Since labelling 2005 the “Year of Africa”, Turkey has built political and economic ties across the continent through aid and trade, part of an agenda to extend its reach around the globe. Spearheading this push, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, first as Turkish prime minister until 2014 and since then as president, cultivated relations with African leaders, helped Turkish companies gain access to new markets and bankrolled projects casting Turkey as a custodian of Islamic culture in heavily Muslim African countries. In its attempts to gain influence in Africa, Ankara is jockeying with not just Western but also Arab states. The latter competition has transposed the rivalry between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on one side, and Turkey and Qatar, on the other, onto conflict-prone regions like the Horn of Africa, often worsening instability. But it is Turkey’s overtures to another region – the Sahel – that have recently rattled Western and Gulf Arab governments, which fear that Turkey’s presence might threaten their geopolitical interests in a place many view as a crucial battleground in the war with jihadist insurgents.
Already the military-heavy French-led approach in the Sahel is faltering. Communal killings, Islamist militancy and popular frustration with governments seen as ill-equipped to quell the violence and protect citizens are on the rise. Jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 and inter-communal conflict has surged. The three central Sahelian states – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – struggle to hold territory, let alone assert state authority, in areas contested by militants. Meanwhile, jihadists are entrenching themselves, mounting rural insurgencies, tapping local grievances to recruit fighters and expanding their operations. Disappointment with the failure to stem insecurity has given rise to anti-French sentiment in Sahelian capitals. A big push by Turkey, which has a fraught relationship with France, to present itself as an alternate security partner could aggravate tensions. In November 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey of undercutting France’s West African ties by playing on “post-colonial resentment”. Separately, in June 2021, he announced plans to halve the number of France’s 5,100 troops in the Sahel by 2023.
In reality, Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection. Ankara’s activities in the region are mostly focused on development support and commercial engagement. True, it has signed a defence accord with Niamey. It is also the case that in Somalia, Turkish aid and business subsequently led to more military engagement, though for the most part Turkish involvement there has been constructive and not in conflict with Western aims. Sahelian states and external powers would be better served by taking the best of what Turkey has to offer rather than seeing it as an inherent threat – especially as Macron and Erdo?an, who held a private discussion on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June, appear to be mending ties. Recent efforts to quell tensions between Turkey and Egypt and between sparring Gulf states suggest a broader rapprochement may be on the cards. Instead of competing in the Sahel, external powers should find ways of cooperating for the troubled region’s benefit.
Turkey’s motives in the Sahel thus far appear primarily economic. Indeed, according to Ankara, expanding trade is its main priority in the region. But some observers look at Turkey’s role in Somalia and in the wider Horn of Africa, and wonder how far its engagement in the Sahel might go. But the perception that Turkey’s growing presence in Muslim African countries as motivated by ideology or by desire to increase its geopolitical heft is not wholly inaccurate. For example, Ankara’s extensive support for Somalis facing a devastating famine in 2011 earned Turkey enormous good-will. In 2017, Ankara opened a military base in Mogadishu, the biggest training base of its kind outside Turkey. Turkey is now one of Somalia’s most influential foreign actors, a role many Somalis view in a positive light. Still, focusing on those angles alone risks overlooking what seems to be a key part of Ankara’s engagement in the Sahel to date – capitalizing on shared religious identity to advance its economic interests.
As Ankara pursues commercial opportunities in the Sahel, Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments. Turkey first adopted a cooperative approach to security in the region. This approach included providing diplomatic support to multilateral efforts such as Mali’s Algiers peace agreement and also giving $5 million to the G5 Sahel force, a regional coalition aiming to fight Islamist militants in the tri-border area conjoining Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. A more controversial form of military assistance came in July 2020, when Ankara and Niamey signed a defence pact that could – the text remains secret – lay the groundwork for direct operational support from Turkey to Niger in the future. The Turkey-Niger pact set off alarm bells in Paris and Abu Dhabi. Both capitals saw it as a potential means of extending Turkish influence in neighbouring Libya and a sign that Turkey hopes to establish a base in Niger, as it has done in Somalia.
The Turkey-Niger deal led to a flood of rumours of Turkish regional meddling, all of which Ankara denies and which indeed various sources deem baseless. An August 2020 Emirati policy paper, for example, warned that Ankara was arming militants in the Sahel and West Africa to seize control of natural resources and spread political Islam. In early 2021, French politicians and commentators hinted that Turkish-deployed jihadists might be behind an uptick in improvised explosive device attacks on French soldiers in Mali. In Mali, for years the epicentre of the Sahel’s conflicts, Turkey’s military footprint is limited to a few security assistance programs in the capital. In 2018, Ankara began hosting Malian officers for training in Turkey and supplying Mali’s army with light weapons and ammunition. There are signs that the UAE and Qatar – the latter a close Turkish ally – are vying for influence. More Emirati deals, if they are made, might lead Turkey to up its involvement.
Although many Sahelians have cheered Ankara’s rapid push into the region, some Gulf Arab and Western states have reacted negatively. Perceptions that Ankara is seeking to extend its military influence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if they prompt Abu Dhabi to scale up its own military presence. For now, however, there is little evidence that Ankara is preparing to be anything other than a bit player in the region’s conflicts. As for Western partners, they worry about Turkey as an economic competitor and regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region. Western diplomats tend to both exaggerate and downplay Turkish influence. In reality, Turkish aid and investments pale in comparison to the substantial sums Western powers with deeper pockets have splashed out. Among Sahelians, on the other hand, Turkey has amassed good-will. Many have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor with whom they have more in common than Europe, Russia or China and from whom they may have much to gain.
They tend to see Turkey as less overbearing than the European Union or France, and as a partner with similar interests. Turkey, for example, is not bent on curbing migrant flows like Europe. Islam is a common bond. Many Sahelian policymakers and businessmen chafe at the region’s reliance on European aid and French military support and say they are interested in diversifying alliances. While Turkey’s push into the Sahel, given its limits, seems for now unlikely to upset regional dynamics, it is critical to avoid another layer of geopolitical competition in the region. The chief danger is that Ankara continues expanding its presence, thus motivating Gulf actors like the UAE, whose regional engagement has been relatively limited so far, to further enter the fray. All sides would be better off avoiding opening up a new arena of competition in the Sahel. Ideally, especially given France’s planned downscaling of bilateral military cooperation, Turkey would continue supporting multilateral efforts in the Sahel and restrict any bilateral military cooperation to security forces training, which would go some way to dispelling rumours about its intentions.
For their part, European partners should overcome their reluctance to collaborate with Turkey. Ankara can contribute to infrastructure, development projects and the multilateral initiatives that Europe supports. Turkey’s regional ambitions may not yet be fully developed, and the defence pact with Niger is understandably seen – by Ankara’s rivals but also more broadly – as a potentially risky new form of regional militarisation. For now, though, European capitals should consider the potential benefits of cooperating in the Sahel with a country whose goals in the region – which thus far entail mostly dispatching aid and trade to support fragile states – largely align with Europe’s own.
‘Turkey in the Sahel’ — Commentary by Hannah Armstrong — International Crisis Group / ICG.
(The Commentary can be downloaded here: