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The Underestimated Military Power of Turkey in Africa

Whenever the phrase “military diplomacy” is used, in the Middle East region, most likely you will find the name of Turkey next to it. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, in 1923, the successive Turkish political leaderships have grown pretty skilled in manipulating various tools of military and diplomatic outreach to gain or enhance influence on areas of strategic geopolitical and geo-economic importance. In addition, Turkey’s skilled use of military diplomacy has contributed a lot to realizing the objectives of NATO, of which Turkey is an ally, especially in complicated conflict areas in Asia and Africa.

Turkey’s military diplomacy outreach pattern is designed to create a double-layered bond of economic and security co-dependency with targeted countries, that once established could hardly be broken. This pattern was successfully applied in the long-term partnerships that Turkey established with pivotal countries in Asia and Central Asia, such as Pakistan and Azerbaijan, in the 1990s and early 2000s.

For that reason, the Turkish Ministry of National Defense (MSB) and the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industry (SSB), are always part of Turkey’s foreign outreach deals. When the Turkish Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar, took office in 2018, his political skills and diplomatic proficiency, coupled with his long military and academic expertise, contributed to further boost his country’s status as a competitor to international powers, such as the United States, Russia, and China, in the strategic regions of Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

As Turkey’s indigenous defense industry is about to hit a self-sufficiency rate of 80%, by the end of 2022; Turkey sees a golden opportunity in selling arms to the starving market of arms and ammunition in Africa. Today, Turkey is already exporting Turkish-made weapons to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, and the list is expanding by the day. The African countries are particularly interested in the Turkish drones and helicopters, as well as technologically advanced electronic war systems, that they can procure from Turkey for a relatively lower cost, compared to purchasing the same equipment from the United States, Russia, or even from China.

Following his recent diplomatic tour in Africa, in October 2021, Turkish President Erdogan told the press: “Everywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAV drones. The scale of Turkey’s drone program places it with the world’s top four producers – the United States, Israel, and China”.

Turkey’s military exports to Africa are not only limited to the Sub-Saharan countries but also expand to North Africa. In December 2020, Turkey and Tunisia signed five armament contracts, which amounted to US$150 million, including the sale of advanced drones. In July 2021, Morocco signed an armament contract of US$ 50 million with the Turkish ASELSAN company to buy the Turkish electronic warfare system (Koral-EW). However, most importantly, since December 2019, Turkey has established an unshakable military presence in a critical spot in the Mediterranean and North Africa region, by employing thousands of troops, military-technical experts, and mercenaries to the war-torn Libya to participate in the civil war in the side of the Tripoli-based government.

In the Horn of Africa region, Turkey already operates a military base and a defense college in Somalia. Allegedly, Turkey has, also, been trying to build another military base on Suakin Island of Sudan, in the Red Sea, as part of a cultural development agreement signed between Turkey and the former regime of Omar Al-Bashir, in 2017.

Looking at the Sub-Saharan Africa region, Kenya invested US$73 million, in January 2021, to procure 118 armored vehicles from Turkey. In October 2021, the Turkish Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar, met with several African leaders to discuss potential deals with Turkish armed drones. Angola and Nigeria are the most important countries expected to turn the drone negotiations with Ankara, into an actual deal, this year. Other countries, such as Togo, Burkina Faso, and Liberia have already signed agreements with Turkey for cooperation on security and counter-terrorism activities.

Reportedly, Turkey has already made agreements with Morocco and Ethiopia, in early 2021, to equip them with armed drones. Although no official announcement of such deals was made public, the Turkish drones had already appeared in the ongoing civil war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray province. A recent report by the New York Times quoted two Western diplomates confirming that “Over the past four months, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran have quietly supplied [Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] with some of the latest armed drones, even as the United States and African governments were urging a cease-fire and peace talks.” Notably, the drones played a tremendous role in enabling Abiy Ahmed's government to eventually win the war.

In parallel to its growing military influence, Turkey is the fourth largest economic investor in Africa, after China, the United States, and France, according to data from the “Swiss-African Business Relations Status Quo 2021” report, which traces foreign investments in Africa over the past decade (2010-2019). In 2020, the total trade volume between Turkey and Africa reached as high as US$25.3 billion, compared to a trade volume of US$20 billion between Africa and the entire continent of Europe.

The bottom line: Watch carefully for Turkey’s growing military influence on the political and economic future of Africa, and never underestimate the power of Turkey’s military diplomacy.

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