Armed with drones and active diplomacy, Turkey is slowly – but surely – charting a path for a major role for itself in Africa. While Russia has historically dominated African arms market with 49 percent of market share, Turkey’s ambitious foray includes geo-political interests, especially with regards to how it sees itself as a natural player in the region as a ‘neo-Ottoman’ state, and the ways it intends to consolidate itself in that capacity. By becoming a major supplier of weapons and military technology, Turkey hopes to transform itself into a guarantor of African states’ security. The role it played in Libya showcases broader Turkish ambitions in Africa. In this context, the recently held Turkey-Africa summit in Istanbul – which was attended by 39 African leaders, including Senegalese President Macky Sall, the incoming chair of the African Union; Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, currently the chair of the Economic Community of West African States – reflects Ankara’s growing clout in Africa.
In many ways, Turkey’s more recent ventures related to military technology builds on its existing economic ties. Annual trade between Turkey and Africa rose from US$4.5 billion in 2003 to US$26 billion in 2020, with Ankara further eying to raise it to US$ 50 billion. A major source of this increase is, as the African summit made cleart, will be Turkish arms and defense technology. As a post-summit statement from the Nigerian president’s media aide said “Turkish (military) technology, be they drones or even through the supply or manufacture of military ordinance in Nigeria will surely quicken the process and efforts to rid the country of pockets of terrorists and the menace of kidnappers and bandits. From their wide experience and advances in technology in fighting terrorism and banditry, they have a lot to give and they have assured us that they will give that support.” As it stands, Turkey recently secured arms deals worth 73 million USD.
As details show, Kenya has bought 118 Hizir armoured vehicles from Katmerciler, an Izmir-based manufacturer, which it will use against al-Shabaab militants. The Turkish company beat bids from American and South African rivals. In December it sold the same model to Uganda and Ankara signed a $150 million deal with Tunisia. In other words, by making deals that address the relevant African countries’ immediate security needs, Turkey is not only making profits, but is also becoming a key partner of these African states’ efforts to stabilise the security situation.
In other words, Turkish arms deals are much economics as geo-politics. For instance, countries like Togo have set-up plans to improve their army with the support of Turkey through training and armoured vehicles, weapons and other kinds of equipment.
Since October 2021, Turkey’s sale of drone to the African states has expanded manifold, with Morocco and Ethiopia making deals and Angola following suit. The drone sales to Ethiopia will equip the Ethiopian military against the northern Tigray region – Africa’s bloodiest conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Turkish sales are, therefore, on the rise. As the data shared by the Turkish Exporters Assembly in December 2021, Turkish arms sales to Africa rose by 39.7 per cent, with the first 11 months of 2021 seeing exports reaching a record figure of US$2.793 billion. New deals made via the summit has raised hopes for Turkey to end the year with sales/exports of more than US$3 billion. With Africa already ranking fifth in Turkey’s defense exports, the present trajectory shows that it may soon become the largest recipient of Turkish exports.
Turkey’s geo-political inroads are not solely dependent upon arms deals. Besides the overall level of bi-lateral trade, Turkey has also a wide diplomatic presence in Africa. They are 40 Turkish embassies in Africa, and Turkish air-line flies to over 50 destinations across the continent. However, to consolidate its growing footprint, it has also established 39 military offices across the continent dedicated to offering military services to the African states. Besides it, Turkey is also actively involved in security operations in Sahel region, and has a large military base in Somalia.
“Everywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAVs (Turkish drones)”, Erdogan boasted after a visit to Angola, Nigeria and Togo in October, 2021. While Erdogan’s statement highlights the demand, it also shows how Turkey is anchoring its defense industry as a key vehicle of its partnership with Africa.
Over the past few years, Ankara has expanded its defense industry from an annual turnover of 1 billion to 11 billion USD in 2020, making it the 14th largest exporter of military equipment in the world. “In the last 19 years, Turkey has taken many steps in the field of the defense industry, which also struck Angola’s attention,” Erdogan told a joint news conference with Lourenco in the capital Luanda in October 2021.
But how has Turkey managed to capture the African market? To a significant extent, the success of Turkish drones and military equipment in Libya proved to be a watershed. At the same time, however, the rhetoric that Turkey has constructed to boost its sale has played a key role. Ankara “sympathises” with Africa over how the world has treated Africa and that now it is time for Africa to strengthen itself via Turkish arms is playing a key role. “1.3 billion people live on the African continent and it is not represented at the Security Council,” Erdogan said in his speech during the last month summit, adding that “This is a huge, flagrant injustice.”
Thus, armed with relatively cheaper – and effective – military technology and a powerful political narrative that capitalises on – and manipulates – African position in the hierarchy of the world system, Turkey has been able to achieve in Africa something that was unthinkable until a few years ago, although the arms deals and anti-colonial discourse is only a means for Turkey to improve its own position in the same hierarchy.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.