Turkey's soft power in Africa

Turkey's aspiration is to build a solid reputation through humanitarian aid, education and religious affairs 
El presidente turco, Recep Tayyip Erdogan - PHOTO/REUTERS
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - PHOTO/REUTERS

In the past, we have discussed various issues related to Turkey, especially its role in the Eastern Mediterranean and its so-called ‘Blue Homeland’ doctrine, which has been determining Turkish foreign and security policy for the past decade.  

However, conflicts such as those in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip have highlighted, on the one hand, Turkey's efforts to establish itself as a decisive regional power in the international arena and, on the other, the major contradictions of Turkey's position in the current context, which, although they are not penalising it too much at the moment, will have to be smoothed out sooner rather than later, as it is not possible to navigate between two waters for so long. All of this, we should add, in a scenario of acute economic crisis that has brought Turkey very close to an abyss from which it urgently needs to pull itself out, or it runs the risk of suffering severe internal destabilisation. 

In 2002, following the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party ‘Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’ (AKP), the concept of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ emerged in Turkey, giving rise to a heated internal debate on Turkey's position in the international arena. The AKP was a strong supporter of this idea, which it demonstrated when it voted against the use of Turkish airspace during the US invasion of Iraq in a vote in Turkey's Grand National Assembly in 2003. From that moment on, the traditionally strong relations between Ankara and Washington began to show cracks, as Turkey's political class did not support the US operation in Iraq. 

Since then, and for the past two decades, Turkey has shown conflicting interests between its priorities as a nation and those of NATO, with the US in the lead, especially in the Black Sea region, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The first examples are Turkey's positioning during the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and later during the Arab Spring. Turkey's role then initiated a series of misunderstandings that caused problems in the area of bilateral military cooperation with Washington. The case of Turkey's interest at the time in acquiring Patriot air defence systems, so much in vogue lately due to the conflict in Ukraine, is paradigmatic of what has been happening since then, as the US refusal to sell them had a series of chain consequences that led Turkey to acquire the Russian S400 system, leaving it outside the F-35 programme with all that this entails, such as owning an aircraft carrier twinned with the Spanish Juan Carlos I, without the possibility of being equipped with the only aircraft with vertical take-off capability in the world. 

Over the past two decades, Turkey has shown conflicting interests between its priorities as a nation and those of NATO - PHOTO/FILE

Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power, Turkish foreign policy has revolved around the goal of positioning Turkey as a regional power with the capacity to make independent decisions within a sphere of geopolitical influence that it has sought to expand, endorsed in speeches that speak of ‘strategic depth’, ‘the world is bigger than five’, the aforementioned ‘Blue Homeland’ doctrine, and the aspiration - which, in view of the situation, is getting further and further away and has become the country's real Achilles' heel - to put Turkey on the list of the 10 most economically developed nations. 

All these speeches are encompassed in what has come to be known as ‘Turkey's Century’. Its simple wording says it all. 

The concept takes shape at a time of rapidly evolving geopolitical dynamics, with global challenges marking a complex era defined by multiple crises. In this context, Turkey aims to stand out as a decisive regional actor, capable of influencing its surroundings, while guaranteeing what it considers to be unwaivable national interests and showing itself to be the independent element that can help create the necessary conditions for peace in its area of influence. As an example of this, nothing could be more eloquent than Ankara's attempts to play a leading role in any attempt to negotiate or reach an agreement between Russia and Ukraine. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - PHOTO/FILE

Given the course of events, it is clear that Russia has played a central role in defining the strategic autonomy of Turkey's foreign policy, building relations that have provided Turkey with sufficient support to defend its interests vis-à-vis the West, on more than one occasion linking its position to Russia's in its anti-Western political orientation. One wonders whether this so-called ‘autonomy’ is real or whether in the end it merely results in a change of dependence. What is clear is that Russia is taking advantage of Turkey's aspirations to undermine its relations with hitherto allies for its own benefit. And Turkey cannot be oblivious to this, but in its Ottoman mindset it is all about getting what it wants at the best price, bazaar-style. 

It is very important to bear in mind Turkey's interest, within this ideal of the ‘Turkish Century’, in appearing as a ‘problem solver’ within its own conception of the international concert, which is neither unipolar, bipolar nor multipolar. His concept replaces ‘polarity’ in any form with the term ‘solidarity’. This is nothing more than an attempt to propose an ‘alternative path’ to everything that exists. However, it is far from being accepted beyond its borders, and seems more like a construct designed for domestic consumption and to justify certain actions. 

When Turkey speaks of ‘protecting its interests in its regional environment, within a volatile global situation, by creating conditions for sustainable peace and development in our wider neighbourhood’, and of ‘establishing peace and security in our region’, one cannot help but think of Syria and Iraq and Turkey's aspirations for certain territories mainly in the former, and its struggle with the Kurds on the border with the latter. Interestingly, Turkey presents itself in various internal documents as the main guarantor of security and stability in both countries. Therefore, once again, Turkey's position and positioning must be assessed with caution. 

Among Turkey's strategic moves, it is worth noting its recent push to become more involved in Africa, and the Sahel in particular. Once again the Sahel appears as the epicentre of the geopolitical interests of anyone who wants to play a relevant role in the international concert, and this should give us pause for thought. Ankara is well aware that the Sahel has become a crucial battleground in the struggle between world and regional powers, and the importance of securing a favourable position in the region for its role in global security and the economy is not lost on it. 


Foreign trade accounts for almost fifty percent of Turkey's GDP, making it crucial to the functioning of its ailing economy, and the Sahel offers enormous opportunities. Turkey is therefore making a major effort to improve its trade relations with countries in the region. As a way of relieving domestic pressure on the economic front, good trade relations serve to secure the commercial interests of Turkish companies and boost the country's GDP. 

The focus has unsurprisingly been on Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, significantly increasing trade flows, and creating the image of a reliable and politically unburdened trading partner - a strategy that is paying off, as the Sahel countries and their inhabitants see trade relations with Turkey as sincere, egalitarian and mutually respectful, in stark contrast to views of the relationship with, for example, France. 

Turkey's aspiration is to build a solid reputation through humanitarian aid, education and religious affairs, thereby increasing its visibility and prestige not only with the authorities, but more importantly with the population of these countries, thus advancing its agenda to increase its influence abroad.  

Soldado del Ejército de Mali de guardia a la entrada del G5 Sahel, una fuerza antiterrorista de cinco naciones (Mali, Burkina Faso, Níger, Mauritania y Chad) - AFP/SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC
Malian army soldier on guard at the entrance to the G5 Sahel, a five-nation anti-terrorist force (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) - AFP/SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC

In recent years, Ankara has launched health and water supply projects in Niger and Burkina Faso, established educational institutions in Mali and funded scholarships for students from these three countries to study in Turkey. A former Turkish ambassador summed it up excellently: ‘Turkey is trying to create a group of Turkish-speaking (African) ambassadors, who will be the leaders of our penetration into Africa’. 

This penetration through what is known as ‘soft power’ has also opened the door to juicy security and defence cooperation agreements, and both Mali and Niger have signed different cooperation agreements with Turkey for both equipment procurement and training of military units since 2018. The fruits have not been long in coming and, taking Burkina Faso as a reference, we note that defence exports have risen in just three years from just over two hundred thousand dollars to almost seven million. 

REUTERS/HAMANY DANIEX - Tras varias horas de confusión, algunos medios de comunicación ya hablan de golpe de Estado en Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso's security forces - REUTERS/HAMANY DANIEX

In short, once again we see how the Sahel is becoming an area of interest for countries with sufficient weight to be able to exert influence, which are taking advantage of the vacuum that Europe in general and France in particular have been gradually leaving behind. 

The situation in the region is increasingly complicated, and the need for aid and support of all kinds is becoming more pressing, as is the pressure exerted by jihadist groups. In this context, Turkey has also increasingly adopted anti-colonial (and in particular anti-French) discourses, presenting itself as a different partner, sharing both interests and religious and historical ties with the Muslim-majority countries of the central Sahel, although its diplomatic, political and economic investments are by no means limited to countries formerly colonised by France. Turkey has expressed support for the coup governments in Mali and Burkina Faso, and has strengthened its military and economic ties despite - or rather, taking advantage of - the region's political instability and deteriorating security. 

Manifestantes se reúnen en apoyo de los soldados golpistas en la capital Niamey, Níger 30 de julio de 2023. Los carteles dicen: Larga vida a Níger, larga vida a Rusia, Francia debe irse
Protesters rally in support of the coup soldiers in the capital Niamey, Niger July 30, 2023. The placards read: Long live Niger, long live Russia, France must go - REUTERS/ BALIMA BOUREIMA

Europe can no longer afford to lose influence in the Sahel, and Turkey's approach to cultivating partnerships with countries in the region can serve as a lesson for a rethink of the relationship with these countries. This approach includes cultivating a sense of true partnership among the leadership and business class of Sahelian nations, increasing diplomatic presence, delegations and visits to the region not only related to security and defence matters, and ensuring that embassies are adequately staffed, and that contact with their counterparts is constant, regular and fluid. Only in this way will it be possible to recover lost space and begin to rebuild the now broken ties that will allow us to gain the necessary influence to make progress in stabilising a region in which everything is at stake.