After decades of neglecting Africa, Turkey decided to turn its attention to the African continent, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) declaring 2005 as the “Year of Africa.” The AKP signed trade and cooperation agreements with 45 countries in Africa, while Turkish contractors completed projects valued at $70 billion. Turkey’s trade volume with Africa has increased fivefold during the last two decades, reaching $25 billion in 2020. Of course, business communities and Turkish NGOs contributed significantly to this. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been displaying autocratic tendencies since 2011, has together with his family become the sole beneficiary of Turkey’s hard-earned achievements in Africa. The display by the Djibouti Armed Forces of a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drone at its independence day celebrations on June 27 is a testament to the manner in which Erdoğan’s family has benefitted from Turkey’s Africa opening. Erdoğan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar is the chief technology officer of defense contractor Baykar, which produces Turkey’s Bayraktar drones.
It was during the term of former President Abdullah Gül, who served as the 11th president from 2007 to 2014, that Turkey’s expansion into Africa reached its peak. Gül mentioned on several occasions that Turkey’s reach in Africa focused on historically disadvantaged African people who were subjected to the most inhumane type of colonialism. Gül, who also served as both deputy prime minister and foreign minister between 2003 and 2007, made several official visits to the African continent. He supported Turkish businesspeople from all segments of society and especially supported the Gülen (Hizmet) movement, which had reached the African continent through its educational institutions, aid organizations and business associations well before the AKP did. Years later, Erdoğan and his government declared war on the Gülen movement, accusing it of orchestrating a failed coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016. Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual leader of the movement, strongly denies any involvement in the coup attempt.
Erdoğan’s ongoing purge of the Gülen movement has negatively impacted Turkish investment in Africa as well as its charity work. The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), which was forced to dissolve in the wake of the alleged coup attempt due to its Gülen links, was the pioneer organization facilitating Turkey’s investments in Africa with its more than 50,000 business members. One of TUSKON’s board members confirmed that TUSKON had organized a total of 12 Africa-Turkey business summits between 2006 and 2014. More than 30,000 Turkish businesspeople took part in these events, and business deals valued at an estimated $12 billion were signed between Turkish and African businesspeople as a direct result of these summits. Hundreds of Turkish businessmen invested in Africa through TUSKON’s Africa programs.
Besides the Gülen movement, many other individual businesspeople and Turkish NGOs were forced to halt their business activities and charity programs in Africa as Turkey began suffering from a huge economic crisis under Erdoğan’s rule.
Turkey’s Africa opening is focused on neither investments nor education and charity programs, but instead on the sale of drones. According to several media reports and official statements, the Erdoğan government has sealed defense cooperation deals with more than 25 African countries, and Turkey is currently selling Bayraktar drones to major African countries including Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Rwanda and Algeria, among others. Since the success of Turkish drones in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh war, Libya and Ukraine, African leaders have been encouraged to order Bayraktar drones. AFP reported that Turkey has set up a network of 37 military offices across Africa.
Turkish Defense contractor Baykar has become a top exporter in Turkey’s aerospace sector. The company made $664 million from drone exports last year. The Turkish Armed Forces uses these drones in the fight against Kurdish armed groups in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Moroccan media reported in April 2021 that its Royal Armed Forces (FAR) had signed a contract to buy 13 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones worth $70 million from Turkey. The Nigerian government had also finalized an order for 10 small, armed Songar UAVs from Turkey’s Asisguard in May, Africa Intelligence mentioned. Libya remains Erdoğan’s most profitable market as Turkey has several times violated a UN arms embargo on Libya by selling drones and a large shipment of military equipment to Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in recent years. The Bayraktar drones played a key role in protecting Tripoli against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in 2019. Ethiopia is another huge market for Erdoğan’s family business.
According to Turkish Exporters Assembly figures, Turkish defense and aviation exports to Ethiopia rose to $94.6 million between January and November 2021 from around $235,000 in the same period of 2020.
The sale angered Egypt and Sudan, which have been in a dispute with Ethiopia over use of the waters of the Nile for decades.
US authorities also expressed concern over Turkey’s drone sales to Ethiopia, which could contravene US restrictions on arms sales to the Addis Ababa regime.
Several media outlets reported that the Ethiopian government used Bayraktar drones in the northern Tigray region, where thousands of civilians lost their lives and millions were displaced in the war last year.
Rudaw, a news network based in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, reported that a Turkish drone targeted the Makhmour camp, controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in northern Iraq last Tuesday.
Erdoğan is notorious for being an untrustworthy ally who has taken advantage of the rift between the United States and Russia and now between Ukraine and Russia. Erdoğan is a leader who accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “closest” associates of being behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was Erdoğan’s friend, but an İstanbul court transferred the case concerning Khashoggi’s murder to Riyadh just five days before Erdoğan’s visit to the kingdom in April. Erdoğan, known for his anti-Israel rhetoric, also hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog with a lavish official ceremony in Ankara in March. The African Union (AU) has fought long and hard to solve political and military crises on the continent, but Erdoğan’s drone sales to Africa are likely to jeopardize the AU’s peace efforts as Erdoğan will not hesitate to sell arms to warring parties on the continent.