In a recent article for International Crisis Group, Hannah Armstrong, a senior consulting analyst specializing in the Sahel, highlights Turkey’s activities in the Sahel region of Africa and why regional and international players are suspicious of these moves. Since 2005, Ankara has set its sights on Africa, viewing it as an important and strategic region, and has subsequently been working on establishing and nurturing political and economic ties throughout the continent. Leading this charge is none other than Turkish President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan, a staunch Muslim Brotherhood supporter, has marketed Turkey as a custodian of Islamic culture in predominately Muslim countries in Africa. Zooming in on the Sahel region, Turkey seemingly timed its intervention — perhaps intentionally — during a wave of anti-French sentiment among the populations of Mali, Burkino Faso and Niger. French-led military intervention in the Sahel was largely ineffective in combating the surge in communal killings and Islamist militancy since 2016 and Erdogan masterfully used these failures against France, playing on post-colonial sentiments. This strategy has apparently worked and, in June 202, France decided to cut the number of troops stationed in the Sahel in half by 2023, realizing that the Turkish strategy was extremely successful.
A Worrying Development
However, a withdrawal of France from the Sahel region is a worrisome development, not only for Europe, which has seen its influence wane on the African continent, but also for Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who see the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood — backed by Turkey and Qatar — as a serious threat to regional stability, particularly because of their support for political Islam. As the Sahel region becomes increasingly infiltrated by militant jihadist groups, the urgency of stemming the threat has become apparent to both Western and Arab states.
Armstrong predicts a broader rapprochement between Turkey and Arab states could be on the cards, especially because, in June, French President Emannuel Macron met with Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit and the two leaders seem to be mending ties. The author believes the most beneficial scenario for the Sahel region is for regional and international stakeholders to work together and not against one another. However, the author points out that while Turkey has mainly focused on soft-power moves such as development support and commercial engagement, regional players are quite wary that this could broaden support for the Muslim Brotherhood and boost Ankara’s geopolitical influence.
The Somalia Case
Armstrong then brings up the devastating Somalia famine of 2011, where Ankara’s humanitarian support earned it good-will amongst the population. It later used this favor, to boost influence with local allies drawn from Muslim Brotherhood supporters and only six years later was able to open up the largest military base outside of Turkey in Mogadishu. The strategic location of the military base on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean naturally alarmed Arab states of Turkey’s true motives. While Armstrong does not openly predict Turkey will follow the same course in the Sahel, it is definitely something that regional and international players are worried about.
Popular and Unpopular Moves
For now, Ankara has opened embassies in Bamako, Ougadagougou and Niamey, and built and rehabilitated mosques in the Sahel. Apart from that, it is playing a crucial humanitarian role providing critical assistance in healthcare, water and education. The local population has responded favorably and this, in turn, has opened up a variety of economic opportunities for Turkish businesses to flourish. Annual trade between Turkey and Mali, for example, increased more than tenfold from 2003 to 2019 — from $5 million to $57 million. Turkish airlines also launched a direct flight from Bamako to Jeddah, so that African pilgrims can easily perform Hajj in Mecca, which has made the locals very happy, according to Armstrong.
However, not all Turkish projects have won hearts and minds. The author points out that in 2017, following the coup attempt in Ankara that the Turkish government blamed on supporters of Fethullah Gülen — a self-exiled Turkish preacher based in the US —Turkey’s Maarif Foundation signed an agreement with Mali’s education minister allowing it to take control of a network of 18 Güleniest Horizon schools in Bamako. The author points out that the “heavy-handedness of the takeover alienated some alumni and the schools’ reputation suffered.”
Turkey-Niger Defence Pact
As far as Turkey’s security interests in the Sahel, Ankara had, at first, adopted a cooperative approach, providing diplomatic support to multilateral efforts such as Mali’s Algiers peace agreement in 2015. It also donated $5 million to the G5 Sahel force, a regional coalition which began fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel in 2018. But, in July 2020, Ankara signed a secretive defence pact with Niamey, to lay the foundation of future operation support between Turkey and Niger in the future.
The deal was met with much skepticism from France and the UAE, who viewed the move as Turkey trying to extend its influence in neighboring Libya and potentially setting up a military base in Niger, as it did in Somalia. The UAE believes Ankara to be arming Islamist militants in the Sahel and West Africa, to seize control of natural resources and spread political Islam. The evidence of foul play was further solidified when “Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu became the first senior foreign official to meet with leaders of the 18 August coup in Mali, fuelling speculation among some observers that Turkey had been involved in the Keïta government’s ouster,” according to Armstrong.
The author also points out that “in early 2021, after months of tensions between Turkey and France in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, French politicians and commentators hinted that Turkish-deployed jihadists might be behind an uptick in improvised explosive device attacks on French soldiers in Mali.” These developments only add fuel to rumors that Ankara has nefarious ambitions and, as a result, European partners in the Sahel have been increasingly reluctant to cooperate with Turkey.
The author concludes by stating that there is not yet very strong proof or evidence of a grand geopolitical agenda of Ankara in the Sahel, and cites a European diplomat as saying Ankara’s ambitions have been more “opportunistic”, rather than sinister. She points to the fact that Turkish aid and investments pale in comparison to the substantial sums Western powers have poured into the Sahel since 2014 — $61 million and $8 billion respectively.
Armstrong believes that while Turkish rapprochement with Egypt and Turkey, and Qatar and its neighbors, is a positive sign, it is still too early to tell how this will play out in the future. Competition between these players, Armstrong points out, has had destabilizing consequences in Africa. She believes it would be a gesture of good faith on Turkey’s part, going forward, if it continues to support multilateral efforts in the Sahel, rather than bilateral efforts. This could help reassure regional and international players that Turkey’s ambitions are not nefarious and could lead to larger regional stability and prosperity.