Author: Ahmed Askar
Affiliated organization: Emirates Policy Center (EPC)
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: 24 August 2020
Turkey continues its relentless pursuit of developing its African relations, especially in the Sahel and Sahara region and the western part of the continent, with the aim of building multiple partnerships in order to achieve its strategic objectives that centre around finding a foothold in this strategic part of the continent and contributing to the re-engineering of the regional equation in the Sahel and Sahara.
Naturally, this is done in light of the urgency of some issues that are intertwined in defining Turkey’s relationship with the Arab world, Europe and Africa, such as the growing phenomenon of terrorism and terrorist organisations in the Sahel and West Africa, the continuing illegal migration crisis to Europe, as well as the scrambling of some European powers in the Sahel and Sahara, such as France and Germany, in addition to Turkey’s continuous attempts to influence the Libyan file with the aim of strengthening its influence in Libya and encircling the strategic interests of local, regional and international powers that are opposed to Turkey’s negative role there.
Limits and dynamics of the Turkish moves in the region
Ankara is engaging in a long-term strategy to build strong relations with the countries of the Sahel and West Africa. Through that strategy, Ankara seeks to expand the scope of its political, economic and military influence and presence in the African continent after having strengthened its presence in East Africa and the Horn of Africa through the Somalia gateway. This may exacerbate the tensions in the region, which is a theatre for many international and regional actors.
Turkey has expanded its relations with most countries in the region such as Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania in light of the chronic crises experienced by those countries, such as the spread of terrorism and the prevalence of poverty, famine, and ethnic and tribal conflicts. These problems were used by Ankara as a gateway to enhance its presence. During the last four years, Turkish officials have intensified their visits to most countries of the Sahel and West Africa, such as Chad, Sudan, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Togo, Niger, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire.
The last visit of Turkish President Erdogan in January 2020 was to the Gambia and Senegal. Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Minister’s tour in the Sahel and West Africa in July 2020 included Togo, Equatorial Guinea and Niger. The Turkish moves aim essentially at reshaping the regional axes and the international balance of power in the region, especially in the midst of growing Turkish-French competition, which reveals part of the Turkish goals in the African Sahel and Sahara region.
The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has quadrupled over the past two decades, to reach nearly 43 embassies. Ankara recently opened two new embassies in Togo and Equatorial Guinea with the aim of strengthening relations and the Turkish presence in the region.
Ankara attaches great importance to the African circle in the security field. Turkey’s policy has become more militarized since 2015 in order to expand its geopolitical influence in the region and the continent. This was evident in the security cooperation agreements concluded by Ankara with most countries in the region, such as Mauritania, Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Sudan, Guinea, Nigeria and Benin. The latest was the security agreement reached with Niger in July 2020 with the aim of finding a public foothold in the Sahel and Sahara region. Some reports indicate that Ankara is seeking to establish a military base in West Africa, especially in Niger, near the border with Libya.
Turkey has expanded its relations with most countries in the region such as Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania in light of the chronic crises experienced by those countries, such as the spread of terrorism and the prevalence of poverty, famine, and ethnic and tribal conflicts
Ankara pursues a strategy of investing in the crises arising in the Sahel and the Sahara. It benefits from the wave of terrorism sweeping the countries of the region due to the spread of terrorist organisations by providing aid, training and military expertise to African countries. In March 2018, Turkey announced that it was contributing five million dollars to finance the G5 Sahel force with the aim of combating terrorism in the region.
At the same time, Ankara faces many accusations that it is sponsoring terrorist organisations in the Sahel and West Africa, and that an essential part of its moves in the region depends on arming terrorist and mercenary organisations with the aim of strengthening the Turkish presence, controlling natural resources and wealth, and supporting political Islam currents.
In addition, Ankara appointed its ambassador to Senegal in March 2020, who had sympathised with al-Qaeda organisation, considering it a non-terrorist organisation and a legitimate resistance movement. Some reports indicate that there are 229 senior leaders of terrorist organisations from the Al-Nusra Front and Daesh who were sent by Ankara from Turkey to Tripoli, Libya, which means that they could spread to other regions in Africa. Within this framework, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that according to February 2020 statistics, up to 4,700 terrorists who are financed and trained by Ankara exist in Libya, while 1,800 terrorists are training in Ankara, 64 terrorists have arrived from Europe, and dozens of these have fled to Europe, specifically Italy.
Some intelligence reports have also revealed that Ankara sent nearly 900 operatives to join the Islamic State (IS) organisation stationed in northwestern Mali with the aim of strengthening its ranks under the leadership of Abdel Hakim Sahraoui, which would undermine regional peace and security in the region and Africa in general. Hence, the environment of the Sahel and the Sahara region appears prepared to strengthen the relationship between Ankara and the various terrorist organisations active in the region which pose a clear threat to the countries of the region and the geographical neighbourhood, especially North Africa.
Ankara sees control over Libya as an important gateway to enhancing influence in the Sahel and West Africa and implementing its expansionist agenda in the region. Hence, it seeks to form regional allies that have geopolitical interests with Libya, such as Niger and Chad, with the aim of using them as a Turkish focal point for incursion into West Africa.
The Turkish intervention in the Sahel and West Africa constitutes a step on the road of Turkish approaches that are opposed to French and European interests in the region. The conflict between France and Turkey has extended from Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean to the Sahel, the Sahara and West Africa regions, especially in light of Turkey’s efforts to limit French influence and strengthen its position, to the detriment of the French strategic interests in the region that is a traditional arena for French influence.
This indicates the possibility of threatening the French military forces in the region and the active United Nations (UN) mission in Mali, which would negatively affect regional security in the Sahel and the Sahara as a result of the growing activity of terrorist networks and extremist organisations.
Many Turkish companies are involved in most countries of the Sahel and West Africa in various fields with the aim of increasing economic benefit and maximizing the interests of Ankara which has become a trade partner for a number of countries in the region, such as Senegal in which Turkish companies execute some major infrastructure projects such as the Abdou Diouf International Conference Center, the Dakar Sports Palace, the Radisson Hotel, as well as running the Blaise Diagne International Airport for 25 years.
Turkey also acquired nearly 29 projects worth more than 700 million euros in 2018. In Cameroon, the Japoma Sports Complex in Douala was built by the Turkish Yenigün Group, with funding from the Turkish Eximbank worth 116 billion CFA francs. In December 2019, Ankara also signed with Mali, through the Turkish Kalyon group, a memorandum of understanding regarding the Metrobus construction project in the capital Bamako.
Motives and causes of the Turkish expansion
Ankara presents itself as a reliable international voice for African countries, within the framework of its endeavour to play a greater role in the international system by emphasizing the Turkish presence in the African arena as a prominent competition arena in the race for influence in Africa, while at the same time driving for a strong start for more trade and economic cooperation between Ankara and African countries.
Ankara sees control over Libya as an important gateway to enhancing influence in the Sahel and West Africa and implementing its expansionist agenda in the region. Hence, it seeks to form regional allies that have geopolitical interests with Libya, such as Niger and Chad, with the aim of using them as a Turkish focal point for incursion into West Africa
-Supporting political Islam movements in the region and North Africa and searching for new allies after the fall of the Brotherhood Group in Sudan. Turkey has an expansionist project in which Libya constitutes a starting point towards the Sahel, the Sahara and West Africa. Therefore, Ankara seeks to cooperate with some of the powers of political Islam in the region with the aim of changing the balance of power through the extremist organisations that Ankara seeks to establish links between them in Libya. There are reports indicating the existence of an agreement between Ankara and the Boko Haram group to transfer some of the group’s members to southern Libya that is under the control of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
-Cooperation with the African Union (AU) in the field of combating terrorism in the Sahel and the Sahara, after the AU’s intention to send a military force of 3,000 soldiers there within 2020, and to get involved in one way or another in the G5 Sahel Force participating in the fight against terrorism.
– Ensuring that Ankara’s economic and commercial interests are secured in Africa, and establishing economic relations with the countries of the region that could lead to political and ideological ties in the future through which Ankara could build a strong influence in the continent and the region, as a significant manoeuvrability area for Ankara, and searching for opportunities for partnerships in the Sahel that would strengthen Turkey’s position as an effective regional and international power and help the Turkish economy out of its crises by increasing Turkish exports to the Sahel countries, which is a priority for the Turkish government.
Many Turkish companies are involved in most countries of the Sahel and West Africa in various fields with the aim of increasing economic benefit and maximizing the interests of Ankara which has become a trade partner for a number of countries in the region, such as Senegal in which Turkish companies execute some major infrastructure projects such as the Abdou Diouf International Conference Center, the Dakar Sports Palace, the Radisson Hotel, as well as running the Blaise Diagne International Airport for 25 years
– Scrambling with the major international powers involved in the Sahel and West Africa, and penetrating the field of French hegemony in the region, with the aim of limiting Paris’ influence in favour of the Turkish incursion, especially in light of the current dispute in Libya and Paris’ position rejecting Turkish interventions in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in Syria.
– Pursuing the Fetullah Gülen movement in Africa and its network of schools and seizing it, and transferring its ownership to the Turkish government.
Tools of the Turkish policy
- The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) carries out its activities on the continent through 22 coordination offices, so that assistance in various fields is provided to African countries. The Agency has executed many projects in countries of the region, such as Chad, Niger, and others. The Agency is accused of being a cover for intelligence work, recruitment and financing of terrorist organisations by the Turkish regime.
- The Turkish SADAT Company represents an important arm of Turkish policy in Africa, being a mastermind and an executive arm of its objectives that involve external projection in conflict areas on the continent. It is also employed in multiple forms in relation to the sale of weapons and security and intelligence services. It can also be used in some illegal and unlawful matters.
- The Turkish Maarif [Knowledge] Foundation was established by the Turkish government to run the external schools associated with the Fethullah Gülen movement. This institution now has 23 branches in Africa and nearly 333 schools in 43 countries. It managed to establish offices and representations in a number of countries in the region, namely Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Tunisia. This institution is accused of being a long arm of the Turkish regime in Africa with regard to providing educational services as part of the strategy of “Turkification” of Africans, especially as it aims to raise a new generation of Islamic political activists to mobilize around the Turkish policy in Africa.
- Other soft power tools: Turkish soft power tools in the Sahel and West Africa are numerous, mainly humanitarian aid. Ankara is heavily involved in the field of aid and food distribution to the peoples of the region. There are also a number of Turkish institutions operating in the region, such as the Turkish Red Crescent, the Türkiye Diyanet Foundation (TDV) and the Turkish Federation of Humanitarian Associations (İDDEF), which carry out humanitarian and relief activities in many countries of the region.
Repercussions and risks of the Turkish presence in the region
The transformation of the region into an arena of conflict between Turkey and the active forces there, which threatens the regional security of the backyard of Europe and the strategic interests of some major regional powers such as Egypt, and the formation of a security threat belt around it, from the Red Sea through the Turkish base in Somalia, to the Mediterranean in the north through the moves in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, in the east in northern Syria and Iraq, and in the west through the military incursion into Libya, the Sahel, the Sahara and West Africa.
Strengthening extremist and terrorist organisations in the Sahel and West Africa at the expense of the African armies in light of the continued military and logistical support by Ankara and Doha for those organisations, the creation of a new terrorism-sponsoring environment, and the transfer of more terrorists to the region, specifically to Libya, and onwards to the Sahel, the Sahara and West Africa, thus exacerbating the state of chaos and instability in the region.
The increased threats faced by the countries of the European Union (EU), especially those related to the export of terrorists to Europe, the lack of control over the illegal migration process from Africa through the Mediterranean to the European continent, and the transformation of the Mediterranean region into a turbulent region after grouping the terrorists in Libya, the Sahel and the Sahara, which threatens the interests of regional and international actors there.
The future of the Turkish presence
Ankara is expected to show increasing interest in the Sahel, the Sahara and West Africa, and to continue its efforts towards strengthening the Turkish role there in light of the difficulty of dissociating the developments of the Libyan file and the Eastern Mediterranean gas file and their repercussions for the Sahel and the Sahara region from Turkey’s aspiration to play a greater role at the continental and international levels.
Manifestations of securitization and militarization are expected to increase in Turkey’s relationship with the countries of the region during the next stage in light of the interlinked and complicated security and geopolitical scenes in the Sahel and the Sahara.
There is an increasing possibility that a French-Turkish clash would erupt in the future, which may take different forms and expressions, in light of the threat of the Turkish expansion to France’s interests and traditional influence in the African continent, and the increasing concern of European countries about Turkish moves in the Sahel, the Sahara and West Africa in light of the sensitivity of the files threatening European security.
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