On Monday,Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan starts a five-day visit to northern and West Africa. The tour is the latest effort by Turkey to project its influence across the continent and enhance its global presence. Observers are voicing concerns that the Turkish leader, with his emphasis on Islamist themes, could be stoking regional rivalries and even tensions.
Erdogan is scheduled to visit Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali in his tour of the region. Since 2005, as then-prime minister, Erdogan has made developing deepening ties with Africa a priority, according to Emre Caliskan a Turkey, Africa analyst at Oxford University.
“Since he became prime minister he has been in Africa 24 times. Since 2009, when he became president, he has been in Africa 12 times. There are several ambitions: economy, being a global leader, and the use of Islam,” said Caliskan.
Earlier this month, Istanbul hosted African ministers for a week of meetings. Such gatherings are a regular occurrence and are part of Ankara’s efforts to court African leaders. Turkey has tripled the number of embassies across the continent in less than a decade. Despite such investments, the economic returns have been disappointing and that has led to Ankara to shift its priorities, says Africa expert professor Mehmet Arda of the Istanbul think tank Edam.
“When you look at the Turkish trade with Africa its basically the same as ten years ago. So, it’s more a way of projecting itself as a power in the world,” said Arda. “Moreover, Turkey puts itself as the friend of the countries that are left behind, the destitute and all that. I think from the point of view it fits with that the model (of) projecting on the world stage.”
President Erdogan has in recent visits to Africa increasingly inserted Islamic themes in his speeches, which have sometimes been colored with anti-Western rhetoric and focused on the West’s colonial past, even though the Turkish Ottoman empire once also extended to Africa. Analyst Caliskan says courting Africa Muslims offers Ankara potential important diplomatic gains, as well as risks.
“50 percent of African countries come from the Muslim background and this gives leverage to Turkey in the eyes of Europe in the eyes of the West and in the eyes of Africa. But there is a rivalry between different Islamic groups,” said Caliskan. “These countries are Iran ,Saudi Arabia and Egypt – historically these countries are very influential in the region among the Islamic communities. Now Turkey is a latecomer, but a newcomer and strong comer and Turkey wants to be more influential.”
Last September, Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in Somalia. The opening of the base has been interpreted as a signal that Ankara is sending to the region of its growing aspirations. The Turkish navy is rapidly expanding with even plans for the construction of an aircraft carrier. Ankara’s agreement with Khartoum to redevelop the Sudanese Suakin Island that was once the Ottoman empire’s main naval base, has sent alarm bells ringing in Cairo, which is concerned about increasing Turkish military encroachment. Ankara insists its development plans on the island are non-military.
But analyst Caliskan says such denials will do little to defuse tensions given the level of mistrust between Erdogan and Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah el Sissi.
“Turkey has a difficult relationship with Sisi regime and they are both trying to influence on the areas that actually historically Egypt had been powerful,” said Caliskan. “So actually it is a direct challenge to Egyptian hegemony in the region. If Turkey would be moving to the region more then [there] will be more rivalry with the Egyptian government as well.”
Analysts warn the rivalry in the Middle East is already spilling into Africa, a process that is likely to continue with Turkey’s growing commitment to the continent in its bid to become a global player.