What shapes Turkey’s thriving influence in Africa?
Turkey has an advantage and abundant potentials in terms of its relations with the African continent because the country is free of colonial history and exploitation on the continent.
Since it was granted the observer status at the African Union (AU) in 2005, known as “the year of Africa”, Turkey has gained a new status as a new emerging economic and humanitarian power in Africa. Its model of combining diplomacy with a strong commitment that focuses on direct aid and mutually beneficial economic partnerships, have been instrumental in winning local support and manifested real impact on the ground. Its trade volume with Africa increased from around $5.4 billion in 2003 to around $26 billion in 2019, with $16 billion in exports to Africa, according to TurkStat.
Turkey is an energy-importing country although it was excluded in important agreements that shape the shares of the East Mediterranean countries, which lead to tension in the region. It all started when the Greek Cypriot administration made international agreements disregarding the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) rights to work on extraction of the natural resources around the island.
According to US Geological Survey, the eastern Mediterranean contains natural gas worth approximately $700 billion. Egypt, Greece, the Greek Cypriot administration, Italy, and Israel established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) as an intergovernmental organization giving formal status to a group that seeks to promote natural gas exports from the eastern Mediterranean and tried to leave out Libya, Lebanon, and Turkey.
EMGF unites Turkey’s regional rivals, which have been locked in a bitter dispute over gas drilling rights in the region. France, a vocal opponent of Turkey’s aims in the region, has also applied for membership. However, Turkey and Libya reached an agreement on the delimitation of the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean Sea, which came as a game-changer of the EMGF plans. Cyprus, Greece, and Israel were working to develop a pipeline at an estimated $7-$9 billion to transport the eastern Mediterranean gas into Europe. The pipeline would have to cross the Turkey-Libya jurisdiction. The agreement signed with the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya provided a column for Turkey's Eastern Mediterranean policy.
Hence Turkey’s more prominent and powerful role in Libya, although we cannot yet say that it has become a dominant player in Africa. This is because historically there are many international players in Africa including the US, France, and China.
Another motivation for Turkey to go to GNA was to prevent Libya from falling under the sway of Egypt and the UAE, which would affect Ankara’s geostrategic and economic interests not only in Libya itself but also in the East Mediterranean. For decades, Turkish businesses have been involved in Libya, particularly in the construction sector. Before Ghadafi’s fall, about a hundred Turkish construction companies had reportedly signed contracts in Libya. However, due to the Arab Spring, they had to leave their projects incomplete in the country. The total value of Turkish firms’ unfinished projects amounts to $19 billion, while uncollected accrued receivables stand at $1 billion, the collateral amount at $1.7 billion, and other losses at about $1.3 billion.
Libya is the third-largest market for Turkey’s construction sector, according to the Turkish Contractors Union (TMB). Libya was also the first overseas market for Turkish contractors STFA, entered in 1972 to build the Tripoli Harbor. Therefore, Libya can preserve Turkey’s political and economic dominance in the region, partly for understanding Turkey’s extended support to GNA.
Turkey’s involvement in Libya was strongly condemned by Egypt, the UAE, Greece, Cyprus, and France. Critics however failed to explain why countries like the US, Russia, France, and Italy were in Libya, but rather picked on Turkey.
Turkey's growing influence in Africa is not only aided by projects and policies implemented by the Turkish government through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) but also shaped by personal contributions made by the Turkish people through various humanitarian organizations.
In Uganda, various Turkish organizations including the Foundation for Education and Solidarity (FES), Turkey-Uganda (TURUGA), The Association of Friends of All Africa (TAAD), the Care Foundation among others are helping people to overcome poverty and helplessness brought about by unemployment and economic inequalities, focusing on education, health, sanitation and infrastructure development.
Water has been a major focus this year after Turkish volunteers found about some poor Ugandan Muslims who converted to Christianity for the sake of water. In the area, there was only one mosque with no water source, compared to six churches which all had water sources. At the mosque, a water harvesting option during the rainy season had been made, but during the dry season, they have no water, and that is the time when they have to resort to the churches. It is here that some Muslims are offered to access free water if they convert to Christianity.
In terms of education, school-aged children often bear the burden of walking miles each day to find water in streams and ponds; full of water-borne diseases that are making them and their families sick. Illness and the time lost fetching it robs children of their school time. When children are freed from gathering water, they can return to school. Without water, they can't stay at school; without water, they can’t stay healthy.
Fortunately, Turkish volunteers have built several boreholes in different areas for people of all faiths to access free clean water.
The relations between Africa and Turkey have been based on partnership and mutual cooperation. Relations with Africa have also elevated Turkey’s global policy as one major international actor. This arises out of the high number of representations of African countries in regional and international institutions.
With COVID-19, it is possible to see a reduction of Turkey’s humanitarian and development activities in Africa, a lot of this will depend on the resilience of the Turkish economy, which will give a sense of direction to its foreign policy.
Mfonobong Nsehe, Why Turkey's Economy Is Rising And What It Means For Trading Partners In Africa: An Interview With Nihat Zeybekci, [Jun 15, 2018], web site:
Republic of Turkey Ministry of Trade, Turkey-Africa Trade and Economic Relations, web site:
African Union, Africa-Turkey Partnership, web site: https://au.int/en/partnerships/africa_turkey