[ANALYSIS] Erdoğan pursues defense deals in Africa

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Türkmen Terzi

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited three African countries last week amid rising tensions at home, with Turkey’s main opposition party calling on bureaucrats to oppose the Erdoğan government’s unlawful orders.

Erdoğan arrived last Sunday in the Southern African nation of Angola for the first leg of his three-country tour, followed by Togo on Tuesday and Nigeria on Wednesday. He signed major agreements and MOUs that included deals on energy, defense industry and mining with the Sub-Saharan countries.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in a video shared on social media over the previous weekend had stated: “You are not a servant of Erdogan’s family but an honorable public servant of this [Turkish] state. This is my last call. As of Monday, Oct. 18, you will also be responsible for all your support for the unlawful orders of this government. You can’t get away with this dirty work by saying, ‘I was ordered to do it’.”

Erdoğan at a press conference at İstanbul Airport prior to his departure for Angola suggested that Kılıçdaroğlu had committed a crime by urging the bureaucracy to oppose the elected government. Questions regarding the state of Erdoğan’s health were once again raised since he was consulting notes to answer questions. Erdoğan, however, looked healthier in his address to the Angolan Parliament on Monday. “I feel blessed to be together with you in this parliament. We have 6,000 kilometers between us, but we know that no borders can be drawn between hearts. My visit has historic significance as I am the first Turkish president to visit Angola. The effect of the synergy that will be created by the cooperation of Angola, an important country in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Turkey, which is the bridge connecting the continents of Asia and Europe, will undoubtedly be felt in a very wide geography.”

Erdoğan mentioned the imperialist powers “who had a bloody history” and are now trying to benefit from the global security architecture of the post-World War II era. He further pointed out how these imperialist powers still refuse to recognize the independence of African countries despite millions of lives being sacrificed to achieve freedom on the continent. He asserted that Turkey rejects the Western-centered orientalist approach towards the African continent. “I hope we will soon reach a $500 million trade volume; we are ready to help to improve Angola’s infrastructure, and we have extensive cooperation opportunities in the military and security fields. The Turkey-Africa III Economic and Business Forum on Oct. 21-22 in Istanbul will help to improve Turkey’s ties with Africa and of course with Angola.”

Erdoğan’s second stop on his Africa tour was Togo, following his two-day visit to Angola. “Our Lome embassy has been functional since April 1 of this year, and we hope Togo will soon open its embassy in Ankara. We reached a trade volume of $148 million in 2020, and Turkish firms are ready to make exemplary investments in Togo’s tourism, agriculture, energy and construction industries. … Turkey and the Turkic Council will donate COVID-19 vaccines to Togo, Burkina Faso and Liberia. Turkey is ready and willing to sign military and security cooperation agreements with Togo to prevent terrorism from infiltrating this region,” Erdoğan said during a press conference with Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé.

Erdoğan held a joint press conference with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria following their talks in Abuja. Buhari praised Turkey for receiving and accommodating 4 million refugees fleeing conflict particularly in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. “We are strengthening our cooperation on military defense and security issues with Nigeria, which is fighting against terrorist organizations, armed gangs and piracy,” Erdoğan said at the media briefing.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has recognized the importance of Africa and identified relations with the continent as a core pillar of its foreign policy. In the spirit of enhancing relations with the continent, Turkey launched a “policy of outreach to Africa” in 2003. Turkey has boosted its trade volume with Africa from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $25.3 billion in 2020 as well as increasing its embassies from 12 in 2002 to 43 in 2021.

Former Turkish President Abdullah Gül, who visited many countries across the African continent and hosted the first Turkish-African Summit held in Istanbul in 2008, on several occasions mentioned that Turkey plans to pursue a humanitarian-centered Africa policy. Central to Erdoğan’s political and economic strategies in Africa, however, is the development of military cooperation and promoting the Turkish defense industry. Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar accompanied Erdoğan on his Africa tour, where Erdoğan insisted on signing military and defense agreements with African states.

Reuters last week reported that Turkey has sold the Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, produced by a Turkish company owned by Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, to Ethiopia and Morocco. Cairo, on the other hand, has opposed Turkey’s drone sales to the region. Nigerian customs officers on many occasions intercepted illegal arms shipments from Turkey at the nation’s ports, and a top Nigerian official, Colonel Hameed Ali, raised the issue with the Turkish ambassador in Abuja in 2017.

Erdoğan has already firmly established his presence in the Horn of Africa by developing military relations with Ethiopia and Kenya as well as establishing Turkey’s largest military base anywhere in the world. Erdoğan aims to establish a strong presence in West Africa, too, as the region has a considerably large Muslim population, while Ankara ambitiously conducts a foreign policy based on anti-French sentiment in the region. The Turkish media had reported that Angola’s President Joao Lourenco requested Turkish-made combat drones during his trip to Turkey three months ago. Losing ground at home has not deterred Erdoğan from making gains in Africa along with his fellow businessmen, who have been awarded almost all state tenders in Turkey and now have their eyes set on the African continent.

Erdoğan emphasized to the Togolese media his commitment to the continent, saying, “I have conducted 38 visits to 28 African countries and plan to soon revisit a few of them and will return again and again.”

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