"Bayraktars" over the Black Continent: Turkey is firmly entrenched there


Cem Oksuz / Reuters

In recent years, Turkey has significantly increased the production capacity of its military-industrial complex and the volume of arms exports, including to African countries. In twenty years, the Turks have become globally recognized producers and sellers of weapons.

Their dependence on imports of various types of defense products was 80% in 2000, and now it is only 20%. In 2002, the industry was represented by only 56 national companies. Now there are more than 1,500 of them. According to public data alone, about 800 defense projects are underway, and partnerships are expanding, for example, with the British BAE. Progress is clearly visible in the export figures: in 2002 it was only $248 million, in 2022 it will reach $4.4 billion.

As for Africa, since the 1990s, Turkey has intensified its activities there, developing a comprehensive strategy that includes active diplomacy, social work and economic partnerships.

During the Cold War, Turkey pursued a Western-oriented foreign policy and distanced itself from the Non-Aligned Movement and Third World discourses, which complicated its efforts to achieve rapprochement with African countries. However, despite its limited presence in Africa during the Cold War, Ankara’s relations on the continent, once they improved, were based on a pragmatic approach, as evidenced, for example, by Turkey’s attempt to garner support among African UN member states on the Cyprus issue.

And on the African track, Ankara has made significant progress. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has visited more countries on the Black Continent than any other non-African leader. Meanwhile, Turkey has signed military agreements in the field of arms supplies of various types with the majority of African countries, especially in the east and west of the continent. For example, Nurol has sold Ejder Yalçin armored vehicles to Tunisia, and Katmerciler has sold Hizir armored personnel carriers to Gambia, Uganda and Kenya.

But the driving force behind military-technical cooperation with African countries has been UAVs. The success of their use in several hotspots has impressed Africans, making Turkey the world’s third largest exporter of unmanned devices, after China and the United States, whose models are more expensive and sometimes more difficult to use. Thus, the Turkish company TAI sold its Aksungur to Algeria, the Anka drone to Tunisia; the Bayraktar TB2 attack drone was purchased by 28 countries, including Morocco, Djibouti, Togo, Somalia, Mali, Burkina Faso and Rwanda.

It is not without reason that Turkey is called a «dark horse» that manages to maneuver in the international arena. Ankara can skillfully play on the geopolitical feelings of the opposing sides, selling products to both Algerians and Moroccans, or building a drone factory on Ukrainian soil, while maintaining good relations with Moscow. Military cooperation or arms supply agreements have also not been affected by regime change in sub-Saharan Africa. As much as Erdogan has been scolded, this is where his political course has literally fired a shot.

In September 2021, President Erdogan proposed to Assimi Goïta to strengthen bilateral cooperation (six months after the military coup), and TB2 UAVs were delivered to Mali the following year. Burkina Faso also had TB2 in its arsenal that same year. It was roughly the same story in Niger and Chad.

In 2023, everything got even bigger: Nigeria’s military traveled to Turkey to expedite the delivery of helicopters from there. Now Turkey is also actively providing advice and training. It has a military base in Somalia where it trains a third of the national army, including elite commandos. Finally, there is no doubt that the new foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, who headed the Turkish intelligence services for thirteen years, will develop intelligence cooperation with African capitals.

Moreover, Erdogan did not lag behind the EU, the Russian Federation or the US, and decided to hold a summit with African countries, which ended with the signing of a memorandum between Turkey and ZLEC (Free Trade Zone in Africa), which reflects the three main issues of the summit: peace, security and justice; human development; and strong and sustainable economic growth.

The strengthening of Turkish influence in Africa worries France greatly, because on the contrary, amid its withdrawal, Ankara is only «getting comfortable». Turkey, which has its strongholds in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan), is heading for West Africa. There are already many facts and initiatives that show Ankara is not going to stop at conquering markets and people.

Regarding aircraft, Turkey is preparing up to another springboard in Africa with its Hurkus turboprop engines, which Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is supplying to Chad and Niger.

So far, Turkey accounts for only 0.5% of total arms imports to Africa from outside the continent. But there is reason to believe that this figure will increase. As of 2022, Turkey has signed security and defense-related agreements with 30 African states. The Turkish defense industry has proven its ability to produce weapons systems quickly, efficiently, and in large quantities.

Although Turkish aid to Africa is minimal compared to that of other actors, it has an immediate and noticeable impact on the daily lives of Africans on a micro level. Turkey tends to position its aid policy as the «Turkish Way» of development cooperation based on the so-called Ankara Consensus, which is an alternative model of development cooperation to the models contained in the Washington Consensus and the Beijing Consensus.

On the African continent, most of Turkey’s funding goes to Muslim-majority countries, some of which had ties to the Ottoman era, such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. Turkey provides only grants to African countries, and there is no place for loans. This is one aspect that distinguishes Turkey from both traditional donors such as the EU and new donors such as China. Turkey provides all of its official development assistance to the continent through bilateral channels, with aid primarily focused on social and economic infrastructure.

From a global perspective, the most important question will be: will Turkey’s strategy help contain China’s influence on the continent? Although Ankara’s growing influence in Africa does not fit into U.S. President Joe Biden’s «alliance of democracies» strategy, Turkey’s third path, driven by the need to preserve its alliances with the EU and the U.S., is likely to benefit the West.