Will Erdogan’s ‘walk with Africa’ policy prove successful?
This year marks two decades of Turkish activism in Africa. Ankara’s engagement in the continent dates back to 1998, when the “Opening to Africa Action Plan” was adopted, although it was not realized until 2005 due to the political and economic situation in the country. The year 2005 was devoted as “The Year of Africa” and Turkey kicked off an active policy on the continent with increased diplomatic missions, the signing of agreements covering several areas, and an important increase in the number of high-level, reciprocal visits between officials from Turkey and African countries.
Erdogan’s last Africa tour was in December last year, when he visited Sudan, Chad and Tunisia.
Since 2004, Erdogan has paid official visits to 24 African countries as prime minister and president, spearheading the signings of several bilateral pacts. Moreover, the first-ever Turkey-Africa cooperation summit was held in Istanbul in 2008 with the attendance of representatives from 50 African countries. In the same year, Turkey declared its strategic partnership with the continent at the 10th African Union summit. Turkey’s move toward active involvement in Africa attracted global attention at a time when several countries had a stake in the continent, particularly after Turkey opened its biggest overseas military base in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to build its presence in East Africa.
Turkish president’s five-day visit to continent was a significant move, especially when it comes to key partner Algeria, which Ankara sees as an island of political and economic stability in the region.
This week’s Africa tour was significant in many respects. Firstly, Erdogan became the first Turkish president to visit Mauritania and Mali. But, of the four countries he visited, I am of the opinion that Algeria, which was the first leg of the tour, was of greatest importance. Erdogan, who had previously visited the country in 2006, 2013 and 2014, described this visit to Algeria as “historic.” All eyes were fixed on Erdogan’s meeting with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80, who rarely appears in public. Erdogan also met with Algeria’s Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia as officials signed several agreements to cooperate on culture, security, trade and agriculture. One of the most important of those was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Algerian state oil giant Sonatrach and Turkish groups Ronesans and Bayegan to establish a $1 billion petrochemical facility at Yumurtalik in southern Turkey.
For Turkey, Algeria is a significant actor in Africa and one that still remains stable despite the fact three of its near neighbors, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, were shaken by the Arab uprisings. “We see Algeria as an island of political and economic stability in the region. Our first trading partner in Africa is Algeria,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.
Algeria is also a close partner of Iran, which considers the country as a door to pursuing its policies in North Africa. Algiers and Tehran share very similar policies toward the Syria crisis and took matching stances at the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) when Syria’s suspension was approved, with the only objections coming from Iran and Algeria. Another example of the Algerian stance in regards to Syria was when it abstained from voting on a 2012 UN draft resolution condemning human rights violations by the Assad regime. Iran voted against but the text was adopted by 137 votes to 12. Iranian officials have also previously underlined that Iran and Algeria have the capacity to create a new world order.
Aware of this situation, Turkey seems determined not to leave its potential African partners in the hands of rival regional and global powers. During his African tour, Erdogan stated that: “Turkey wants to walk along with Africa when a new world order is being established.” This sentence is significant, and has intertwined and hidden meanings.
Needless to say, economy and trade have been the motivating factors behind Turkey’s outstanding partnership with Africa, not to mention its historical and cultural ties with the region. However, in recent years Turkey’s engagement has also taken on a military aspect. Turkey has seen a transformation in its defense industry, with a clear shift from arms procurement to arms manufacture and sales.
Algeria seems to be a good potential partner for Turkey in this regard. It has the largest military budget in Africa ($10.3 billion) and is among the world’s Top 10 importers of military goods. Military expenditure is strongly supported by the presence of the oil and natural gas industries, whose revenues are directed toward strengthening defense and security. This year, Algeria has allocated 25 percent of its budget to defense. The increasing threat emanating from terrorist organizations in the continent, an arms race with neighboring countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, and the ongoing modernization of the armed forces have pushed Algeria to bolster its defense industry.
Historically, Algeria has primarily imported military goods from Russia, which occupies a 60 percent share. However, this trend is changing, as Algeria has started to open its market to other countries and reduce its dependency on one power. Turkey, which has a reputable presence on the continent, could be a significant partner in helping to meet Algeria’s needs in this matter. Only time will tell what the outcomes of Erdogan’s latest African tour will be.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
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