Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday oversaw the unveiling of his country’s latest high-profile construction project in Africa – a 50,000-seat stadium on the outskirts of Senegalese capital Dakar.
Mr Erdogan joined Senegalese President Macky Sall and other African leaders to witness an inaugural football match at the $260 million Diamniadio Olympic Stadium, built by Istanbul-based Summa.
The arena is the latest example of Turkish projects springing up all over Africa – hospitals, airports, power stations, water treatment plants, hotels and factories.
Although Mr Erdogan’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Guinea-Bissau was cut short by the Ukraine crisis, his presence and the building splurge are signs of Turkey’s growing economic interest in Africa.
Mr Erdogan’s personal investment testifies to the value Ankara places on deepening ties. He has visited some 30 states in more than 50 trips to Africa since 2004, reportedly more than any other non-African world leader.
Since Turkey launched a strategy for Africa in 2003, there has been a more than fivefold increase in trade with African states, from $5.4 billion to $30 billion last year. Turkish investment in the continent rose from $100 million to $6.5 billion over the same period.
On the diplomatic front, Turkey now has an embassy in 43 African states, up from just a dozen in 2009.
Ankara’s forays into Africa, however, date back some four decades, according to Elem Eyrice-Tepeciklioglu, international relations associate professor at Yasar University in Izmir.
“It’s a product of the liberalisation of the Turkish economy in the 1980s, which saw a new conservative bourgeoisie, popularly defined as the Anatolian Tigers, emerge,” she said.
“Because Western markets were already penetrated by the more secular business groups, they needed alternative markets, which the Middle East and Africa provided.”
Mr Erdogan, accompanied by a clutch of ministers, officials and business figures, oversaw a series of deals with the DRC and Senegal during his trip, covering defence, finance, communications, sport, construction and transport.
Security agreements, in particular, have been a signature of Turkey’s recent Africa strategy. Turkish military advisers are scattered across the continent while its hardware, especially the combat-proven Bayraktar TB2 drone, is much in demand.
“From the central Maghreb southward, Turkey is assembling a commercial architecture that takes in 18 countries,” said Michael Tanchum, associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa programme.
“Moreover, Turkey is very adroit at mixing economic soft power and military hard power, sometimes leveraging the latter to gain an advantage in the former.”
Turkey has also used its influence to pursue its opponents on the continent, particularly the followers of Fethullah Gulen, whose movement was said to be behind the 2016 coup attempt against Mr Erdogan.
It has successfully pressured African governments to close Gulenist schools and have Turkish suspects handed over, including Gulen’s nephew, reportedly captured in Kenya last year.
Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan has emerged as a champion for Africa, calling for greater representation for Africans on the UN Security Council.
During the Covid-19 pandemic he has decried the continent’s low vaccination rate as a “disgrace for humanity” and, at an Istanbul summit of African leaders in December, pledged 15 million vaccine doses for Africans.
Arriving in Kinshasa on Sunday, Mr Erdogan said 1.2 million doses would be delivered to the DRC during his visit.
Turkey is not alone in chasing opportunities in Africa. China, India, Russia and Gulf states have all increased their trade and investment with the continent in recent years.
“Turkey has a continent-wide strategy for engagement with Africa that has been successfully expanding for a decade and competes quite effectively with other foreign powers in Africa, including China,” Mr Tanchum said.
“Many African countries are dissatisfied with the low quality of Chinese products and there is a growing discontent with Chinese business practices. With its reputation for delivering quality infrastructure on time, Turkey is filling the gap on a scale that EU countries are not.”
Turkey has often focused on fellow Muslim-majority countries, providing a ready-made understanding, according to Ismail Numan Telci, vice-president of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies in Ankara.
“Turkey represents a unique democratic experience that has been admired by millions in Africa and the Middle East,” he said.
Ms Eyrice-Tepeciklioglu agreed that religious and cultural similarities had smoothed Turkey’s involvement in Africa.
“They make it easier for Turkish companies to enter African markets … This religious affinity and cultural ties going back to the Ottoman period play an important role.”
Francophone nations, such as Senegal, are another target for Turkey in west Africa as it seeks to exploit discontent with France, the former colonial ruler. Senegal, which Mr Erdogan has now visited five times, is especially prized because Dakar’s Atlantic port is well-connected by road to the region’s interior.
Contributions to employment and GDP also characterise Turkish investment. Speaking in Dakar on Monday evening, Mr Erdogan said two-thirds of the 1,500 workers who built the new stadium were locals.
“For example, Turkey has built large manufacturing sites in Algeria and is now the country's largest foreign employer – not France, Italy or China,” Mr Tanchum said. “Turkey is doing likewise in Senegal by establishing steel production and furniture manufacturing.”
It also has its eye on Africa’s vast mineral wealth, having established an iron ore mine in Angola to feed a $2 billion Turkish iron and steel plant in Senegal, as well as gold mining in Niger and potential extraction sites in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Having established its economic and political influence through construction projects, Turkey now seems keen to develop manufacturing in the region.
“Turkish and African companies will jointly produce a specific product in an African country and will export this product to markets both in Africa and different corners of the globe,” Mr Telci said.
However, military agreements are expected to continue playing a major part in Ankara’s dealings with Africa.
“The key areas of the new era will undoubtedly be security and economy,” said Murat Yigit, a researcher at Istanbul Commerce University. “Turkey now attaches importance to security co-operation as much as commercial relations.”