Even with Erdogan facing an increasing number of political and economic difficulties at home, Turkey continues to expand its geo-political footprint beyond its borders. Whereas Turkey’s recent adventures in Libya were largely seen as the country’s first major military deployment and direct involvement in a conflict in the continent, Turkey’s presence in Africa exists far beyond the war-torn North African country, and is sustained by a political rhetoric that is uncompromising, is ideologically grounded in “neo-Ottomanism” and even relies on the use of hard power. Its recent display was the way Turkey, despite international pressure for ceasefire, threw its full might behind Azerbaijan against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Over the past few years, Erdogan has increasingly relied on Turkey’s armed forces to execute Turkey’s core foreign policy objectives. This includes the use of the military through direct and indirect means.
This was evident when Turkish trained security forces cracked down on protestors in the Somali capital of Mogadishu last month to control resistance against the regime. Turkey has been providing training to the Somalian Armed Forces at the Counter-Terrorism Training and Exercise Centre in Turkey’s Southwestern province of Isparta. This is part of plan to train about 15,000 Somalian soldiers. At the same time, Turkey’s largest overseas military base is also located in Somalia, where the rest of the Somalian soldiers are being trained.
But Somalia is hardly the only case where Turkey is involved. Since 2009, the number of Turkish embassies in Africa has increased from just 12 to 42. Keeping in mind the goal to take trade ties to US$50 billion, Turkey’s direct trade with African countries has increased from US$ 1 billion in 2002 to US$ 7.6 billion in 2019.
In November 2019, the largest Mosque in Djibouti was inaugurated, covering 13,000 square meters with the seating capacity of 6,000 people. The new landmark was financed by Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, called Diyanet. Diyanet has become one of the major faces of Turkey’s growing export of neo-Ottomanist ideology across Africa. Over the past four decades, Diyanet has financed the construction of more than 100 mosques and educational institutions in 25 countries worldwide, including the African nations Djibouti, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.
By opposing Africa’s colonial roots and by criticising the influence that former colonial states like France continue to exert in Africa, Erdogan hopes to carve out a space for his neo-Ottoman ambitions. A year ago when Erdogan visited Senegal, he successfully presented Turkey as a viable alternative to the exploitation of colonial states.
In Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, Turkey has invested US$ 2.5 billion. In 2005, there were just three Turkish companies in Ethiopia. Today, there are 200, ranging from wires and textiles to beverages.
Elsewhere in Libya. Turkish troops are present on the ground backing up the National Accord government in Libya, while Egypt and the UAE are backing the rival administration based in Benghazi.
Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the UAE and Egypt also indicates that Turkey’s ventures into Africa, with its explicit neo-Ottomanist face and support for the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood, is coming into direct conflict with its rival Middle Eastern countries.
While Turkey’s ambitions to rival France in Africa appear unrealistic at this stage, there is little gainsaying that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are competing both politico-economically and ideologically for influence in Africa.
Accordingly, most of Turkey’s moves in Africa raise suspicions in the Arab world. For example, when Turkey decided to extend the mandate of anti-piracy naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, Somalian waters and the Arabian Sea, leading Arab media saw this as part of Turkey’s ‘destabilising agenda.’ It said that Turkey’s decision to further extend its mission in those areas is a “reminder” to Saudi Arabia that Ankara “intends to make up in Yemen and Somalia for what it has lost in Sudan after being pushed out of the Suakin base.”
Of course, for Turkey the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir after decades in power was a setback. The Suakin base was important for Turkey both strategically and symbolically. It was once an island that the Ottoman Empire used as a port to secure access to what was then called the Hejaz province – now western Saudi Arabia – from invaders coming from the Red Sea.
In the present context, too, the island remains crucial for Turkey to establish a footprint in the Red Sea, allowing it to deploy its forces right in Saudi backyard. For Turkey this presence could be an effective counter-balancing act vis-à-vis Saudi support for Kurdish militias in Syria and in Turkey.
Turkey’s ventures in Africa, therefore, have a very explicit geo-political ambitions. Like Turkey’s adventures in Central Asia and the Middle East in Asia, its presence in MENA, too, are a manifestation of its growing ambition to become a global player and position itself in a way in the increasingly multipolar world where it can maximise its interests.
However, continuously worsening economic conditions at home may end up short-circuiting Turkey’s external adventures and kill the so-called “neo-Ottoman” dream. Foreign investment in Turkey itself has slowed. With Lira in almost a free-fall situation already, Turkey’s plunge into an economic crisis will seriously limit the extent to which it can continue its adventures thousands of miles away from home and effectively compete its rivals.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.