The Turkish government declared 2005 as the “Year of Africa”. Since then, Turkey has consistently strengthened its presence in Africa, enabling it to establish strategic and economic partnerships.

Turkey’s Engagement: What’s the scope of it?

Over the last decade, Turkey has significantly increased its presence within Africa, increasing its number of embassies from 12 in 2009, to 41 at the end of 2018. The increased emphasis on Africa for Turkey began in 2005, a year which the Turkish government officially dubbed the “Year of Africa” and attained observer status from the African Union. The country was declared a strategic partner to the AU 3 years later and held the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit the same year with representatives from 50 African countries. This cooperation marked the start of a fruitful relationship, and the bond between the nation and the African continent has gained momentum ever since.

Turkey’s decision to actively involve itself in Somalia in 2011 marked its most significant step in increasing its presence within Africa. Current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who at the time was Prime Minister, visited Somalia as the first non-African leader to visit in almost twenty years in 2011. The visit was significant as a means of improving Turkey’s reputation within the African continent, as its engagement in Somalia firstly reintroduced the plight of Somalia into the international arena. For the Somali people themselves, the entry of Turkey was an assurance that they had not been forgotten, especially with the reopening of the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu in late 2011.

Since then, Turkey’s contribution to aid and economic development, as well as its efforts to introduce political stability, have been tremendous. In 2014 alone, Turkey provided $383 million in development aid to sub-Saharan African countries, one-third of the country’s overall development assistance that year. This has been a consistent year on year as from the period 2010-2016, the country provided just over $2billion to Africa. The magnitude of this is evident when putting into context against other global donors. Taking the year 2013 for example, Turkey was the third-largest donor state, whilst none of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) featured within the top 20. 

What has differentiated Turkey’s engagement?

The dominant foreign players in Africa in the past decade have been the USA and China, who have had quite different approaches in their foreign policy. The USA has been seen to prioritise political rights, and have based most of their aid in establishing democratic political institutions. Conversely, China can be viewed as prioritizing economic rights, in putting its focus on economic prosperity and state-led economic growth through means such as infrastructure funding. Turkey’s approach has been a mixture of the two, with another key difference being the involvement of not only state actors, but civil society also. In conjunction with the significant amounts of aid provided and the promotion of bilateral trade, the country has been involved in significant infrastructure projects, provided military training and scholarships as well as institutional capacity building. This joint economic and political role has made Turkey’s involvement unique in that it combines the Western approach of attempting to introduce political stability with the economic perspective of emerging economies.

More specifically, Turkey’s approach in Africa has been particularly successful due to its multitrack than separates it from most other donors. This approach includes multiple actors in the aid process, rather than solely official state actors. For example, in Somalia, a significant role has been played by non-state actors including NGOs, religious and community groups as well as private businesses who have themselves forged close relations with the communities they seek to provide assistance to. This has created an inclusive process that has fostered great relations between the people on the ground. Examples of non-state initiatives include efforts from NGOs such as in 2011 when a wide-spread campaign led by multiple NGOs including Deniz Feneri Dernegi and Cansuyu Charity collected over $365 million in humanitarian aid. Similarly, in 2017, Turkish Airlines, the first major commercial airline and the only major commercial airline to have flights to Somalia until recently, held a fundraising campaign named #TurkishAirlinesHelpSomalia in order to draw attention to the Somali famine.

Furthermore, most countries deliver their aid through multilateral channels. However, Turkey operates bilaterally where Turkish operatives provide assistance directly to the target group, enabling assistance providers to better understand the landscape as well as giving them the opportunity to build relationships with local bodies. This benefits both parties, as target countries receive a much greater amount of aid due to cutting out intermediary costs as well as a faster reception of aid. Meanwhile, Turkey gains significant visibility in terms of being a provider of aid, improving its reputation amongst the local people as well as its overall international perception. In contrast, most other countries provide their aid multilaterally, either by providing resources to intermediaries who then distribute this aid or by managing projects from remote locations. In the Somalia situation, for example, many aid providers choose to operate from Nairobi meanwhile Turkey operates directly from Mogadishu. Though this is more dangerous, the reward is much greater. 

The reputational effects are evident today in Somalia, with their integration within the country making them the prime business partners of choice. Shops within the capital of Mogadishu regularly advertise the fact that their goods are authentic Turkish products as selling points and a mark for the standard of quality. This is a significant change from a few years ago where imports were primarily from the Middle East and China. Indeed, opening up its markets in Africa has been extremely beneficial with bilateral trade volume increasing three-fold since 2003 to $18.8 billion in 2017.  

What are Turkey’s motivations behind its engagement?

Besides the moral imperatives to help for the sake of mankind, Turkey stands to benefit in a multitude of ways from providing assistance to African countries and developing relationships this way. As displayed before, the horn of Africa, particularly for Turkey, has represented a whole new market for its goods. Similarly, the horn of Africa is located so close to the Middle Eastern world that it plays an influential part in the region’s geopolitics. By strengthening its foothold in the horn of Africa, it increases its political influence amongst the other Middle Eastern countries. Countries in the horn such as Somalia lie at a key geographical position at the intersection of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean making it the link between Africa and the Middle East. Though influence within this region is not uncontested as there exists competition in being the horn’s key partner with countries such as the UAE expanding their existing military presence in Eritrea, as well as beginning construction on a military base in Somaliland in 2017, though ultimately decided to be transformed into a civilian airport instead.

Turkey’s rising influence in Africa makes it an instrumental player on the world stage, with it being increasingly referred to as a “global swing state” in the battle for global influence between the two major players of the USA and China. Whether this was their intentional outcome in the commencement of their Africa initiative is unknown, but what is certain is that their humanitarian policies have significantly improved their economic and strategic position globally. 

The New Standard of Engagement

Turkey’s entry within the African continent is set to increase with it has built up its reputation as a trusted strategic partner. Its model sets an example for similar emerging economies who seek to both develop political and strategic relationships, as well as find new markets within Africa. Offering complete packages of no strings attached aid, military training, political institution building and infrastructure development that support the country becoming self-sufficient, as well as direct bilateral delivery and the involvement of all strata of society has paid dividends for Turkey. We can expect much more of this mutually-beneficial cooperation in the future, presenting a sharp transition in both the aid landscape and the manner in which economies attempt to find new markets within Africa.