Trade, Politics, Religion Draw Turkey to Sub-Saharan Africa

With more than three dozen embassies and billions of dollars in trade, Turkey has quietly built strong ties across Africa over the past decade. The opening of a base in Somalia in September, expanded that presence to include military power.

Turkey already had a long history of engagement with north African countries, said David Shinn, an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. In 2016, Turkey conducted more than $10 billion in trade with Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

What’s new is the country’s expansion into sub-Saharan Africa. Turkish Airlines now flies to more than 50 cities across the continent, and construction firm Yapi Merkezi is building a multibillion-dollar railway line across Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Turkey’s connections to Africa focus mainly on economics, said Shinn, who believes Turkey is looking to expand its exports and increase direct investment through private companies.

Politics also figure prominently in the relationship. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made Africa a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Trade, Politics, Religion Draw Turkey to Sub-Saharan Africa

In an opinion piece published by Al-Jazeera last year, Erdogan said, “Many people in the world associate the African continent with extreme poverty, violent conflict and a general state of hopelessness. The people of Turkey have a different view. We believe Africa deserves better.”

Shinn said that the new military base in Somalia Turkey’s first in Africa and the largest outside Turkish borders  shows an interest in projecting power and deepening strategic alliances.

Turkey’s presence in Somalia dates back to the Ottoman Empire, when Turkish enclaves dotted the Somali coast.

Economics aren’t driving Turkey’s present interest  it’s engaged in very little trade with the Horn of Africa nation, which has struggled with years of conflict, drought and food insecurity.

Instead, Somalia’s proximity and overwhelmingly Muslim population make it an appealing partner, Shinn said. And Erdogan believes he can make a difference in Somalia.

On October 14, Somalia suffered the worst terrorist attack since at least 1997 when a truck bomb exploded in Mogadishu, the capital. More than 350 people were killed.

Turkey responded with immediate support and solidarity, condemning the bombing and airlifting injured survivors to a hospital in its capital, Ankara.

Days later, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire flew to Ankara to meet his counterpart, Binali Yildirim, and visit the victims.“Turkey’s help and support will be written in our history books, and we will never forget that,” Khaire said at a press conference.

Turkey’s recent presence in Somalia dates to 2011, when it became involved in various humanitarian and development programs in the midst of one of the country’s worst droughts.

With a new military base just south of the Somali capital, Turkey will train thousands of Somali soldiers ahead of a planned withdrawal of AMISOM, the international peacekeeping force.

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