djibouti.

These are just some of Turkey’s increasingly growing footprints across sub-Saharan Africa as Ankara has over the past two decades sought to present itself as an alternative player in a continent that has long witnessed fierce competition between traditional European powers and newcomers.

Nonetheless, Turkey’s outreach might bear more fruit as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to kick off another round of a diplomatic tour on Sunday that covers Angola, Nigeria and Togo.

Alongside the signing of new deals, the trip will also see business forums banding Turkish and local business people together in each country in a bid to cultivate relationships and agreements.

It also comes ahead of two major events – the Turkey-Africa Business Summit later this month and the third Turkey-Africa Summit in December – that the Turkish government has been preparing for.

Erdogan’s first stop will be in Angola, a country undergoing major political and economic transformation after almost four decades of Jose Eduardo dos Santos’s rule.

President Joao Lourenco, who visited Turkey three months ago, has been looking for ambitious actors to help diversify the heavily oil-reliant economy.

Alp Ay, Turkey’s ambassador to Angola, believes Ankara can be part of the country’s transformation.

Nigeria, the second leg of the tour, is Turkey’s top trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa with a trading volume of $754m in 2020. However, Murat Yigit, from the Istanbul Commerce University, says more can be done.

An ambitious mission

The visits are a part of a longstanding drive to reconnect with the continent by Erdogan, who describes Turkey as an “Afro-Eurasian state” and has visited more African countries than any other non-African leader. By the end of the tour, Erdogan will have visited a total of 30 African countries as president and prime minister since 2004.

Historically, Ottoman Turks built strong ties with emirs, kingdoms and communities across the continent, particularly in what is now Morocco, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.

However, the ties suffered from a decades-old pause. The young Turkish republic, which was built on the ashes of the Ottoman empire, focused on its neighbours and Europe until it began changing course with the end of the Cold War.

As Turkey shifted to a more multi-dimensional paradigm in its foreign policy, the continent has become a core pillar of the new strategy that has seen the development of complex multilayered relations that now encompasses business, aid, diplomatic and military support.

Figures show how far Turkey has come. From $5.4bn in 2003, Ankara’s trade volume with the continent dramatically increased to more than $25bn in 2020.

Over the past decade or so, Turkey’s diplomatic missions have mushroomed across Africa. There are currently a total of 43 Turkish embassies, compared with 12 in 2009. Turkey’s flag carrier Turkish Airlines operates flights to 60 different destinations across 39 countries while the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency operates in its 30 coordination centres spread over the continent.

Ibrahim Bachir Abdoulaye, a Nigerien researcher at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, said the reason behind Turkey’s growing influence is that its engagement differs from those of other powers in its political discourse, the business and the humanitarian aid model.

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