When the Turkish Republic was established, the majority of African countries were under colonial rule. During this period, the newly established republic had more imminent domestic priorities, such as economic development and nation-state building.
The Cold War years have witnessed that bilateral relations were limited due to Turkiye’s security concerns and alliance relations. During the same period, there were also some attempts of rapprochement with African countries, but they were all short-lived.
Efforts to improve relations with African countries at the end of the 1960s, 1970s and even 1990s coincide with periods when Turkiye felt internationally isolated and sought alternative partners and diplomatic support for its foreign policy moves. The policy of opening to Africa, adopted in 1998, is the most comprehensive strategy among the initiatives adopted, so far. However, this policy was not fully implemented due to some political and economic problems.
Turkiye’s relations with African countries have gained momentum, especially after the declaration of 2005 as the “Year of Africa” and the holding of the First Turkiye-Africa Cooperation Summit held in 2008. The vast majority of Turkiye’s 43 embassies across the continent were opened following this Summit. For example, 27 embassies were established in African countries between 2009 and 2014. There are two main features that distinguish Turkiye’s current Africa policy from the earlier periods. First, business circles and non-governmental organisations often coordinate with public organisations in the implementation of the Africa policy and play a complementary role. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Turkiye’s Africa policy relies on the use of different soft power tools such as trade relations, humanitarian aid, flight diplomacy, media diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, educational efforts and religious diplomacy.
Trade and cultural relations
In 2021, Turkiye’s trade volume with African countries was approximately $25 billion. Yet, trade relations have further potential. Turkish companies operating across the continent since the 1970s assumed major projects, especially in the infrastructure sector.
Yunus Emre Institute (YEE), the main institution responsible for conducting cultural diplomacy activities of Turkiye, now has 10 cultural centres in eight African countries, with an aim to double this number in 2022.
While interest in Turkish culture and language is increasing through those cultural centres, they also contribute to reinforcing and extending cultural exchanges.
Another public diplomacy initiative that has been instrumental in enhancing inter-cultural communication has been the scholarship opportunities provided to African students through the Turkiye Scholarships of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB).
With the introduction of the Turkiye Scholarships in 2012, the number of African students studying at Turkish higher education institutions increased more than fourfold. The vast majority of these students come from North African countries or from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, which Turkiye enjoys closer relations with.
However, a significant number of students also come from African countries with relatively small populations and geographies, such as Djibouti, Benin and Guinea. Scholarships provided to African students should be evaluated as an important source of investment for Turkiye’s future relations with African countries. The recipients of Turkiye scholarships that return to their home countries with a positive view towards Turkiye can help build stronger ties between Turkiye and their own countries.Another institution engaged in educational diplomacy activities is the Turkish Maarif Foundation. Six years after its inception in 2016, the Foundation provided education to more than 17,000 African students through its 175 educational institutions scattered in 25 African countries. In return, those Turkish-speaking graduates contribute to Turkiye’s soft power.
In addition to YTB and the Turkish Maarif Foundation, Turkiye Diyanet Foundation (TDV) also provides scholarships to Muslim students from various African countries, both at the university and high school levels. The TDV also builds mosques in many African countries, repairs damaged mosques and organises relief campaigns, especially during religious months.
On the other hand, Turkiye’s international aid organisation, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), provides official development assistance to African countries. In cooperation with Turkish civil society organisations and other public institutions, TIKA initiates projects in several fields, mainly in education, health and agriculture, and conducts programs to train the skilled workforce in key sectors.
Anadolu Agency, another organisation that contributes to Turkiye’s soft power potential, has also opened offices in several African countries. In addition to Anadolu Agency, the TRT World, which started broadcasting in 2015, has been instrumental in accessing African audiences, thanks to both internet broadcasting and traditional television broadcasting. One of the most important developments in this field has been the launching of TRT Swahili broadcasting service in 2020.
As of 2022, Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s flag-carrier national airline company, flies to 61 destinations in 40 African countries. Launching flights to 12 destinations on the continent in 2012 alone, Turkish Airlines is expanding its flight network in line with the priorities of Turkish foreign policy to help increase Turkiye’s visibility in Africa.
Turkiye’s military cooperation with African countries has not attracted much attention until the opening of the TURKSOM military training facility in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in 2017 and the signing of a military and security cooperation agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in 2019.
The last few years saw an increasing interest in Turkiye’s military presence in Africa. This is mostly because of its increasing export of weapons, armoured vehicles and especially Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)/Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) to African countries, a direct result of Turkiye’s growing defence industry.
Turkish-made UAVs are in great demand from African countries, not only because they are cheaper than most of their alternatives in the market, but also because Turkiye does not tie the sale of these weapons to certain political conditions. It is, therefore, no surprise that Turkiye has emerged as an important alternative to Russia, France, the US and China, the largest suppliers of arms to African countries. It is very likely that Turkiye’s defence exports to African countries will further increase in the coming years. However, arms sales to African countries struggling with internal conflicts, or having troubled relations with their neighbours, have the risk of damaging relations with other African countries.
Therefore, one should be extremely cautious in integrating the elements of hard power into soft power strategies that have been the backbone of Ankara’s Africa policy for many years. Turkiye should consider intra-regional dynamics when considering the sale of weapons to African countries.
Otherwise, this issue might tarnish the image of Turkiye and its soft power projection, despite the enormous resources devoted to those soft power currencies. Other challenges arising from external power rivalry on the continent also await Turkiye in the medium and long term. Turkey’s attitude in addressing those various challenges will be decisive in the future of Turkiye-Africa relations.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.