Skip to main content
Blog post

Turkey-Africa Relations: Setbacks Amidst Advances

Turkey is getting ready to hold its third Turkey-Africa Summit, probably this April, in the framework of its eye-catching Africa partnership policy. Launched in the early 2000s, this policy is widely considered successful given Turkey's prior near-absence from the continent for almost a century. However, two major dynamics negatively impact this engagement. First is Turkey's increasing involvement in the Middle East's conflicts, starting from 2011. And second is the internal rift between the Turkish government and the socio-religious movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999, and Ankara's designation of the Gulen Movement as a "terrorist organization"[1] in 2016. These major developments have considerably impacted Turkey's agenda and priorities vis-à-vis Africa.

Before making an assessment of the fallout of these issues on Turkey-Africa relations, it would be appropriate to begin with brief historical background.

Turkey's declaration of the year 2005 as the "Year of Africa" was an important milestone in Turkey's re-engagement policy toward Africa. The following ten years witnessed the establishment of a new official framework, the organization of summit-level meetings, and a significant increase in trade volume. The first Turkey-Africa Summit was held in 2008 in Istanbul, followed by the second in 2014 in Malabo. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, Turkey's total trade volume with Sub-Saharan African countries increased seven-fold between 2005 and 2018. Turkey's development assistance to Africa displayed a similar rise. Ankara strengthened diplomatic ties by opening 28 new embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa, thereby increasing the number of its diplomatic missions on the continent to 42. Moreover, President Erdogan's frequent visits to the region helped reinforce this diplomatic engagement with Africa. Consequently, the international community started to regard Turkey as one of the continent's rising partners.

However, things took a new turn beginning in 2011 with the "Arab Spring." The removal of authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen by largely peaceful anti-government protests was well-received by Turkey. The Turkish government adopted a policy of supporting "the democratic demands of the peoples" in the Middle East. With this new policy came Turkey's involvement in the Syrian civil war by supporting anti-government groups. In line with the discourse on democratic change, Ankara did not recognize General Abdelfettah el-Sisi, who took power in a military coup in 2013 in Egypt. In addition, Turkey sided with Qatar when other Arab countries, led by Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), imposed sanctions on Qatar in 2017. As a consequence, two blocs emerged in the greater Middle East: Turkey and Qatar on one side; and Egypt-KSA-UAE on the other. Turkish foreign policy's use of hard-power instruments became more visible as Turkey found itself more involved in Middle Eastern conflicts (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Libya) both politically and militarily.

These two blocs are also fighting a "cold war," particularly in East Africa. In this regard, former Sudanese President al-Bashir, who was siding more with Turkey and Qatar, was toppled last year during mass popular protests. The army's ouster of al-Bashir at the midpoint of the protests was welcomed by the Egypt-KSA-UAE bloc. With regard to recent terrorist attacks in Somalia, in which Turkish nationals were targeted, the Turkish press made claims that these al-Shabaab attacks may have been influenced by the Arab bloc, the UAE in particular.

The polarization of the two blocs had another side effect. After President Erdoğan, in his address to the Second Turkey-Africa Summit in 2014, had declared the following summit would take place in 2019 in Turkey, Ankara later quietly postponed the event to 2020 in a press release issued on the occasion of the AU's 2019 "Africa Day." This postponement was a consequence of Turkey's falling out with Egypt, which held the chairmanship of the African Union in 2019.

Another major development in Turkey's Africa engagement is related to the internal rift between the Erdogan government and the Gulen Movement. The tension between the two increased rapidly following the large-scale corruption investigations by public prosecutors and the police, targeting several Turkish cabinet ministers in December 2013. Erdoğan accused the Movement of orchestrating the legal cases in an attempt to topple the Turkish government. Three years later, when the coup attempt of July 2016 happened, the government quickly and easily attributed the attempt to the Gulen Movement.

In this context, starting as early as the beginning of 2014, Turkey's Africa engagement appeared to undergo a major qualitative transformation as the government took measures against the Gulen Movement, which was active in Africa mainly through educational and humanitarian assistance. As a result, the private sector-driven nature of Turkey's Africa engagement, which was mostly the case in the preceding decade, was largely abandoned and the role of the Turkish government became more dominant in the relationship. For example, in order to eliminate Gulen-sympathizing Turkish businessmen from foreign trade, in 2014 the government enacted a law "nationalizing" the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK) by putting it under the control of the Turkish Ministry of Economy. In addition, following the July 2016 coup attempt, Ankara began taking control of the formerly private Gulenist schools in Africa by establishing a new public institution (the Turkish Maarif Foundation) and placing the schools under its administration.

This move by the Turkish Government created confusion in several African countries since these schools, originally opened by the Gulen Movement, had received Ankara's full support until 2014. Therefore, the take-over process is far from over.

To sum up, Turkey's extensive involvement in the Middle East's conflicts and the developments related to the Gulen Movement's activities in Africa have had profound repercussions on Ankara's Africa engagement policy. The deterioration of Turkey's relations with the KSA, UAE, and Egypt (the latter being one of the AU's most influential countries) therefore comes with a price. In particular, African countries might take into account possible reactions from Egypt when they consider improving relations with Turkey. In addition, the Turkish government might face difficulties in meeting its commitments to African countries given budgetary restraints caused by economic problems at home.

As the third Turkey-Africa Summit approaches, the above-mentioned dynamics risk causing setbacks in Turkey's relations with African countries. Ankara's rivalry with the Arab bloc might not only undermine Turkey's even-handed and non-confrontational Africa partnership policy, but also tarnish its long-standing positive image in the eyes of African leaders. In addition, Turkey's severe economic crisis, long anticipated by some Turkish economists, might force a reduction in Turkey's diplomatic presence in Africa as well as the number of schools run by Ankara on the continent.

[1] It should be noted that only Turkey and Pakistan designate the movement as a "terrorist organization." The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation made ministerial-level political declarations at Turkey's request on this issue. However, the European Union and the United States took a different stance, expressing reservations about such a designation. By the same token, the circumstances surrounding the July 2016 coup attempt were also considered highly controversial and dubious by many in Turkey and in the West.

Yusuf Kenan Küçük is a former Turkish diplomat having served in Sudan and the United Kingdom.

About the Author

Yusuf Kenan Küçük

Former Turkish diplomat (served in Sudan and the United Kingdom)

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more