After his political ambitions crumbled throughout the Middle East, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have shifted his focus to North Africa. Although originally marketed as a trade-oriented partnership, layers of military cooperation have started to emerge in Turkish-African relations, raising eyebrows across the world. Erdogan had first put his full weight behind the government of Muslim Brotherhood operative Mohammad Morsi, the elected president of Egypt who was toppled by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in the summer of 2013. He then shifted to Sudan and Libya, where he is supporting the Brotherhood-affiliated Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj with paid mercenaries from Syria. Now, Erdogan says that he is planning to explore oil in Somalia.
Turkey’s Recent Policy in Africa
Erdogan has invested heavily in the Horn of Africa since coming to power back in 2003. Many African states were former colonies of the Ottoman Empire, which Erdogan hopes to restore culturally, economically, militarily, and politically through a policy often described as neo-Ottomanism.
“Like every pseudo-Sultan or megalomaniac leader [if Turkey], Erdogan wants to restore the Ottoman Empire” said Joseph Kéchichian, a Riyadh-based senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Speaking to EER, he added: “He is unaware that such quests are no longer possible, even if one has to give him an ‘A’ for effort.” Somalia, Kéchichian added, “is just another rook on his chessboard, along with Eritrea, Djibouti, and every other spot he can think of.”
Turkey now has 41 embassies in Africa (up from just 12 in 2003) and Turkish Airlines lands at 58 destinations on the continent — up from just 14 in 2011. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency has opened 22 offices across the continent, along with mosques administered by Turkish-trained preachers. Some 4,500 African students are currently studying on scholarships in Turkey. Bilateral trade has increased five-fold under Erdogan, now standing at an impressive $26 billion USD, with the Turkish President promising to increase it to $50 billion.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, Turkish exports to Africa currently stand at $15.8 billion, while exports are at $5.6 billion. The Turkish-African Business Council adds that direct Turkish investment in Africa stands at $6.2 billion, up from $100 million in 2003. This is still a low number when compared to other investors in Africa. Chinese investment stands at $72 billion, the US at $31 billion, the UAE at $25 billion, and Great Britain at $17 billion — numbers that Erdogan hopes to match and eventually, surpass.
Speaking from Gabon in 2015, Erdogan said: “Africa belongs to Africans, we are not here for your gold,” describing Turks as “true friends”, unlike European colonial powers, one that respects respect Africa’s history, culture, traditions, and languages. Since then, Turkey has been actively building roads and bridges across the continent, opening childcare centers in Niger, women’s shelters in Cameroon, and a vocational training center in Madagascar.
In 2005, Turkey obtained the status of observer in the African Union, during the early years of Erdogan’s premiership. Three years later, he organized the first Turkish-African summit, attended by 50 African leaders, aimed at exploring development opportunities and marketing the Turkish economic model to underdeveloped African states. An unspoken Erdogan objective was also to gradually eradicate the influence of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based preacher and Islamic scholar, who runs a string of schools and institutions throughout Africa. These have been painfully annoying for the Turkish President, especially after failed coup attempt of July 2016, which he blamed on Gulen.
Twenty-nine African states have responded positively to Erdogan’s wish, shutting down Gulen-affiliated schools in their countries, and they are being replaced with ones affiliated with the Turkish-state run Maarif Foundation — which markets Erdogan’s vision of Islam and that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Senegal alone has closed over a dozen of Gulen’s schools, once catering to 3,000 students, while South Africa shut down eleven schools that were teaching 2,800 students. Angola followed suit, and so did Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mali, Tanzania, Benin, Niger, Madagascar, Zambia, and Ghana.
Overtures into Sudan
In December 2017, the Turkish President signed off a deal with then-president Omar al-Bashir, which gave Turkey exclusive rights to rehabilitate the port island of Suakin in northeastern Sudan, with docking rights for Turkish civilian and military vessels on the west coast of the Red Sea.
Suakin had once served as an Ottoman port, transferring pilgrims crossing the Red Sea to Mecca before it was forcefully relinquished to the British in the 1880s.
The deal over Suakin was just part of the agreement signed in Sudan that winter, which also included renovating the island’s historical buildings, constructing a new airport in Khartoum, investing in Sudanese cotton production, electricity generation, and grain silos.
Saudi Arabia was un-impressed, arguing that Suakin was dangerously close to the port city of Jeddah, bringing Turkey closer to its maritime borders, while adding that Erdogan doesn’t have the money for such projects — estimated at $650 million USD. He was planning to take the money from Qatar, they believed, which was at daggers-drawn with Saudi Arabia over its continued support for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Reaching out to Somalia
The investment in Sudan came while Erdogan was putting plenty of money in Somalia: upgrading infrastructure, renovating schools, training soldiers, and sending relief money to help the citizens combat a crippling 2011 famine. Erdogan came to a country torn apart by civil war, offering a helping hand that Somali authorities accepted with gratitude.
Erdogan has built roads, ports, and fisheries in Somalia, and sent a large number of Turkish experts to assist with capacity-building for the Somali government. Turkish Airlines make two trips a week to Mogadishu, and Turkish diplomats have brokered talks between Somalia and the breakaway republic of Somaliland.
Erdogan has even appointed a special envoy for the reconciliation efforts, Olgan Beker, setting a precedent in Turkish foreign policy. The funds he sends to President Mohammad Famajo were used to train paramilitary groups, either to combat domestic terrorists and insurgents or to stir upheaval in Somaliland, when needed.
Economic Benefits of Somalia
Erdogan will now be drilling for oil after Somalia adopted a new petroleum law, opening 15 blocs for foreign oil companies covering a total area of approximately 7,500 square miles. A British firm, Spectrum Geo, is already working in Somalia, collecting seismic data in preparation for oil drilling. The Somali offer to Ankara comes shortly after Turkey signed a maritime agreement with Libya and conducted mineral research with Niger. Somalia currently doesn’t produce oil, but experts believe that the country may have up to 2.7 billion barrels of oil in its water reservoir. Part of the offshore blocs that are up for exploration, a total of 100,000 square kilometers, is contested by neighboring Kenya, which might complicate Turkish ambitions.
Bilateral trade between the Turkey and Somalia stood at $206 million in 2019, up from $144 million in 2017. In 2011, Erdogan was the first non-African to visit Somalia in 20 years, opening a Turkish military base in Mogadishu in September 2017, which cost $50 million USD, aimed at training 10,000 Somali soldiers.
The Turkish military base in Somalia is spread across 400 hectares in the Somali capital, near its main airport, and encompasses three schools, dormitories, and arms depots, all manned by 200 Turkish officers and trainers. Such a Turkish military presence is worrying, given that Somalia has coastal borders with the Gulf of Aden and the strategic strait of Bab al-Mandeb, giving Erdogan easy access the ongoing conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have plenty at stake.
Erdogan hopes to boost his country’s defense sector through Africa, selling Turkish-made drones, helicopters, rifles, and training aircraft, and Somalia has plenty of motive of its own to purchase such equipment. The Somali government, such as it is, is threatened by Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM), often known simply as Al-Shabab, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Two days before the oil exploration deal was announced, a car bomb went off in the city of Afgoye, southwest of the Somali capital. Fifteen people were injured, including Turkish engineers. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack through its media outlet, Radio Andalus, saying: “We targeted the Turkish men and the Somali forces with them”. This was not the first attack of its kind against Turkish presence in Somalia.
In October 2011, a blast in Mogadishu killed more than 70 Somalis, targeting students queuing up to apply for Turkish scholarships, and in July 2013, a car loaded with dynamite crashed into an office used by Turkish embassy staff in the Somali capital, killing three people. Days before a visit by President Erdogan to Mogadishu, a suicide bomber denotated himself at the gates of the hotel housing the Turkish leader in January 2015. A spokesman for Al-Shabab issued a statement saying: “NATO uses Turkey as a hammer to smash Muslims.” One year later, two al-Shabab militants killed a Turkish engineer working with an aid agency in Mogadishu.
There is, therefore, a mutual benefit for the Somali government and Erdogan in expanding security cooperation and Mogadishu purchasing Turkish weaponry. Should Somalia, or other countries, prove unable to pay for such hardware, Erdogan is more than willing to accept payment in kind — in oil rights, for example.
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