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Drone sales could dampen Turkey’s African venture

Turkey has made major economic and diplomatic strides in Africa since the early 2000s, but growing military sales to African countries raise the specter of a risky shift.
This picture taken on June 3, 2016, shows the newly opened Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu.

Dozens of top African officials, including 12 presidents, two vice presidents, two premiers and 26 foreign ministers, flocked to Istanbul last week for the 3rd Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit. Given the diplomatic barrenness on Turkey’s Western front, the gathering could be deemed an enviable success for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In his speech at the Dec. 16-18 summit, Erdogan boasted he had paid 50 visits to 30 African countries since 2004 as part of Ankara’s efforts to expand and strengthen ties with the continent. Turkey’s trade volume with Africa, he noted, rose to $25.3 billion last year, up from just $5.4 billion in 2003, the first full year in power of his Justice and Development Party. In the first 11 months of 2021, the figure increased further to $30 billion. Turkish investments in Africa have reached $6 billion, and Turkish companies employ some 25,000 people on the continent, Erdogan said. Turkish contractors, meanwhile, have assumed 1,686 projects worth $78 billion. In terms of diplomatic outreach, the number of Turkish embassies in Africa has increased to 42 from 12 in 2005, while that of African embassies in Ankara has reached 37 from 10. More than 14,000 African students have benefited from Turkish scholarships.

In a sign of what motivates their growing ties with Turkey, the guest dignitaries emphasized the principles of mutual respect and mutual gain, the Turkish companies’ compliance with standards and results-oriented cooperation.

Turkey has focused on trade exchanges and humanitarian assistance in expanding its ties with African countries. More recently, however, the ties have begun to acquire a military aspect in line with Erdogan’s ambitions to ramp up Turkey’s defense industry. And unlike the first two Turkey-Africa summits in 2008 and 2014, the third one took place in the shadow of Turkish drones making their way to Africa.

The Bayraktar TB2 armed drones — produced by Baykar, a company owned by the family of Erdogan’s son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar — are being marketed on all platforms following their much-hyped showing in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. More and more African delegations have come to visit Turkish defense companies. Along with Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Qatar, Ukraine and Turkmenistan, African countries such as Algeria, Ethiopia, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda and Tunisia have reportedly taken interest in the Turkish drones. 

The marketing of the drones was a major item on Erdogan’s tour of Angola, Togo and Nigeria in October. “Even in Africa, they asked for drones and armed drones wherever I went,” Erdogan said Oct. 21. After a phone call with Niger’s president in November, Erdogan said Turkey would supply Niger with TB2 drones, Hurkus trainer aircraft and armored vehicles in support of the African country’s struggle against terrorism. 

According to Agence France-Presse, Turkey has set up a web of 37 military offices across Africa in line with Erdogan’s goal of tripling the annual trade volume with the continent to $75 billion. Experts see the field of security as the next phase of Turkey’s blossoming relationship with Africa, with “a host of African leaders looking to buy up military hardware at cheaper prices and with fewer strings attached,” AFP reports.

Analyses published by the pro-government think tank SETA ahead of the Turkey-Africa summit also emphasized the shift to the defense realm, arguing that Turkey’s ties with Africa were acquiring a strategic dimension. Ibrahim Bachir Abdoulaye, a researcher at Germany’s University of Bayreuth, for instance, argues, “Turkey’s Africa policy … is increasingly expanding into the field of defense and security. With its defense and arms industry growing, Turkey now sees Africa as a potential market for its defense industry. … With its military presence in Somalia and Libya and the development of its arms, defense and aviation industries, Turkey is positioning itself as a strategic player capable of influencing political games on the continent long dominated by the West. … Security and defense will be at the heart of the cooperation between Turkey and African countries at the summit.”

Zainul Abideen Jibril, a scholar with Nigeria’s Adamawa State University, notes that Turkey’s opening to Africa has been based “mainly on dialogue and partnership — ‘soft power’ implemented through sociocultural and economic ties.” Yet Turkey “has also used hard power to foster and protect its African interests,” he points out, adding that the prospective establishment of a Turkish military base in Niger “could enhance [Turkey’s] influence in Libya and its position against its rivals in the Mediterranean.”

Turkey’s growing military visibility in Africa could trigger its regional rivals to double down, and such a spiral of countermoves could end up embroiling Turkey in regional conflicts. Thus far, Turkey’s soft-power approach has helped it avoid such situations, but it risks scuttling its success by expanding drone sales that might earn it local enemies or fuel regional military rivalries.

Judging by the euphoric tone of the government-controlled press, Ankara seems to be little concerned about the potentially disastrous consequences of militarizing ties with African countries. Last week, newspapers such as Vatan, Aksam and Yeni Akit lauded the role of TB2 drones in Ethiopia’s civil war, claiming that Addis Ababa is intending to buy more TB2 drones. According to the papers, the Turkish drones “have tipped the scale” in favor of the government forces, proving instrumental in stopping the advance of the Tigray rebels and obtaining strategic intelligence. The Yeni Safak daily posted a tweet along the same lines, attracting critical comments from Turkish users who opined that the warring parties might make peace one day but questioned whether Turkish citizens doing business in Ethiopia would still be able to safely visit the country. The paper later deleted the tweet.

Turkey and Ethiopia signed a military cooperation deal in August as the Ethiopian premier visited Ankara. The visit was followed by reports that Ethiopia received six of the 13 TB2 drones it had ordered from Turkey. According to the Ethiopian press, the army’s success in repelling Tigray rebels in certain areas owes to its increasing drone use, including the TB2s as well as the Iranian-made Muhajir and the Chinese-made Wing Loong 2 drones. Similarly, the New Delhi-based EurAsian Times writes that amid US unwillingness to share advanced technology, China and Turkey “have rushed to fill the vacuum” and this “has shown results on the Ethiopian battlefield and dealt decisive blows to the Tigray forces.”

The war in Tigray has claimed thousands of lives and forced the displacement of at least 2 million people. Keen on selling the drones, Erdogan has attached no humanitarian or legal strings to their use. Inevitably, the war in Tigray is resulting in international pressure on Turkey and raising questions about Turkey’s role in Ethiopia’s future.

Mursel Bayram, a Turkish expert on Africa, draws attention to such risks in a report for SETA. “The sale of Turkish drones to Morocco and their use in Western Sahara is affecting Turkish-Algerian relations. Likewise, the alleged use of Turkish armed drones to suppress the insurgency in Ethiopia’s Tigray region creates the perception that Turkey is intervening in Ethiopia’s civil war,” Bayram writes. He calls on the Turkish media to avoid nationalist bluster in reporting arms sales that have not been officially confirmed. Otherwise, he warns, “the risks of defense industry cooperation could neutralize the soft power attained through development cooperation.” One should note, however, that not the press but Erdogan himself has been the chief advertiser of the drones, talking them up at every opportunity.

Turkey has sealed defense cooperation deals with more than 25 African countries. With interest growing in other Turkish military products, along with the drones, the countries that have already bought Turkish military equipment are listed as follows: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda.

Available statistics point to a significant uptick in defense and aviation exports. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly, the exports of the defense and aviation industries hit an all-time high of $2.8 billion in the first 11 months of the year, including $94.6 million worth of sales to Ethiopia and $82.8 million to Morocco, up from $235,000 and $402,000 respectively in the same period last year. Defense exports have come to account for 1.4% of all Turkish exports. In July, Turkish company Katmerciler sealed a $91.4 million deal with Kenya for 118 armored vehicles

Despite its significant strides in Africa, Turkey remains trailing behind global heavyweights on both the economic and diplomatic fronts. China, for instance, boasts a trade volume of more than $200 billion with the continent, along with investments totaling $360 billion. As for the expanse of diplomatic webs, Turkey ranks sixth behind China, the United States, France, Japan and Russia.

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