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Turkish President Goes to Africa in Latest Effort to Expand Influence

26 February, 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on a five-day trip to Northern and Western Africa.

The trip will take him to four countries: Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali.

His visit is the latest effort by Turkey to project its influence across the continent and strengthen its presence worldwide.

Since 2005, as then-prime minister, Erdogan has been working to deepen ties with Africa.

Emre Caliskan is with the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University in Britain. He says Erdogan has been to Africa 12 times since becoming president in 2009. He notes his trips had several objectives, such as economic growth, expanding Turkey's influence in the world and the use of Islam.

Earlier this month, Turkey welcomed a group of African ministers for a week of meetings. Such gatherings are part of a Turkish effort to improve contacts with African leaders.

Over the past 10 years, Turkey has tripled the number of embassies across Africa. Even with all the Turkish investments, the economic returns have been less than what the government expected. And that has led Turkey to reconsider its priorities, says Mehmet Arda. He studies Africa for the Istanbul-based public policy center Edam.

"When you look at the Turkish trade with Africa, it's basically the same as it was about 10 years ago. So it is more a way of projecting itself as a power in the world. Moreover, Turkey puts itself as the friend, at least, of the countries which are left behind, the destitute and all that. So I think from that point of view, as well, it fits with that the model of Turkey projecting itself on the world stage."

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine Erdogan, greet local people during a ceremony in Maputo, Mozambique, Jan. 24, 2017.
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, Emine Erdogan, greet local people during a ceremony in Maputo, Mozambique, Jan. 24, 2017.

Islamic influence

In his recent visits to Africa, President Erdogan has added Islamic subjects to his message. His speeches have sometimes been colored with criticism of the West and talk of its colonial past. At one time, the Turkish Ottoman Empire also extended to Africa.

Caliskan says that appealing to African Muslims offers Turkey a chance for important diplomatic gains, as well as risks.

"Fifty percent of African countries come from Muslim backgrounds and this gives leverage for Turkey in the eyes of Europe, in the eyes of the West, and in the eyes of Africa."

But he notes a competition among Islamic groups and countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Historically, he says, these nations are very influential among Africa's Muslim communities. Caliskan describes Turkey as a new comer, and says the country wants to expand its influence.

Last September, Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in Somalia. Some observers say the opening of the base is a sign that Turkish officials have aspirations for the area.

The Turkish navy is expanding, with the government planning to build an aircraft carrier. Egypt has expressed concern about Turkey's agreement with Sudan to redevelop the Sudanese island of Suakin. The island was once home to the Ottoman Empire's main naval base. The Turkish government says it has no plans to develop Suakin for military purposes.

But Caliskan says such denials will do little to reduce tensions given the level of mistrust between Erdogan and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el Sissi.

Observers warn the competition in the Middle East is already spilling into Africa. They say this process is likely to continue because of Turkey's growing commitment to the continent and its effort to become a global player.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Dorian Jones reported this story for VOANews. George Grow adapted his report for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

triplev. to make three times as big; to increase by 200 percent

priorityn. a goal; something that is more important than other things

destituteadj. lacking possessions or what is needed

backgroundn. the ground that is behind an object

leveragen. influence or effectiveness

aspiration – n. a strong desire to do something

commitmentn. an agreement or promise to do something

globaladj. of or involving the whole world

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