Turkey’s Relations with Sub-Saharan Africa: History, Scopes, and Challenges

Turkey has entered the international competition in Africa due to the contrinents increased auspicious economic importance for Ankara, Turkish diversification interest in leaving the Middle East for international African support, and Turkey’s desire to benefit from the Muslim population in Sub-Saharan Africa. African continental challenges also serve as a momentum indicator for Turkish foreign policy in terms of deploying soft power.

Written by Saleh Mahrous Muhammed

Translated Jum’ah Habeeblai Abiodun


Africa is the continent of the future owing to its economic resources and being a virgin continent in terms of sources of power and minerals despite colonial exhaustion.  In the 21st century, Africa now witnesses strong trans-border competitiveness among various world powers, such as Russia, China, Japan, the United States of America, and Iran. However, Turkey has entered the race due to the region’s increased auspicious economic importance for Ankara, Turkish diversification interest in leaving the Middle East for international African support, and Turkey’s desire to benefit from the Muslim population in Sub-Saharan Africa. African continental challenges also serve as a momentum indicator for Turkish foreign policy in terms of deploying soft power.

Brief Historical Background

Turkey is considered the successor of the Uthmanic Empire, which earns it a historical civilization generally in Africa and specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, where some of its countries fell under the rule of Uthmanic states such as Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Niger, and Tchad. The Uthmanic empire made documented contributions to limiting Portuguese colonialization of the African continent by preserving the Red Sea for a long time as an Islamic lake and by protecting the Hijaz cities for their Islamic importance given the Muslim population and the importance of Islam among Africans.

The Uthmanic Empire had a considerable presence in East Africa, where it built strong ties with the Sultanate of Zanzibar in East Africa [1]. Also, it built cordial and friendly relations with the Kanem-Bornu Empire of today’s Niger, Cameroon, Central Africa, Tchad, and Nigerian regions. There was a stronger tie with the Kanem-Bornu empire, which led to the signing of a defence treaty with the Uthmanic empire during Sultan Murad the III’s rule (1574–1595), and consequently, Sultan Murad sent the Kanem-Bornu military equipment [2].

Starting from 1861, the Uthmanic empire had its representative diplomats in South Africa, where the nomination of PE de Roubaix as an honorary diplomat in Cape Town inaugurated the chain of diplomatic nominations until the death of the first Turkish diplomat, Muhammad Ramzi Bey (who was nominated in South Africa on the 21st of April, 1914 [3]), on February 14, 1916. The Turkish state sent missionaries to Cape of Good Hope, which is now in South Africa, and Abubakr Afandi was an exemplary Turkish ambassador whose reputation cut across the nooks and crannies of South Africa as there were strong cordial and affable relations between Muslims in Cape of Good Hope and the Uthmanic Empire, including aid and contributions to establish the Hijaz Railway. Not less than 366.551 pounds were contributed between 1900-1907.[4]

In west African Nigeria, Muhammad Shita-Bey, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and leader of the Muslim Community in Lagos, built a mosque popularly known as the “Shita-Bey Mosque” in 1894. After this, the Turkish Empire conferred on him concessions, awards, and the title “Bey,” which is considered one of the important Turkish titles, while it also sent a special representative to southern Nigeria. Individuals descended from Muhammad Shita-Bey are still actively involved in the Nigerian government [5].

However, after the rise of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkish-African relations declined drastically owing to internal factors, the nature of the new state, and the quest to secure its independence. By the late fifties and early sixties of the past century, when the colonials commenced their exits from the colonies, the Turkish government had recognised all the countries that had gained their independence, moved to establish diplomatic relations with them, and opened permanent embassies in those countries. For instance, the Turkish Consulate General that was launched in Lagos in 1956 is the first Turkish official representative in the region. When Ghana gained independence in 1957, Turkey also recognised it.

It is worth noting that in the late twentieth century, Turkey attempted access to all African continents through the 1998 “open to Africa policy treaty,” after which the Turkish plan was to boycott the old style by encouraging continental participation at all levels. But in 1999, internal factors and a financial crisis caused a delay in experimenting with its African-related policies. Since the Turkish ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party took power in 2002, Turkish policy has developed a new vigour and made great efforts towards Africa through multi-dimensional aids and strategies supported by companies, establishments, and organisations of the Turkish society.

Turkey-Africa Summit

Turkey designated 2005 as the “Africa Year.” In March of the same year, Recep Erdogan, who was the prime minister, visited Eritrea, South Africa; hence, he was the first Turkish prime minister to visit countries on the Equator. On April 12, 2005, Turkey rose to “observer” status in the African Union and later became a strategic partner [7] at the African Union summit held in January 2008 in Addis Ababa. Between March 18 and 21, 2008, Turkey held the First Turkish-Africa Summit in Istanbul on “cooperation, partnership, and a common future,” which was attended by representatives of 50 African countries [8] alongside other bi-relational meetings with leaders and delegates of 42 countries on the framework of the summit. Ali Babacan, the then minister of foreign affairs, predicted that Africa would hold a special place in Turkish foreign policy. [9]

The second Turkish-African Summit held between November 19 and 20, 2004 in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, also indicated the place of Africa in Turkish foreign policy, as the two sides agreed in this forum to continue the executive plans till 2009 by increasing the level of strategic relations. [10] In December 2016, the third Turkish-African Summit was held in Istanbul under the theme “Integrated Partnership for Growth and Development.” The summit marked the beginning of a new era in the Turkish-African Union-African countries relationship, with Turkey emphasising that its interest in Africa is long-term rather than short-term. The summit was attended by almost 16 African leaders, among whom are; Felix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and formal Chairperson of the African Union; the Senegalese President Maki Sall; President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana and representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame; the Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa; and the Nigerian president, Muhammad Buhari. These African leaders were accompanied by 102 ministers, including 26 foreign ministers from 39 countries.

It should be mentioned that Turkey has had a strategic alliance with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) since 2008 and also with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), alongside its alliance with the East African Community (EAC). [11]

Scopes of Turkey-Sub-Saharan African Relations

Since 2005, Turkey has consolidated its partnership with Africa in diplomatic relations, trade, investment, grants, education, religious and cultural institutions, security, and conflict resolution. Even though the Turkish-African alliance was concerted in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa has now become the Turkish area of interest while vesting greater importance on some leading players, such as South Africa and Nigeria. The Turkish scope of relations with Africa can be summed up in the following key components:

1- Diplomatic Activities

There is an increasing Turkish diplomatic presence in sub-Saharan Africa. The importance of the Turkish interest in Africa can be seen in a statement by the Turkish President, Recep Erdogan, during his 2018 visit to Mauritania, when he said:” We want to move with Africa while the New World Order is being created” [12]. In his visit to the Senegalese capital Dakar in February 2022, President Erdogan promised to integrate his relationship with African countries, as he said in a joint press conference with his Senegalese counterpart Maki Sall, “we shall continue integrating our relationship with African countries based on goodwill and cooperation” [13].

Recent years have witnessed the opening of various Turkish embassies in various African countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Angola, Mali, Madagascar, Uganda, Niger, Tchad, Tanzania, Mozambique, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Zimbabwe. Consequently, there is an increasing Turkish diplomatic presence in Africa, from only 12 embassies in 2002 to 44 embassies in 2022; hence, African embassies in Ankara rose to 37, in addition to high-rated mutual visits that increase annually. In the last twenty years, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has conducted 53 visits to 32 African countries. [14]

2- Trade and Investments Activities

Turkey’s integration and presence in Sub-Saharan Africa aim to open new markets for its products and military technologies. Thus, the size of Turkish-African trade has increased sixfold in the last twenty years.from 5.4 billion dollars in 2003 to 25.3 billion dollars in 2020. Working committees were formed and several agreements were signed to integrate the bilateral movement of its trade and economy, resulting in an increase in Turkish-Africa flights as Turkish Airlines recorded direct flights to 46 cities across 28 African countries.

Turkish construction companies are considered players and beneficiaries of Turkish-Africa relations as these companies are spread in Sub-Saharan Africa through Turkish initiatives in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Togo. In the geographical distribution of labour size, the Sub-Saharan African region stood at 17% of the Turkish contractors’ projects. [15]

3- Humanitarian activities

Turkey launched a deep-rooted presence in Africa alongside its soft power via the presentation of grants and funding and activities executed by Turkish establishments such as the Red Crescent, Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and Turkish Maarif Foundation, in addition to its participatory role in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Africa.

Concerning Turkish Cooperation and Coordination (TIKA), its contributions are evident in various countries since it expanded its operation in 2003. It has offices across Africa, supporting development projects in various regions, with high prospects for further expansion on the continent as Turkish embassies increase. [16]  Moreso, the agency presents grants and endowments to the most needy of the countries, while also sponsoring African students in university and tertiary institutions.

4- Military Presence and Weapon Trade Activities

Turkey has signed treaties in the defence and security sectors with over 25 African countries. The country includes Rwanda, Senegal, Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Sudan. These treaties include, alongside the area of military export, other areas such as military manufacturing cooperation in the case of South Africa and the area of military training, as almost 8000 Gambian soldiers received Turkish training. While the police in more than 10 African countries received security training in Turkey under the framework of the International Cooperation in Police Training. Also, Ankara inaugurated a military base in Mogadishu in September 2017, as Somalia possesses some important geostrategic features and is one of the most prominent sites for Turkish activities in Africa. In this framework, the pronounced objective of the base is to train the Somalian Army by producing 10,000 soldiers annually. Additionally, there is a base in Sudan and a National Military Base in Libya. [17]

In the year 2021, Turkey recorded a high upturn in ammunition sales in Africa, which formed a Turkish multi-dimensional strategic presence in the African defence industries. In the same year, Turkey was rated the 13th largest arms exporter. According to the Turkish Export Association, Africa recorded the largest exportation of arms according to the regions, with a more than 700% increment from 41 million dollars to 328 million dollars within the first eleven months of the said year. According to 2021 sales, Burkina Faso is the most purchasing country in Sub-Saharan Africa, increasing from 92 thousand dollars in importation to 8 million dollars, and Tchad from 249 thousand dollars to 14.6 million dollars, while Ethiopia increased from importing 234 dollars to 94.6 dollars.

Challenges to Turkey’s Presence

The most difficult challenge in Turkish-African Sub-Saharan relations revolves around half-truth information about both sides, incorrect narratives, and malicious propaganda favouring external motives, in addition to Turkey’s focus on humanitarian activities, which raised the notion that Africa requires aid and is a continent of hunger, epidemics, and crises.

Also, the Turkish presence faces strong opposition from the western camp led by the United States of America, France, and Britain and from the eastern camp led by Russia, China, and other parties such as Iran, Israel, the Emirate, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. This indicates that the Turkish capacity to garner the highest possible benefits and usefulness remains the major enabler of its relations and triumph over its competitors owing to its historical heritage, the obvious acceptability of its corporation, and its presence in several sub-Saharan African countries.

From the above, it can be concluded that, in the near future, developing Turkish relations with the region is contingent on the Turkish understanding of the African peculiarities and the elasticity of its strategies with the countries in the region without disregarding the world’s dynamics. This is because African countries and regions are not homogenous, as each country has unique features that are based on its ethnic and religious composition and on the colonial history that is a major determinant of modern African politics.


[1] Salih Mahrus Muhammad, Ad-Din, Wad-Dawlatul-uthmaniyah, Markzazu Turus, for publication, 2nd edition, Kuwait,2022, p.21 upwards.

[2] Mehmet Ozkan, Turkey Discovers Africa, Implications and Prospects [SETA, 2008]

[3] Tom Wheeler, Turkey and South Africa: Development of Relations 1860–2005 South African Institute of International Affairs.p.7

[4] Ibid, p.9

[5]Serhat Orakci, The emerging links between the Ottoman Empire and South Africa, International Journal of Turkish Studies, 14(1/2), 2008p. 47- 60

مؤسسة «ساتا» التركية للأبحاث السياسية والاقتصادية والاجتماعية، عدد سبتمبر 2008م، رقم 22.[6]

[7] Turkey, Africa begin cooperation summit. Mail & Guardian, 2008, from https://bit.ly/3Ta4hzO

[8] Nichole Sobecki. Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa. 2009: from https://bit.ly/3fUUI9w

[9] Nichole Sobecki. Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa. 2009: from https://bit.ly/3fUUI9w

[10] Meliha Benli Altunisik, “Worldviews and Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East”, New Perspectives on Turkey, 40, 2009, p. 171- 194،

[11] Ibid.

[12] Necdet Burak Ozyurt, Turkey significantly increases its presence in Africa over recent 20 years. Azer News , 2022: from https://bit.ly/3MhvxtY

[13] Erdogan seeks to boost ties with Africa in four-day visit. Aljazeera, 2022: from https://bit.ly/3EoWBWp

[14] John Calabrese, Building in Africa: Turkey’s “Third Way” in China’s Shadow. The Middle East Institute (MEI), 2022: from https://bit.ly/3ehSfpj

[15] John Calabrese, Building in Africa: Turkey’s “Third Way” in China’s Shadow. The Middle East Institute (MEI), 2022: from https://bit.ly/3ehSfpj

[16] Mehmet Ozkan,op.citp.9

[17] AbdulQadir Muhammad Ali, Al-Hudurul-‘Askari At-Turki Fi Afrikiyah…. Ad-Dawafi’ wat-Tahadiiayh, Markazul-Jazeerah lid-Dirasat, 2022. < https://bit.ly/3SSgSYM>

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