Selcan Karabektaş, doctorante à l’Université Grenoble Alpes et chercheure au CERDAP2
Türkiye’s diplomatic approach prioritizing soft power elements, which have been the main foreign policy component shaping its relations with African countries over the past years, had become an important tool in Türkiye’s overall African policy.
The term « soft power », coined by Nye in the late 1980s, has been defined as a country’s ability to persuade others to do what it wants them to do without coercion, and is based primarily on cultural and ideological appeal. Within the scope of this context and perspective, the ever-growing aspect of the military-related activity and subsequent cooperation processes which has recently been noticed in Türkiye’s African policy, as well as its indirect involvement in conflicts on the continent, raise questions as to whether hard power has started to replace soft power which the country has so far been using in its expansion throughout the continent. Before an in-depth analysis of the change in question, we will first briefly talk about the importance of soft power elements that the AKP government had been following in its policy of opening to Africa as from the beginning of the 2000s, when it came to power.
In addition to the activities of non-state actors stemming from Türkiye, we notice that three main institutions at state level demonstrate Turkish soft power in the African continent; these are namely the TİKA (Türk İşbirliği ve Koordinasyon Ajansı– Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), the Maarif Foundation with the Yunus Emre Institutes and the Diyanet (Diyanet Işleri Başkanlığı – Presidency of Religious Affairs).
TİKA, Türkiye’s top state-level aid and technical support institution, carries out projects in many fields such as education, health and agriculture in Africa, where it has 22 offices. According to the last data, the total official development aid provided to African countries neared 3 billion USD, with almost 400 humanitarian and technical cooperation projects carried out on the continent over the last 10 years.
TİKA’s development aid activities in the African continent undoubtedly contribute greatly to Türkiye’s positive image across the continent. Particularly, the Turkish authorities’ intervention in the drought experienced in Somalia in 2011, both in the context of the state and the private sector, as well as the continuous support of the country under the form of several development projects, made it possible to talk about a Turkish-type aid model in the African continent. TİKA, which opened its first office in Africa in Ethiopia in 2005, is currently active in almost 54 countries of the continent.
Another effective tool that contributes to Turkey’s soft power in the continent are the Maarif Schools and the Yunus Emre Institute. Maarif schools were established and commissioned by Erdoğan himself who, after blaming the Gülen group –NGO active in Africa- for the failed 2016 coup attempt, ordered to take over the Gülen schools operating in Africa and pressured the African States to do so.
Maarif schools provide active service in 26 African countries as of today. On the other hand, Yunus Emre Institute, which provides Turkish language education and organizes cultural and artistic activities to promote Turkish, has cultural centers in some 10 countries of the continent.
Along with those institutions, it is worth noting that the Diyanet, the Presidency of Religious Affairs of Türkiye, which has lastly been contributing significantly to Turkish soft power, has started to stand out clearly all over Africa. As of 2019, Türkiye had 15 religious services consultancy and attaché offices in the continent. African Religious Leaders’ Summits hosted by the Diyanet are among the most important activities of the institution. The first summit was held in 2006, the second taking place in 2011 and the third in 2019. The main purpose of these summits was to gather and agree on a common view on religious issues.
An increasingly offensive policy in Africa
On the other hand, in addition to the soft nature of the overall approach and policy, we also notice a substantial change and evolution in the direction of the hard component. Actually Türkiye, which had set up a first military base in Somalia in 2017, continues to extend its activities in the field of defense, notably by promoting and selling the military equipment it produces to African countries.
We see a particular interest of several countries for Turkish drones. Morocco and Tunisia, which had ordered Turkish combat drones, started being supplied in September 2021. This interest is partially a consequence of Turkish army’s intervention in Libya in 2020. The use of drones has indeed made possible to repel the offensive of the Libyan National Army (ANL), led notoriously by Khalifa Haftar, and helped reverse the fate of arms in favor of the government of Tripoli.
Turkish’ SIHAs (Silhalı İnsansız Hava Arıcı – Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), Türkiye’s combat drones, have become one of the main topics of Erdoğan’s tour and visits in Africa, such as that in October 2021, as it seems that it contributed to achieve the goal Erdoğan had set on tripling the volume of Turkish-African trade before the celebration of the centenary of the Republic in 2023. Actually, the Turkish President is counting a lot on the acceleration of defense exports (in particular the sale of SiHA). It must be noted that in Africa, many states face secessionist movements or jihadist rebellions, making the continent a potential market for the sale of weapons and armed drones. Türkiye sold products from the defense industry of 83 million dollars to Africa in 2020, and in 2021, this amount rose to 288 million dollars.
However, it might be also difficult to become a major arms supplier without acquiring the image and reputation of being an actor interfering in the internal affairs of African countries. This increasingly important military orientation could therefore harm the favorable image resulting from years-long Turkish efforts in the direction of soft power based on economic cooperation and humanitarian aid in Africa. There are also internal political concerns underlying this development in Turkish policy toward Africa, as it seeks to strengthen Erdoğan’s support base ahead of the 2023 elections. In this context, creating the image of a strong country, capable of taking advantage of its new technological assets, is an appealing propaganda tool for Erdoğan, especially considering that one of his son-in-laws, Selçuk Bayraktar, is very much involved in the fabrication process of the drones in question (he is the chief technology officer of the Baykar Company and the inventor of the first Turkish drone).
Türkiye’s military activities in African continent are growing day by day, with this new approach undoubtedly starting to affect the country’s African policy in general, as well as the image she has strived to build throughout the past decades of being a nation with a rather softer approach. Due to its involvement in regional conflicts, Türkiye found itself at odds with other players on the continent. Adding to this, Turkiye has the risk to destroy its own soft power gains by selling additional unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), fomenting local unrest, or escalating military rivalry in Africa. Especially the news reported by the pro-government media, on the Turkish arms sales in Africa that have the capacity to change direction of conflicts in the region, may change Turkiye’s perception in the eyes of African people. This situation may lead Türkiye to be placed in the same category with other regional powers, which it has criticized for years for seeking benefits in Africa.