Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Picture: Reuters
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Picture: Reuters

Economy has weakened Turkey President Erdogan’s hand in Africa

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 14, 2021

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Bobby Ghosh

It is not like Recep Tayyip Erdogan to eschew the spotlight, much less an opportunity to strut on the world stage. And yet, Turkey's president passed up on pageantry when a pair of West African heads of state paid him court in Istanbul on January 30.

Erdogan's meeting with Senegal's Macky Sall and Guinea Bissau's Umaro Sissco Embalo took place behind closed doors; afterward, there was little to show for the event other than a few vapid photographs.

Perhaps the absence of pomp was the point. After all, Turkey's relations with sub-Saharan Africa, once touted as proof of Ankara's growing international reach, have matured to a point where visits by heads of state require no fanfare. But just as likely, the event was kept on the down-low because Erdogan didn't have much to offer his visitors.

For all that Turkey's influence on the continent has expanded in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic has constrained Ankara's ability to build on its African ambitions. With its own economy in distress, it is in no position to provide the assistance that sub-Saharan countries desperately need right now. This has weakened Erdogan's hand in West Africa, where his rumpus with President Emmanuel Macron has intensified Franco-Turkish competition for influence.

Before Covid, Erdogan's outreach to sub-Saharan Africa represented his greatest foreign-policy success. Since he assumed power in Ankara in 2003, Turkey has opened 30 new embassies on the continent; Erdogan himself has visited 28 countries. Turkish trade with sub-Saharan Africa may be puny relative to its dealings with China, the European Union, the U.S. and India, but it has grown over seven-fold in less than two decades, to $10 billion.

And these numbers don't adequately capture the width and depth of Turkey's presence in the region, which encompasses not only commercial and security interests but also considerable soft power.

Ankara is becoming a significant supplier of arms to the continent. It also maintains military bases in Somalia and Sudan and provides funding for counter-terrorism forces in the Sahel region. While Turkish construction companies build railway lines and airports, Turkish Airlines flies to more sub-Saharan destinations than any other non-African carrier. Turkish aid and religious philanthropies are helping build schools, hospitals and mosques, as Turkish soap operas are reaching ever larger African audiences. Turkish soccer clubs are even recruiting players from the region.

But the coronavirus has laid bare the limitations of Turkey's influence. Ankara has little to offer sub-Saharan African countries dealing with the economic fallout. Unlike China, India and Russia, Turkey can't supply Covid vaccines; nor does it have the deep pockets of the EU, the US and again, China, to help these countries that were already burdened with enormous debt.

As struggling governments are forced to reduce new borrowing and reprioritise spending to deal with the lingering pain of the pandemic - remember, tens of millions of Africans are at risk of slipping back into poverty - they will likely scale back or put off many of the giant infrastructure projects favoured by Turkish construction companies.

In contrast, the Gulf Arab states, with which Turkey has been vying for influence on the continent, and especially in the Horn of Africa, have exactly what struggling African countries need: money. The United Arab Emirates is also emerging as a regional vaccine hub, giving it additional leverage.

This is not to say Turkey has no cards to play. In Somalia, where it already has deep roots, Ankara can count on a grateful government as well as popular goodwill to preserve its influence. Much of the Somali military is trained in the TURKSOM military base in Mogadishu, and other countries still want Turkish expertise as well as arms for their security forces. Ethiopia, facing Western criticism over the civil war in its northern province of Tigray, is keen to deepen its relationship with Turkey.

But in West Africa's Francophone countries, where Erdogan has focused his most audacious African ambitions, struggling governments will likely find more economic succour from Paris than from Ankara. The duel with Macron will have to wait. For now, Turkey has little to offer beyond a quiet photo-op with the president.


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