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Turkey in Africa: what a small but growing interest portends

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening of the new Turkish embassy in Mogadishu in June 2016. MOHAMED Abdiwahab/AFP via Getty Images

The strategic presence of France, the US and the UK in Africa over more than a century is well documented. So is the growing presence of China and the resurgence of Russia’s interest.

But not much attention has been given to other countries growing their influence on the continent. One of them is Turkey.

Geographically, Turkey sits at the interface between Asia and Europe, given that it straddles the Bosporus. This is the waterway that connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Geopolitically, it faces West through its NATO membership and aspirations to enter the European Union (EU). Simultaneously, and more actively, it faces East and South with its growing politico-military involvement in Iraq and Syria as well as its military and diplomatic forays into the Horn of Africa and Libya.

Turkey’s African drives started in 2003 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Prime Minister, a position he held between 2003 and 2014 before becoming president. He has overseen a significant growth in interest, making about 30 visits to African countries.

Turkey’s entry into Africa drew most attention with its drive into Somalia in 2011. At the time few countries supported the Somali government. This was partly because it remained a semi-collapsed state, unstable and since 2015 was even lending support to the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen just across the Gulf of Aden.

Turkey’s presence in Somalia was initially premised on trade and economic support followed by security related matters. In 2016 it opened what is said to be the largest overseas Turkish embassy in Mogadishu.

Turkey’s involvement in Africa is intricately linked to its complex relations with countries in the Middle East. One example is its ties with Qatar. Turkey expanded its military presence in the country between 2015 and 2019. Relations between the two strengthened significantly after 2017 when Qatar disengaged from the Saudi coalition fighting in Yemen. Turkey went as far as to break the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, offering aid and basing military contingents in Qatar.

Turkey’s ventures into the Arabian Peninsula evolved in parallel with a growing presence on the African continent.

Turkey initially premised its role in Africa on providing economic aid rather than military involvement. The move towards a military presence soon became apparent with the opening of a military base in Mogadishu, Somalia in September 2017. This followed the withdrawal of the United Arab Emirates from Somalia on the request of the Somali government.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya has been more recent. But there is a similarity between the Libya and Somalia: both countries have weak, vulnerable governments and armed opposition groups.

One factor driving Turkey’s interests in the Horn of Africa in particular stem from perceptions of a new economic zone of interest accentuated by the intense clustering of foreign powers in the Red Sea region, including a good crop of Arab states. Djibouti has been at the epicentre of this.

This scramble for the Horn by large, medium and small foreign powers is set out in depth in recent research compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Growing tensions

The most recent, and perhaps disturbing, Turkish venture into Africa is in North Africa, specifically Libya, where it provides military support for the UN backed government of national unity in Tripoli alongside its ally Qatar.

Turkey is deploying combat and support forces to Libya. This marks a significant departure from its initial economic and aid-driven grounds for entering the continent. The deployment is bound to increase existing tensions off the African coast on the Mediterranean.

Turkey’s involvement in Libya is closely tied to its maritime agenda in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is pinned on reciprocal support from the Tripoli-based government for brusque Turkish challenges to maritime boundaries that regulate access to long-disputed energy deposits. These claims have a real potential to upset, or further strain, relations with Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and Italy. This is because overlapping maritime boundaries are not yet settled .

Its involvement in Libya can therefore be seen as an attempt to reinforce its claims to large ocean tracts and energy resources located in the eastern Mediterranean and in Libya. Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt are unlikely to stand idly and watch. Each country has its own vital interests linked to the known energy deposits in the contested maritime areas. At the same time they are also supporting different factions in the Libyan conflict.

Dangerous cycle

Another aggressive military entry into the Libyan cauldron is uncalled for. Adding foreign military aid and soldiers, including foreign fighters recruited in Syria, risks prolonging the Libyan conflict. It’s already a messy affair, with forces of the Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar, and supported by Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, opposing the UN-supported Tripoli unity government.

Read more: Why 'too many cooks in the kitchen' could inhibit a peace deal in Libya

Tied to this is the fact that Turkey seems to view Libya as a theatre to test or market its defence industry products, and showcase its military in Africa as a Turkish foreign policy instrument.

But the Libyan deployment holds the risk of setting up Turkish military forces in Africa against Russian regular and irregular contingents, or even fellow Muslim countries. Qatar is already supporting the Tripoli-based government with arms transfers, reinforcing the Turkish and Qatari axis.

Lastly, Africa can ill afford a third destabilised maritime zone off its coast if the Turkish maritime claims result in a confrontation – or blockades – at sea over resources, sea lanes of communication and maritime infrastructure. If the pending armed posturing affects access to energy product flows, the array of countries threatened by Turkey’s ambitions could resort to military force in Libya, and the adjacent oceans territory.

Word of caution

Turkey harbours strong national ambitions, and a willingness to grow and use its military muscle at sea and on land alongside economic instruments.

Weakly governed African states, such as Libya, provide fertile ground for exploitation by a growing number of smaller, but ambitious countries, akin to the scramble for Africa by European powers during the imperialism period.

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