The recent announcement of French withdrawal in the Sahel has left the door open for other countries to begin to reveal their interests in the African region. Turkey, which has had political and economic ties in Africa since 2005, has begun to develop plans to gain influence in the Sahel as French troops withdraw from Operation Barkhane. However, there is also a strong Turkish presence in the rest of the continent. In the words of the Foreign Ministry, 'relations with Africa constitute one of the key objectives of Turkey's foreign policy'. As part of these international plans, Ankara has significantly increased its diplomatic presence in Africa over the past decade. In 2009 there were only 12 Turkish embassies on the continent, a figure that has risen to 42 by 2019.
Also in Africa, specifically in Somalia, is the largest Turkish military base outside the country. Ankara has also established a strong presence in the seaport of the capital, Mogadishu, in order to maintain its military power in key areas of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Turkey's humanitarian support during a devastating famine in the country in 2011 is also noteworthy.
In the Sahel, Turkey has mainly carried out military operations linked to security and counter-terrorism. One of the most controversial agreements has been the one with Niger in 2020. The text, which is confidential, could lay the groundwork for future direct Turkish support to Niger. However, some countries such as France and the United Arab Emirates saw the pact as an attempt by Turkey to expand its influence in Libya, where it maintains mercenaries supporting the Tripoli Government of National Accord in its fight against Khalifa Haftar. Abu Dhabi even warned of alleged plans by Ankara to arm rebels in the Sahel and West Africa to control natural resources and spread political Islam.
On the contrary, Ankara stated that the Niamey deal would support Nigerian forces in their fight against Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, as well as secure the country's borders with neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso.
The Turkish government has also been accused of involvement in the coup that overthrew former Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, was the first high-ranking foreign official to meet with the coup leaders. Moreover, earlier this year, after a period of tensions between Ankara and Paris, some French politicians hinted that Turkish-trained extremists might be behind a wave of attacks against French soldiers in Mali.
The Sahel country has been a hotbed of conflict in the region for years, while it is currently facing the rise of terrorism. As a result, in 2018 Ankara began training Malian officers while providing weapons to the national army. Turkey has reached bilateral agreements with other countries such as Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda or Benin on similar issues, i.e. procurement and maintenance of military and defence equipment. With Morocco and Tunisia it signed a pact whereby the Maghreb countries received unmanned combat vehicles.
However, Ankara not only exerts influence militarily, but also exploits a shared religious identity to promote its economic interests. When Turkey sent diplomatic delegations to several Sahel countries, such as Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, it began to cooperate with religious elites as well as political ones. Countries in the region have given the go-ahead to Ankara's projects, most of them related to the economy, securing deals with Turkish construction, energy and mining companies. Although Turkish trade in the Sahel is rather limited compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese and French exports to the area, it has grown significantly in the last ten years.
The launch of direct flights by Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou boosted economic relations between Ankara and the Sahel. For example, trade between Mali and Turkey increased from $5 million in 2003 to $57 million in 2019. In Niger, Turkish companies built infrastructure such as a new international airport, a five-star hotel and developed other projects that enabled the African Union Summit to be held in Niamey in June 2019.
In addition to Turkey, other powers such as Russia and China are increasing their military and economic presence in Africa. However, some countries sometimes view Turkey's presence more favourably due to common religious ties. Ankara, taking advantage of the French withdrawal in the Sahel, could strengthen ties with countries in the region in order to gain influence. As in Afghanistan, Turkey is seeking to establish itself as a key player on the international stage.