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Turkish Drones in Africa: A Risky Turn in Turkey’s Africa Policy


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan concluded yet another trip to Africa on October 17 this time to Angola, Togo, and Nigeria. Having visited 30 African countries so far, he is far ahead of other non-African leaders, including past ones, in terms of the number of countries on the continent he has visited. For a quick comparison, his closest rival, former French President François Holland, visited only 12 African countries.

Erdoğan's latest visit is similar to the previous ones in terms of its format and messaging. He continued to use his Khaddafi-style, anti-Western rhetoric. The agenda of the high-level meetings consisted of typical items such as improving economic ties, increasing bilateral trade, and deepening partnerships in various domains. Activities in Africa of the Gülen movement, an organization demonized by the Erdoğan government since 2013 and accused of being behind the failed coup attempt in 2016, were also another routine agenda item in his talking points.

However, Erdogan's tour also involved some new aspects. For one thing, he tried to make use of this visit to fend off the economic troubles he faces at home. In addition, this tour is also aimed at raising the profile of the third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, which is scheduled to be held in two months' time. The summit will be a showcase of Turkey's Africa engagement policy which was initiated in the late 1990s and has been embraced by Erdoğan-led AKP governments since 2002.

Another new initiative and the most crucial, was the promotion of defense contracts involving the sale of Turkish-made, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the countries visited. Erdoğan openly mentioned selling Turkish UAVs to Angola. He implied, in  joint press conferences with his counterparts in Togo and Nigeria, that Turkey was ready and willing to share its renowned capabilities in the defense industry and offered cooperation in reconnaissance, border protection, and the fight against terrorism. There seems to be interest in the Angolan and Nigerian governments in acquiring UAVs.

It is worth mentioning that these deals are not limited to the countries that Erdoğan has recently visited. Baykar, the leading private Turkish drone manufacturer, apparently delivered armed drones to Morocco last month. There is reportedly another deal with Ethiopia even though no formal announcement was made. In addition, Rwanda is willing to procure Turkish drones to deploy them in its military operations in northeastern Mozambique. There are reports on Niger's interest in Turkish UAVs as well.

Such defense contracts merit particular attention as marketing the UAVs represents a significant transformation of, if not deviation from, Turkey's at least two decades-long Africa engagement policy. Since the very beginning, Turkey has always emphasized humanitarian assistance, development partnership, bilateral trade, and investment cooperation as well as cultural and educational initiatives as priorities in its partnership with the continent. This is not to say that security cooperation was never mentioned. In fact, it was one of the key cooperation areas featured in the final declarations of two previous Turkey-Africa summits. However, one could hardly imagine that one day Turkey would supply UAVs to African countries.

It is important to consider the potential repercussions that such defense sales by the Erdogan government may have in Africa and beyond. First and foremost, even though they are lucrative deals for Turkey, the UAVs and their lethal use in conflict zones raise significant human rights and conflict escalation concerns. In addition, most of the African countries interested in Turkish UAVs have serious problems in upholding the rule of law. For instance, the Nigerian army is accused of summary execution of civilians and exposing Boko Haram suspects to deadly conditions.

The USA suspended the sale of military helicopters to Nigeria on the basis of human rights concerns. In Ethiopia, there is an ongoing civil war with a humanitarian disaster unfolding. These new military deals could increasingly associate Turkey with authoritarian regimes and deadly conflicts in Africa and make Turkey a target of criticism by civil society and human rights organizations across the globe. In consequence, its already tarnished image due to undemocratic practices at home and its policies vis-à-vis its neighbors will further deteriorate. Moreover, it will lose the moral high ground gained over the years through humanitarian and development cooperation.

Secondly, Turkey's drone exports in Africa are taking place in the countries where armed conflicts mostly involve Muslim groups and populations, namely across the Sahel, in the Western Sahara, and in northeastern Mozambique. Therefore, the use of Turkish-made drones in these regions where circumstances are extremely complicated, might alienate African Muslims, who up until now have appreciated Turkey's presence. Additionally, it might complicate Turkey's relations with countries such as Egypt and Algeria, who are uncomfortable with Turkey's reported drone deals respectively with Ethiopia and Morocco, due to their severed relations on regional issues.

Last, but not least, the fact that Turkey's drone industry is led by a company owned by the family of Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan's son-in-law, adds an interesting dimension to this matter. This company's name has been mentioned in connection with several potential deals with African countries, leading to rumors that Erdoğan is taking advantage of state visits to promote a family business.

To sum up, the Erdoğan government might be able to sell UAVs to African countries and Turkey's trade volume with its African partners might increase. However, making defense contracts a priority in these partnerships and selling lethal equipment to authoritarian African regimes might create regional tensions and lead to deterioration in Turkey's relations with certain African countries. Furthermore, such sales could also have a negative impact on Turkey's image in the international arena and do more harm than good in the long run to Turkey's Africa engagement policy.

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

Photo Credit: Unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as drone is a kind of remote-controlled aircraft. mustafaclk/

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