Turkey is strengthening its security footprint in Africa after more than a decade of strategically expanding its economic and cultural influence on the continent. The government has recently signed a number of security agreements, particularly in West Africa, and arms exports to Africa have exploded.
Turkey’s defense and aerospace exports to the continent increased more than fivefold, to $460.6 million in 2021 from $82.9 million in 2020.
Turkey’s share in the arms market in Africa is still tiny at 0.5%. But the rapid growth in defense sales is ‘striking’, according to a 2022 study of Turkey’s security diplomacy in Africa by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
In a context of growing Islamist insurgencies in East and West Africa, as well as internal conflicts, governments are increasing their defense spending. Turkey is proving to be a reliable alternative to traditional arms exporters, such as Russia, China, France and the United States.
For African governments, “Turkey provides a way to buy military hardware,” Abel Abate Demissie, an associate fellow at UK think tank Chatham House, told DW.
Turkish weapons are relatively cheap, have shorter delivery times and are free from “bureaucratic hurdles” such as political or human rights conditions, Abel said from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s media aide praised Turkey’s defense technology in a statement at the end of 2021, saying it would accelerate efforts to rid the country “of pockets of terrorists and the threat of kidnappers and bandits”.
According to the SWP study, African countries are the most interested in buying Turkish-made armored vehicles, naval equipment, infantry weapons and drones.
Why are drones made in Turkey so popular?
“In Africa, wherever we go, they asked us for unarmed and armed drones,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after returning from a 2021 trip to the continent.
African countries that have already taken delivery of Turkish-made drones include Somalia, Togo, Niger, Nigeria and Ethiopia – although drone sales to Ethiopia have drawn Western criticism after the government used to attack civilians in the Tigray conflict.
Several others have reportedly placed orders, although Turkey’s popular drone Bayraktar currently has a three-year waiting list.
Turkish drones are cheap compared to American or Israeli versions and easy to use. But a big selling point is that they are battle-tested, said Yunus Turhan, Turkey-Africa relations analyst at Haci Bayram Veli University in Turkey.
Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used “very effectively” in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, he said. More recently, the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones have become famous in Ukraine for destroying a large number of Russian tanks.
For Turkey, Africa is a potentially huge market for Ankara’s emerging defense and aerospace industry, which had some 1,500 companies in 2020 compared to just 56 in 2002.
At least 15 African countries also operate armored vehiclesmanufactured by several competing Turkish companies.
Last month, a Turkish shipyard laid the keel for two new offshore patrol vessels for the Nigerian Navy while another Turkish aerospace company will send six attack helicopters.
New safety training offers
However, African nations are not only interested in Turkey’s weapons. There is also a “huge demand” for security assistance, said Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigeria-based political analyst for Development Reimagined, an international consultancy.
Turkey has signed military pacts with the majority of African countries, mainly in West and East Africa (as shown on the map below). Although the agreements vary in their scope, they can include technical visits to research centres, exchanges of personnel between institutions and companies and training.
Its oldest involvement is in Somalia, where Turkey operates its largest foreign base, Camp TURKSOM, and where the Turkish government has boasted of training a third of the 15,000-strong Somali army in the fight against al- Shabab.
Nigerian military personnel have also undergone combat drone training in Turkey, while Ankara has been training Kenyan police officers since 2020.
Turkey’s experience in fighting the insurgency is welcome and, as a Muslim-majority nation without colonial baggage, it enjoys a high level of trust on the continent, Eguegu said. Moreover, due to its membership in NATO, deepening ties with Turkey has “a small diplomatic cost” for African countries.
Erdogan, who has visited more African countries than any non-African leader, even redefined Turkey as an “Afro-Eurasian state”, Eguegu pointed out. “By linking its identity to Africa, it is a way of making itself an almost neutral partner of African countries.”
Sahel countries willing to support
But it is in the terrorist-hit Sahel countries of West and Central Africa that Turkey is making its latest effort to expand its influence.
Turkey granted the G5 Sahel Joint Force (composed of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) a contribution of $5 million for the fight against terrorism in 2018.
It has since signed military and defense cooperation agreements with Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Senegal.
“We see these types of demands from West African countries because they have huge security challenges across the Sahel, where many countries do not control large swathes of their territories,” he said. said Eguegu.
Military cooperation is not the only solution
The 2021 Turkey-Africa Summit attracted 16 African heads of state and more than 100 ministers.
This shows that the continent is increasingly attaching strategic importance to Turkey, said Aissatou Kante, a Senegal-based peace and security analyst and researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank African.
Although African nations are obviously interested in diversifying their partnerships, including in the area of security, Kante said there was a danger in seeing defense agreements, such as those signed with Turkey, as the only solution to security crises in Africa.
The revival of defense agreements raises concerns about “increasing militarization of states facing multiple threats”, Kante said.
Edited by: Keith Walker