Exclusive: Motivations and repercussions of Turkish expansion in the Sahel, Sahara and West Africa

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Turkey continues its relentless pursuit in developing its African relations, especially in the Sahel and Sahara region and the western part of the continent. It has an aim of building multiple partnerships in order to achieve its strategic objectives that center around finding a foothold in this strategic part of the continent and contributing to re-engineering the regional equation in the Sahel and Sahara. In light of the urgency of some of the issues that are intertwined in defining Turkey’s relationship with the Arab world, such as the growing phenomenon of terrorism and terrorist organizations in the Sahel and West Africa, the continuing crisis of illegal immigration to Europe, as well as the crowding out of some European powers in the Sahel and Sahara, such as France and Germany.

In addition to its continuous attempts to influence the Libyan file, there is an aim of strengthening its influence in this country, and encircling the strategic interests of local, regional, and international powers opposed to Turkey’s negative role there.

There are strenuous efforts by the Turkish to strengthen relations with some countries in the region and deepen relations with regional organizations by moving at all levels, using many effective tools necessary for this, and signing more cooperation agreements in various fields; specifically, security that allow Ankara to exist and open markets. New to the Turkish armament industries, a threat is posed to the strategic interests of many regional and international powers in the region. This affects the security in the region, especially with regard to the Libyan crisis due to the geopolitical intertwines between North Africa, the Sahel, Sahara, and West Africa.

The dynamics of the Turkish movement in the region

Ankara is engaged in a long-term strategy to build strong relations with the countries of the Sahel and West Africa, through which it seeks to expand the scope of its influence and its political, economic, and military presence in the African continent. This is to occur after it strengthens its presence in the East Africa and the Horn of Africa through the Somalia gateway which may increase the intensity of tensions in the region.

Turkey has expanded its relations with most countries in the region, such as Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, in light of the spread of terrorism, the expansion of poverty, famine, and ethnic and tribal conflicts. These are problems that Ankara has used as a gateway to enhance its presence. Turkish officials have stepped up during the last four years in their visits to most countries of the Sahel and West Africa, such as Chad, Sudan, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Togo, Niger, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire. Turkey’s main aim is to reshape the regional axes and the international balance of power in the region, especially in the midst of the growing Turkish-French rivalry which reveals part of the Turkish goals in the Sahel and Sahara region.

The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has quadrupled over the past two decades, reaching about 43. Ankara recently opened two new embassies in Togo and Equatorial Guinea with the aim of strengthening Turkish relations and presence in the region.

Ankara attaches great importance to the African circle in the security field, as Turkish policy has become more militarized since 2015 in order to expand its geopolitical influence in the region and the continent. Sudan, Guinea, Nigeria and Benin reached a security agreement with Niger in July 2020, with the aim of creating an open foothold in the Sahel and Sahara region. There are some reports indicating that Ankara is seeking to establish a military base in West Africa, especially in Niger near the border with Libya, which gives it an open foothold in a third African country after Somalia and Libya. The Turkish Parliament had agreed in November 2014 to participate in international peacekeeping operations in both Mali and Central Africa. The Turkish Sadat Foundation is also conducting military training programs for many African forces and armies, and is looking for opportunities to benefit from military deals on the African continent.

Ankara is pursuing a strategy of investing in the crises arising in the Sahel and Sahara, as it benefits from the wave of terrorism sweeping the countries of the region due to the spread of terrorist organizations, by providing aid, training and military expertise to African countries. In March 2018, Turkey announced its contribution of five million dollars to finance the G5 Sahel force, with the aim of combating terrorism in the region.

At the same time, Ankara faces many accusations regarding sponsoring terrorist organizations in the Sahel and West Africa. A pivotal part of Ankara’s moves in the region relies on arming terrorist organizations and mercenaries, with the aim of strengthening the Turkish presence, controlling natural resources and wealth, and strengthening political Islam. Adnan Tanriverdi, the owner of the Sadat paramilitary organization and former chief military aide to Turkish President Erdogan, stated that Turkey must support terrorist organizations against what he called state terrorism in some regions and countries of the African continent such as Central Africa, Mali, and Nigeria.

In addition, Ankara appointed its ambassador to Senegal in March 2020, who had shown sympathy with Al-Qaeda and considered it a non-terrorist organization and a legitimate resistance movement. Some reports indicate that there are 229 senior leaders of terrorist organizations from the Al-Nusra Front and “ISIS” that Ankara sent from Turkey to Libya, where they could spread to other regions in Africa. In this context, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that there are terrorist elements financed and trained by Ankara. There are 4,700 terrorist elements in Libya according to February 2020 statistics; here, 1,800 are training in Ankara, while 64 members arrived from Europe, and dozens of these individuals have fled to Europe, specifically Italy.

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Some intelligence reports also revealed that Ankara has sent about 900 operatives to join the Islamic State “ISIS” stationed in northwestern Mali, with the aim of strengthening its ranks under the leadership of Abdel Hakim Sahraoui, undermining the regional peace and security in the region and Africa. Hence, the environment in the Sahel and Sahara region appears prepared to strengthen the relationship between Ankara and the various terrorist organizations active in the region which poses a clear threat to the countries of the region and the geographical neighborhood, especially North Africa.

The Turkish regime is trying to recruit the Tuareg tribes in the Sahel to promote its policies in the Sahel, West and North Africa. 10 Tuareg sheikhs and leaders visited Turkey in April 2020. Ankara seeks to co-opt the Tuareg and exploit them in order to enhance its current policies and the personal ambitions of the Turkish president, under the guise of helping the Tuareg expand the circle of Islam in Africa. The Turkish influence on the Tuareg would give Ankara a set of pressure cards to blackmail and bargain with some African countries, including Libya, Niger, Mali and Algeria, as well as some Western powers such as that of France.

Some reports revealed that the Turkish embassy in Abuja was spying on some Nigerian institutions, such as the Nile University of Nigeria and the UFUK Dialogue Foundation. Turkey has also been involved in sending some arms shipments from its territory to the ports of Nigeria, as the Nigerian authorities discovered the presence of Turkish-made weapons that were shipped through a smuggling network between the ports of Lagos and Istanbul. They seized about 4 shipments and roughly 2,671 rifles in 2017. Terrorist organizations possess these in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Central Africa.

Ankara considers controlling Libya an important gateway to consolidating influence in the Sahel and West Africa, and implementing its expansionist agenda in the region. Hence, it seeks to form regional allies that have geopolitical interests with Libya. Its aim is to use them as a Turkish focal point for incursion into West Africa and as a platform to support extremist organizations.

The geostrategic importance of Niger is increasing in relation to the conflict over Libya, as the Turkish presence in Niger constitutes a starting point for supporting terrorist organizations in the region and providing support to other regions, especially in North Africa. This prompted some to point to the possibility of establishing a Turkish military base on land and air in Niamey/Niger, as well as training and equipping the Nigerian security forces and army.

The Turkish intervention in the Sahel and West Africa represents a step on the path of Turkish anti-French and European interests in the region. The conflict between France and Turkey has spread from Libya and the eastern Mediterranean to the Sahel, Sahara and West Africa, especially in light of the Turkish efforts to limit French influence and strengthen its position, to the detriment of the French strategic interests in the region. In the active UN mission in Mali, this will negatively affect regional security in the Sahel and Sahara as a result of the growing activity of terrorist networks and extremist organizations.

Many Turkish companies are involved in most countries of the Sahel and West Africa throughout various fields, aiming to increase economic benefits and maximize the interests of Ankara in which Turkish companies implement major infrastructure projects, such as the Abdou Diouf International Conference Center, Dakar Sports Palace, Radisson Hotel, as well as running Blaise Diane International Airport for 25 years. Turkey also acquired about 29 projects worth more than 700 million euros in 2018.

In Cameroon, the Jaboma Sports Complex in Douala was built by the Turkish Yanjan Group with funding from the Turkish “Eximbank”, a value of 116 billion FCFA. In December 2019, Ankara signed with Mali through the Turkish group “Kalyon” a memorandum of understanding regarding the project to establish “Metrobus” in the capital, Bamako.

Turkey has pumped about 250 million dollars into infrastructure projects in Niger. A group of Turkish companies was able to win huge contracts, most notably the construction of the new Niamey airport at a cost of 154 million euros. Ankara desires to strengthen its cooperation and the trade partnership with Nigeria in the oil sector, evidenced by the visit of the Turkish ambassador to Abuja to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in August 2019.

The motives and causes of the Turkish expansion

Ankara presents itself as a reliable international voice for African countries in the context of its endeavor to play a greater role in the international system. It does so by emphasizing the Turkish presence in the African arena, while at the same time pushing for a stronger start for more trade and economic cooperation.

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Ankara challenges its regional opponents in the region, especially Egypt, and then attempts to encircle and weaken Arab influence. It confronts the counter-alliances that were formed against it in the Mediterranean, and strengthens its activities in the Mediterranean. By balancing forces and influences on the ground, it maintains the Turkish presence in Libya in order to strengthen expansion in Africa.

It supports political Islam movements in the region and North Africa. In addition, it searches for new allies after the fall of the Brotherhood in Sudan, as Turkey is working on an expansion project in which Libya represents a starting point towards the Sahel, Sahara, and West Africa regions. Furthermore, Ankara seeks to cooperate with some of the forces of political Islam in the region with the aim of changing the balance of power through the extremist organizations that Ankara wants to weave the linking threads between it and Libya. There are reports indicating the existence of an agreement between Ankara and Boko Haram to transfer some of its members to the Libyan south, which is under the control of the Libyan National Army.

They cooperated with the African Union to combat terrorism in the Sahel and Sahara, after their intention to send 3,000 soldiers there in 2020 and to act with the Five Sahel Force participating in the fight against terrorism became apparent. They obtained the support of African countries active in the African Union for the continuation of the Turkish presence in Libya with the aim of strengthening Turkey’s position in the future settlement of the Libyan crisis.

There are works to enhance Turkish military ambitions in Africa and the region, protect and establish more of the Turkish military bases to be launched in Libya and Niger. They opened a new market to promote Turkish armaments industries in the region which is witnessing the spread of terrorist organizations and various conflicts.

The establishment of economic relations with the countries of the region could lead to political and ideological ties in the future through which Ankara can build strong influence in the continent and the region. The search for opportunities for partnerships on the coast would strengthening Turkey’s position as an effective regional and international power and help the Turkish economy to get out of its crises by increasing Turkish exports to the Sahel countries.

The Turkish penetrated into the sea ports sector and further controlled them on the western coast of the African continent. For example, the Turkish Albayrak Group acquired the independent port of Conakry in Guinea for 25 years with an investment of more than 700 million dollars.

It has control over resources, wealth, transportation routes, and the largest number of uranium and gold mines in the countries of the region. Ankara secured its access to energy, as it lacks adequate oil resources. It imports $50 billion annually from these countries.

There is a tendency for Turkey to expand its relations with Africa and its sphere of influence in order to compensate for the losses that Ankara incurred during the last decade at the regional and international levels, both politically and economically.

There was a crowding out of the major international powers involved in the Sahel and West Africa, and a breakthrough in the area of French hegemony in the region with the aim of limiting the influence of Paris in favor of the Turkish incursion.

They bargained with European powers to pressure the issue of illegal immigration and the movement of terrorist organizations into Europe, as well as the issue of arms, drug smuggling, and organized crime to settle regional files between the two parties in other regions, such as the Middle East. In addition, it pursued Fethullah Gulen’s movement in Africa and its network of schools, seizing it and transferring its ownership to the Turkish government. Ankara exploited the countries of the Sahel and West Africa for more international support in fighting terrorism, organized crime, and poverty.

Tools of Turkish Politics

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) carries out its activities on the continent through 22 coordination offices, so that assistance in various fields is provided to African countries. The agency is accused of covering intelligence work, recruitment, and financing of terrorist organizations by the Turkish regime.

The Turkish Sadat Company represents an important arm of Turkish policy in Africa, as it is a mastermind and an arm to implement its goals that involve external expansion in conflict areas on the continent. It is employed in multiple forms, both in relation to the sale of weapons, security, and intelligence services, and it can be exploited in some illegal and unlawful matters.

The Turkish “Al-Ma’arif” Foundation was established by the Turkish government to run the foreign schools associated with the Fethullah Gulen movement. This institution now owns 23 branches in Africa, and about 333 schools in 43 countries, and was able to establish offices and representations in Chad, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Tunisia. This institution is accused of being a long arm of the Turkish regime in Africa with regard to providing educational services as part of the strategy of “Turkification” of Africans, especially as it aims to raise a new generation of Islamic political activists to mobilize around Turkish policy in Africa.

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Other soft power tools

There are many soft power tools for Turkish policy in the Sahel and West Africa, and humanitarian aid comes on top of it. Ankara is involved in the aid and food distribution to the peoples of the region. There are also a number of Turkish institutions operating in the region, such as the Turkish Red Crescent, the Turkish Religion Endowment and the Turkish Humanitarian Associations Federation (IDDEF), which carry out humanitarian and relief activities in many countries of the region.

Ankara exploits the religious sentiments of Muslim populations in the countries of the region, such as Nigeria, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, with the aim of weaving Turkish networks of influence and interest on its territory. The Turkish discourse is accepted by some Africans, especially since Erdogan adopts a speech hostile to Western practices, what he described as “the assertion of Western powers over the continent’s wealth”.

The implications of the Turkish presence in the region and its risks

The region has turned into an arena of conflict between Turkey and the active forces there, threatening the regional security of Europe’s backyard, strategic interests of some major regional powers such as Egypt, and formation of a security threat belt around it, from the Red Sea through the Turkish base in Somalia, to the Mediterranean in the north and movements in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, to the east in northern Syria and Iraq, and west through the military incursion into Libya, the Sahel, Sahara, and West Africa.

The continued military and logistical support from Ankara and Doha strengthens the extremist and terrorist organizations in the Sahel and West Africa at the expense of the African armies. It creates a new incubator environment for terrorism and transfers more terrorist elements to the region, specifically to Libya, and from there to the Sahel, Sahara, and West Africa. Consequently, chaos and instability escalated in the region. There was an attempt to revive the Muslim Brotherhood project in the region, especially in some countries that have a reasonable percentage of Muslims.

Erdogan desires to have coordination and compatibility with ISIS as an Islamic project. This will increase the threat on European Union countries, especially those related to the export of terrorist elements to Europe, because of the lack of control over the illegal immigration process from Africa across the Mediterranean to the European continent, and the transformation of the Mediterranean into a troubled region after the gathering of terrorists in Libya, the Sahel and Sahara, threatening the interests of the parties.

The likelihood of a Turkish-French clash increases due to the French concern about the repercussions of the Turkish role in Libya on its influence in the African continent. Any Turkish rise in the region would spoil French strategic interests in Africa. Conflicts stimulated contribute to forcing thousands of people to displace and seek refuge outside their countries, as the data recorded the displacement of about 3 thousand people daily in 2020. The violence in the Sahel region forced about 1.7 million people to flee their areas.

The future of the Turkish presence

Ankara’s interest in Africa will increase its role there in light of the difficulty of disassociating the developments between the Libyan file and the Eastern Mediterranean gas file and their repercussions on the Sahel and Sahara region. Turkey has ambition to play a greater role on the continental and international levels; hence, it provides material and logistical support to some extremist organizations in the Sahel-Saharan region and western Africa. The security and militarization in Turkey’s relationship with these countries will increase the complexity of the security and geopolitical scenes there.

There is an increasing possibility of a French-Turkish clash in the future due to the threat of Turkish expansion of French interests and its traditional influence in the African continent, and the increasing concern of European countries about Turkish moves in Africa in light of the sensitivity of files threatening the European security.

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Ornella Sukkar is a Lebanese journalist specialized in Arab-Islamic and radicalization studies from an oriental perspective and international affaires.


Eat News is a Taiwanese digital media, analyzes current events and issues through column articles, videos, visual aid, and exclusive interviews.

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