Turkey Deepens Its Footprint in Africa
Expanding security cooperation and friendly rhetoric are strengthening Ankara’s influence on the continent.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief, and happy holidays.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief, and happy holidays.
The highlights this week: A recent summit highlights Turkey’s expanding influence in Africa, Tigrayan fighters retreat in Ethiopia as the U.N. Human Rights Council pushes for an investigation into abuses, and Libya’s elections look unlikely to go ahead on Friday.
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Erdogan’s Growing Influence in Africa
Leaders from more than a dozen African countries attended the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in Istanbul last week, reflecting the country’s growing clout on the continent. Among the attendees were Senegalese President Macky Sall, the incoming chair of the African Union; Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, currently the chair of the Economic Community of West African States; and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The presence of so many high-level attendees could be seen as a foreign-policy challenge for the United States if Turkey ends up wielding greater influence in Africa—as China already does.
Part of the problem might be the terms of engagement: Mnangagwa and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, were both excluded from U.S. President Joe Biden’s democracy summit earlier this month. Since entering office, Biden has been coming to terms with a world that is moving on from an era of U.S. dominance—particularly across Africa, which has been low on Washington’s agenda for decades.
Erdogan has sought to fill the gap. Turkey has steadily expanded its African footprint since its 2019 intervention in the Libyan civil war. Its investments on the continent include a mosque in Ghana, an Olympic pool in Senegal, and an army base in Somalia training 10,000 local troops.
Erdogan is now looking to forge closer ties with Nigeria. A Turkish defense team will meet with Nigerian officials in Nigeria’s capital Abuja in January. A statement from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s media aide said that Turkish technology would “surely quicken the process and efforts to rid the country of pockets of terrorists.” Meanwhile, Morocco and Tunisia received their first delivery of Turkish drones in September, as part of contracts that include military training. For months, the international community has speculated about a similar Turkish arms deal with Ethiopia.
Erdogan has long positioned himself as a friend to Africa. In October, he took a four-day diplomatic tour through Angola, Nigeria, and Togo. His interests are clear: The value of projects given to Turkish construction companies in Africa has reached $71.1 billion in 2021. Since Erdogan came to power nationally nearly two decades ago, Turkey’s trade with Africa rose to $25.3 billion in 2020, compared to just $5.4 billion in 2003.
At the summit, Erdogan appealed to deep grievances over how international institutions have treated African leaders. “1.3 billion people live on the African continent and it is not represented at the [U.N.] Security Council,” Erdogan said on Saturday. “This is a huge, flagrant injustice.” He also announced Turkey would share 15 million COVID-19 vaccine doses with African countries in the next few months.
In some ways, Turkey’s strategy in Africa echoes China’s, including familiar rhetoric on political meritocracy and mutual partnerships—a contrast to U.S. and European approaches, which tend to focus on democratic violations. Chinese leaders have espoused a shared experience of Western imperialism with Africa. Likewise, Turkey has emphasized benevolence in its relations with African countries.
“[Africans] see Turkey as a country not coming to the continent with any colonial baggage,” Turkish Ambassador to South Africa Elif Comoglu Ulgen told African Business in March. “We are here on the continent with a win-win strategy.”
What We’re Watching
Tigrayan rebels retreat. More than a year into Ethiopia’s civil war, Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael has withdrawn his troops from the contested regions of Afar and Amhara and proposed that the United Nations oversee an end to hostilities. “We trust that our bold act will be a decisive opening for peace,” Debretsion wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres dated Dec. 19.
The move came after government forces said they had recaptured more key towns from Tigrayan fighters over the weekend. The U.N. Human Rights Council voted for an independent investigation into human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s conflict last Friday. Ethiopia described the move as “politically motivated” and said it would not cooperate. “No more to unilateral coercive measures,” the government said in a statement.
An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people, including nine U.N. staff, have been detained in Ethiopia, many in unknown locations, according to the United Nations.
Aborted elections? Libya’s Dec. 24 presidential election is unlikely to take place as planned, according to the country’s election body, as it faces various legal challenges. Although foreign diplomats continue to call for elections, Libya’s electoral commission said it would not publish a list of approved candidates until it settles legal disputes over who can run. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland said that not holding elections would put Libya at the mercy of “external backers who prefer bullet power over ballot power.”
Potential challengers include Libyan warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. The elections are part of a U.N.-brokered peace plan. Guterres recently appointed Stephanie Williams as his special advisor on Libya, where she previously served as head of the U.N. Support Mission.
Failed coup in Madagascar. Two French nationals are among six people convicted last Friday by a Madagascar court over an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina. The suspects were arrested in July and August, although details about when the plan was intended to be carried out were not made public.
Paul Rafanoharana, a former French gendarmerie officer who was previously an advisor to Rajoelina, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Philippe François, a retired officer in the French military, was sentenced to 10 years. Their lawyers plan to appeal. Rajoelina is a controversial figure: He was elected in 2019 but previously led Madagascar from 2009 to 2014 after seizing power in a coup, prompting diplomatic sanctions.
Zuma ordered back to jail. Former South African President Jacob Zuma is appealing a court ruling that the medical parole he was granted in September was unlawful and that he must return to jail. On Tuesday, a high court granted his appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal—which means for now Zuma will remain out of jail. His imprisonment in July prompted widespread riots that left more than 330 people dead.
This Week in Tech
Russian researchers in South Africa. A delegation of Russian scientists arrived in South Africa earlier this month to study the omicron coronavirus variant, responding to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s invite for other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries to send scientists to conduct research alongside the country’s experts. South Africa hosts the BRICS vaccine research center.
The Russian team arrived with its own mobile laboratory, prompting concerns from some South African scientists that the mission was a “data grab” to bolster Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, which is not approved in South Africa and was reportedly offered to the African Union at a cost higher than other vaccines. Russia has denied the claims.
Nigerian tech gets a boost. The African Development Bank has agreed to a $170 million loan to finance technology and creative start-ups in Nigeria. The federal government program aims to combat spiraling youth unemployment by investing in more than 200 start-ups and providing non-financial support to over 400 digital enterprises.
The government anticipates the initiative will create 6.1 million direct and indirect jobs, primarily among Nigerians between 15 and 35 years old.
Chart of the Week
Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus strain by far in South Africa, starting from just 1 percent of new cases one month ago. South African health officials said the outbreak had reached its peak in the country, but new cases of the variant are spreading elsewhere on the continent. South Africa’s government said last Friday that it would donate 2 million Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines to other African countries.
What We’re Reading
Anti-graft probe in Malawi. Alongside its British counterparts, Malawi’s anti-corruption bureau is investigating a U.K.-based businessman, Zuneth Sattar, for bribery in a $16 million deal in 2018 to supply water cannon vehicles to the Malawi Police Service. The agreement was not debated in the Malawian parliament, and the Platform for Investigative Journalism Malawi found that Malawi’s military, which received the majority of the vehicles, had no use for them.
Sattar was arrested on Oct. 5 and accused of a string of corrupt contracts. Last month, Malawi’s High Court ruled against an injunction by Sattar to stop local reporting about the case on grounds of defamation.
Nigeria’s sham camps. Nigeria’s police force approved a $2.4 million project between 2018 and 2019 to build police transit camps for security operatives in northern states struggling with violent attacks from herdsmen and armed gangs. But Nigeria’s Foundation for Investigative Journalism found the camps were either not built or could not have cost the stipulated amount.
The story was republished last week after the Foundation for Investigative Journalism’s editor in chief, Fisayo Soyombo, was arrested over the investigation. He was released following public outcry about press freedom.
U.S. sanctions dampen NFTs in Zimbabwe. Young Zimbabwean artists are cashing in on the non-fungible token (NFT) phenomenon but have to find workarounds to be paid because of U.S. sanctions against the country, Rest of World reports. The majority of NFT art buyers are based in the West, meaning funds are moved through Johannesburg, London, and elsewhere to avoid blocked transactions.
Zimbabwe has been under U.S. sanctions for almost 20 years following politically motivated violence under former President Robert Mugabe, who died in 2019.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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