Dehai News Turkey’s push for influence in Africa is working

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 09 April 2024

Ankara’s many-sided approach to cooperation with Africa is bearing fruit.

In a nutshell

  • The Turkish government has made Africa one of its foreign policy priorities
  • Trade and cooperation between Turkey and African countries are booming
  • These strong ties could eventually clash with the West’s strategy in Africa

After a rapprochement with Europe followed by an inconclusive attempt to join the European Union in the 1990s and early 2000s, Turkey shifted its focus to Africa. At first, this pivot was motivated by the need to secure more diplomatic backing in international settings. Around 2005, however, Turkey-Africa relations began to deepen. This growth was spurred by global geopolitics, but also by the determined approach of the Justice and Development Party and Turkey’s economic boom in the mid-2000s.

Turkey’s engagement with Africa initially relied on soft power: humanitarian aid, education and cultural initiatives. Over time, more assertive forms of influence have become key aspects of the partnership. For instance, in 2011, Turkey played a vital role in Somalia by delivering aid during a devastating famine. In 2017, it established Camp TURKSOM in Mogadishu, its largest overseas military training facility. And in 2019, Turkey intervened in the Libyan civil war by supporting the Tripoli administration against General Khalifa Haftar, backed by Egypt and Russia.

Turkey as an alternative to the West and China

Turkey-Africa relations have expanded rapidly because of Ankara’s ambitious and multi-faceted long-term strategy. To expand its influence, Turkey has been engaging with a wide array of actors, including governmental bodies, private sector firms and faith-based groups. It has intensified its formal diplomatic efforts: There are now 44 Turkish embassies in Africa, compared to 12 in 2002. Ankara has also launched cultural programs, business councils and an extensive flight network across the continent, with Turkish Airlines now flying to more than 60 African destinations.

Accompanying this strategy is a narrative portraying Turkey as an “Afro-Eurasian” state. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shaped a modern vision of Turkey that revives its Ottoman heritage, while championing Turkish nationalism. He has consistently advocated for the overhaul of global institutions, positioning his country not just as a supporter of African aspirations but also a viable alternative to traditional powers like China and Western countries. 

Like Beijing, Ankara emphasizes state sovereignty and refrains from imposing political conditions on its partners. In this context, Turkey’s Muslim identity and lack of a colonial history are seen as unique strengths. For African countries, the Turkish aid model is also advantageous. Although funding is limited, the fact that grants are negotiated under bilateral schemes makes it an appealing alternative to aid from international institutions that comes with hefty political demands.

Turkey becomes a major security player in Africa

Historically, Turkey’s influence was mostly limited to North Africa and the Horn of Africa because of geographic and religious connections. However, as previously anticipated, Ankara is now expanding and consolidating relations with countries in West Africa, like Nigeria and Senegal, and with Sahel countries as well.

In the last two decades, trade between Turkey and Africa has increased from $5.4 billion to over $40 billion in 2022. Turkish products and services, from consumer to cultural goods, pharmaceutical products and construction services have been making significant inroads into African markets, thanks to their quality and competitive pricing. 

Additionally, Turkey has become a key actor in Africa’s changing security landscape. Already an important presence in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, Ankara has concluded defense agreements with countries in West and East Africa, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. Although the specifics of the deals vary – ranging from security provisions and technical support to military training – they most often include provisions around arm sales.

The expansion of the Turkish defense industry is one of the priorities of President Erdogan’s government. In 2023, the volume of Turkish defense and aerospace exports grew by 27 percent, reaching a record high of $5.5 billion. Growth is expected to accelerate in 2024, now that the Turkish company Baykar Technology has signed the biggest defense contract in the country’s history for the sale of unmanned combat aerial vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Turkey has become an important player in the global drone industry thanks to the development of competitive models like the Bayraktar TB2 or the Akinci. 

For African countries, Turkish defense products have many upsides. They are affordable and technically reliable, having been tested in Libya, Syria and, more recently, Ukraine. Again, unlike the West, Turkey does not make this assistance conditional on governance or human rights commitments. 

For countries facing insurgent movements, with under-resourced armies and porous borders, like Togo, Niger, Nigeria or Somalia, Turkey’s drones and counterterrorism expertise are especially valuable. Another sign of Ankara’s increasing importance in Africa’s security landscape is new maritime initiatives in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, including partnerships with Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea. 


The fragmenting world order is making it increasingly difficult for the EU to design a coherent African policy, and the United States’ initiatives on the continent have mostly failed. This situation will likely bring Turkey and Africa closer together.

Very likely: Turkey and Africa continue to cooperate

Given the scope of interests involved, including geopolitical concerns, economic interests and trade dynamics, relations with Africa are expected to remain a priority, even if a new leader were to take over in Turkey (not expected in the short term). For African countries, relations with Ankara will continue to offer an opportunity to increase their leverage, access economic and trade benefits, and secure defense agreements. 

The most likely scenario is therefore one under which security cooperation drives the expansion of Turkey-Africa relations, as more African countries resort to Turkish defense equipment and expertise. Ankara is expected to become an important – in some cases decisive – actor in Africa’s security landscape.

Turkey has recently grown closer to Egypt, mostly because of converging positions on the conflicts in Sudan and in Gaza. Ankara is also skillfully navigating relations with both Morocco and Algeria – two regional rivals. In the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, Turkey is perceived as less problematic than Moscow and the Wagner group, and more popular than the former colonial powers. All of this suggests that Turkey will remain a strategic partner in Africa. 

This development could lead to two different outcomes in how middle and large powers compete in Africa.

Less likely: The West and Turkey align their approach to Africa

The first, less likely, path is convergence between the approaches of Turkey, the EU, and the U.S. This could play out through multilateral engagements, for example, the NATO framework. A more cohesive strategy on Africa from these major players would potentially benefit all sides.

However, while convergence is possible, how Turkey engages with Africa, including its stance on various conflicts across the continent, will ultimately hinge on Ankara’s global interests as a middle power striving to manage the complexities of an increasingly divided international order.

More likely: Turkey and the West compete for influence in Africa

Recent events, however, suggest that the more likely path with the West is divergence. In Niger, while the EU and the U.S. have suspended aid to the military junta, Turkey – which is interested in establishing a military base in the country – has maintained its support for the new government. President Erdogan has stated that the Economic Community of West African States’ intention to intervene in the country was unacceptable. Ankara has also positioned itself as a mediator in the Sudan conflict. President Erdogan received Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces, in Ankara last September for official talks on bilateral relations.


   *Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) meets with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum on March 2, 2024. Ankara has actively sought to improve its diplomatic ties with African countries under President Erdogan. © Getty Images

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