In recent years, Africa has become an arena for international competition in which global balances and hierarchies have been reshuffled. The US’ gradual retrenchment and China’s simultaneous explosive growth have left power vacuums that other players have tried to fill. Among these, Turkey has gained increasing influence. In Africa, the Anatolian country can afford to play a role that exceeds its actual capacity as an emerging mid-level power.
Relations between Turkey and African countries, especially sub-Saharan ones, are very young. The Turkish-African summits convened in 2008 and 2014 marked the different stages of Turkey's African policy. From the 2008 diplomatic and commercial opening to a period characterized by more significant involvement in African countries' political issues and development agendas (2014). As such, the third summit, held in Istanbul just a few days ago, paved the way for a new phase that is likely to be distinguished by alignment in international governance issues and increased relations in security and defense. The defense sector has become increasingly crucial in Turkish trade policy in recent months. The successes achieved by Turkish-made UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Libya's civil war showcase the sector's potentials. From Poland to Morocco, a growing number of countries have approached Turkey to obtain information regarding its drones. Almost unexpectedly, Turkey has found a precious bargaining chip useful to increase its influence on the continent and secure important economic agreements. Turkish military exports still lag behind the leading players in the sector, such as the US and China. However, Turkey aims to reach levels equal to those of Italy within a few years. It is not possible to limit relations in security and defense to drones or military hardware alone. Turkey aims to offer African countries a wide range of choices, including special forces training. Following the training of various groups of the Somali security apparatus, Turkey has recently signed agreements with other countries, including Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Turkish expertise in countering terrorist organizations such as the PKK (Partîya Karkerén Kurdîstan – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is valuable in African contexts marred by insurgency and terrorist activities.
The recent summit in Istanbul was also an opportunity to highlight Turkey's alignment with African countries on global governance issues. Ankara’s grand ambition is to be in the lead of a united front within the major international organizations able to break away from both the West and China. The official goal of this sort of non-alignment 2.0 is to promote governance reforms that reconfigure the system horizontally. A position epitomized by the recurring sentence pronounced by President Erdogan during his visits to African countries: "The world is bigger than five". However, such considerations seem more of a façade attitude. President Erdogan is aware that such leadership roles will increase both his and Turkey's weight within the global hierarchy. The weak support provided to Africa by Western countries in the ongoing pandemic crisis has offered Turkey, China, and Russia a new window of opportunity to increase their popularity across the continent. Turkey has committed to supplying 15 million vaccine doses in the coming months. In addition, President Erdogan has assured that the Turkish-made vaccine Turkovac will be provided to African countries as soon as it completes its trials. It is not clear from Erdogan's speech whether Turkey would first send some doses of the internationally approved vaccines or not.
The desire to pursue a distinct path also finds expression in Turkish policy’s narrative towards Africa. In recent months, Erdogan's rhetoric has assumed a deeply anti-Western tone. Turkish storytelling instrumentally interprets Ottoman history. The last century of the Ottoman Empire is treated as an equivalent to European imperialism in Africa to create a historical affinity and a common element of detachment from the West. At the same time, Ankara, stressing its desire to consolidate win-win relations with Africa, is distancing itself from Chinese policies. Although Turkey has adopted some traits, such as the non-conditionality of aid, Turkish policymakers consider China's aggressive policies a form of neo-imperialism. Finally, an essential component of Turkish policy toward Africa is the economic dimension. The Turkish President has repeatedly stated that he wants to increase the current trade volume of USD 25 billion to over USD 60 billion in a short period. Though the quota may seem exaggerated, the African market undoubtedly offers many opportunities to Turkish companies. Moreover, Turkey represents a valid trading partner for African countries. Turkish goods enjoy an excellent reputation in Africa, as they are considered at the same level of European quality but at Asian prices.
Nowadays, the economy is the main uncertainty about Turkey's future domestically and abroad. The Third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit has been held at a very tense time for the Erdogan administration. For several weeks, Turkey has undertaken a war for economic independence through a series of financial measures that have led to the rapid devaluation of the Turkish Lira. Turkey’s precarious financial condition could have an inevitable ripple effect on the country’s foreign policy. However, Turkey’s African policy is less vulnerable to the country’s economic fortunes. The Turkish approach to creating relationships based not on economic dependence but rather on partnership and people-to-people relationships has made them less dependent on financial resources. In other words, Turkish-African relations can withstand phases of economic crisis, too. It is unlikely that trade growth with Africa can help the Turkish economy’s recovery in the short term. At the same time, however, in recent years, Turkey has built the foundations for long-lasting relations that are destined to keep growing regardless of Erdogan government’s fate. Therefore, while it is wrong to define Turkey’s growing involvement in Africa as a success story without shadows or hidden agendas, it is also wrong to underestimate Ankara's role. Turkey is an influential player in an arena of competition that, more than any other areas in the world, is characterized by rampant multipolarity.