Alex Vines
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme
An economic slowdown and rocky politics might slow, but are unlikely to stop, Ankara’s ambition to broaden its profile in Africa.
The maiden commercial flight for Turkish Airlines into Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, 6 March 2012. Photo: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images.The maiden commercial flight for Turkish Airlines into Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, 6 March 2012. Photo: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images.

Turkey is continuing a long-term push to increase its profile in Africa. Today, before a G20 energy conference, Istanbul will play host to a high level conference on access to energy in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the participation of G20 ministers, energy ministers from African countries, institutional investors and international organisations.

It is just the latest in Turkish attempts to increase its weight in Africa. Turkish Airlines has added 25 African destinations over the last three years, and by the end of 2015, with inaugural flights to Maputo, Port Louis and Antananarivo in October, it will have increased its total to 45. This will beat Ethiopian Airlines, which currently flies to 43 destinations, giving Turkish Airlines the largest network on the continent. Istanbul is consequently becoming an important international transit point for Africans, assisted by an easy online visa regime and very competitive pricing of air tickets.

The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has also risen. In 2009 there were only 12 Turkish embassies in African countries (five of them in North Africa). There are now 39, an increase of 27 in just six years. In turn, 32 African states have opened embassies in Ankara. There have been two Turkey-Africa summits, in 2008 and in 2014.

This push has been driven by Africa’s growing economic importance to Ankara and an interest in diversifying away from the Middle East. It has been a long time in the making − planning started in 1998 with the publication of Turkey’s ‘Opening Up to Africa’ Policy; 2005 was then designated Turkey’s ‘Year of Africa’, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, became the first head of government to visit sub-Saharan African countries.

The relationship has been particularly deep on Somalia, where Turkey has provided significant international leadership. Erdoğan visited Mogadishu in 2011, the first non-African head of government to do so in almost 20 years. The opening of a Turkish embassy and regular scheduled flights to Mogadishu by Turkish Airlines have also been groundbreaking. Turkey has built and equipped the biggest hospital in Mogadishu. With 200 beds, the Digfer Hospital was officially opened by President Erdoğan on 25 January 2015 during a further visit to Somalia.

A voice for Africa?

It would be wrong, though, to argue that Turkey’s engagement in Somalia can be taken as typical of its approach across the African continent. In fact, a recent Chatham House research paper concluded that ‘Turkey’s interests are as diverse as the opportunities and states of the region’ – there is no single, overarching government approach or overriding focus except for Somalia. And what further differentiates Turkey from other emerging powers in Africa is the role that civil society and NGOs play. This was originally partly assisted by networks and schools set up by the Gülen movement – a Turkish-led Islamic network that is heavily engaged in education and humanitarian work.

The biggest single challenge for Turkey will be to sustain its Africa ambitions. Its new emphasis on Africa has had a limited impact to date − trade with sub-Saharan African countries represents only a fraction of Turkey’s global trade, at $8.4 billion in 2014, or just two per cent of its overall total. A slowing economy, unpredictable domestic politics and Turkey’s rough international neighbourhood will divert resources and policy attention from Africa in coming years. Recently the Turkish government has also distanced itself from the Gülen movement, which it has alleged has tried to undermine the Turkish state, and it remains to be seen if this does any damage to its overall impact in Africa.  

The slow progress of Turkey’s ambitions has been noted by African leaders. The African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma drew attention to this in her opening remarks at the second Turkey-Africa summit in November 2014, noting that ‘many of the outcomes of the first Africa-Turkey summit are yet to be realized’. This has had real-world impacts: Turkey received support of all but two African countries for securing a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2009-10, but failed to get robust African support when seeking a seat for 2015-16.

Even Turkish Airlines’ commercial strategy has had unanticipated, and not entirely positive, consequences. The EU border agency Frontex, in a recent report, claimed that a dramatic increase in migrants from Africa illegally crossing the borders of the Western Balkans in order to reach the EU ‘could be partly explained’ by Turkish Airlines’ expanded Africa footprint and a lax Turkey visa regime.

Anakara continues to push itself as a trusted international voice for Africa, and will be hoping its forthcoming energy conference will continue to build goodwill across the continent. But many emerging powers in Africa have made similar statements – such claims are likely to be met with cynicism from African leaders unless they are matched with significant action. But even if Turkey does not develop into a major bilateral player, it seems certain that Istanbul will continue to grow as a major international hub for Africans and also a launch pad for further Turkish commercial engagement in Africa.

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