Why does Erdoğan visit Africa so often?

February 23, 2022
by Mustafa Enes Esen, published on 23 February 2022

Speaking to journalists en route from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Senegal, Erdoğan commented that the West squeezed Africa dry. He also added: “Couldn't the West make any positive contributions to this place so far? They have been coming here for years. Did they provide any support? No. The significance of the importance we give to Africa is becoming clearer day by day.”

Erdoğan’s trips to Sub-Saharan Africa are not only about bilateral relations and opportunities for improving Turkey’s economic footprint in the countries of the region. Equally if not more significant, these visits to Africa are carefully planned to boost Erdoğan’s image among his supporters that Turkey is a global actor competing with the foreign powers and Erdoğan is a powerful and well-respected leader in the world. Regardless of the content of the visit, every country in Africa adds to his prestige in Turkey. This is one of the leading reasons why Erdoğan has visited more African countries than any other non-African leader. In this context, President Erdoğan has just made a second trip to Africa, in the last 4 months, covering several countries. He paid an official visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Senegal on February 20-22. Erdoğan was also planning to continue visiting Guinea-Bissau on February 23. Yet, he had to cut short his trip in light of the situation in Ukraine.

Senegal

The most remarkable activity of Erdoğan’s last Africa trip was the inauguration of the new Senegalese Olympic stadium built by a Turkish construction company at a cost of $270 million. Senegal is the last winner of the Africa Cup of Nations in February, and as expected the mood was high during the opening ceremony of this brand-new stadium. Erdoğan participated in the opening ceremony of this 50,000-seater stadium with the Presidents of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda, Liberia, and Gambia.

Turkey and Senegal also signed five agreements on security, maritime, protocol, sports, and media during the visit, nevertheless it seems that most of these agreements lacked content. The most significant one among these is the security agreement which ensures cooperation between police forces of the two countries and thus was signed by the ministers of interior affairs.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Turkish side had a more economy minded approach during Erdoğan’s visit to Kinshasa, while President Tshisekedi was more interested in a security cooperation considering the unstable security situation in eastern DRC in the last 25 years. The agreements signed between the countries reflected the concerns of both parties. To this end, a military framework agreement, a protocol on financial aid, and some other agreements about cooperation on the defense industry and infrastructure were signed. In this context, Erdoğan’s visit would give some momentum to Turkish construction companies’ roles in the DCR’s infrastructure projects, needless to say, if the funding issue can be overcome. On the other hand, President Tshisekedi asked for Turkey’s support against terrorist groups, yet it is unclear how Turkey’s military contributions or possible armed drone sales can make any significant differences on the field given scarcity of the material resources of the government and gravity of the security issues in eastern DRC.

Guinea-Bissau

Turkey does not enjoy any significant economic, cultural, historical, military, or diplomatic relations with Guinea-Bissau. Erdoğan’s visit to Guinea-Bissau would make a first, but it did not materialize because of the Ukraine crisis. Nevertheless, Erdoğan met with President Umaro Sissoco Embaló of Guinea-Bissau in Senegal who recently survived a coup attempt.  

Conclusion

Erdoğan’s visit to West Africa would prove useful in terms of Turkey’s increasing trade and investments in the region. Turkey’s trade volume with Senegal exceeded 540 million dollars last year and its goal is to reach 1 billion dollars. Considering the fact that Turkey’s bilateral trade volume with the DCR stands around $40 million and its bilateral trade volume with Guinea-Bissau is just about $9 million, there is much room for improvement.

Erdoğan’s visits to Africa also advance his prestige among his supporters that Turkey is a global player competing with the West. Media coverage of these visits are playing an important role to buttress this image. In this vein, Turkish media covered every step of Erdoğan’s last trip to Africa. Although most of them had a neutral tone and only reported what Erdoğan said and did, pro-government news outlets had sometimes added their own touch on the events. For example, on inauguration of the Senegalese Olympic Stadium with other presidents, they highlighted first Erdoğan’s participation in the opening ceremony with the headlines such as “Erdoğan made the first kick of the friendship game in Senegal,” or “50.000 people gave a standing ovation to Erdoğan.” Secondly, they emphasized that it was a Turkish-made stadium with the headlines such as “Senegal inaugurates its Turkish-built stadium” or “spectacular opening of the Turkish-made stadium.”

This trip to West Africa was overshadowed by the latest developments in Ukraine. Nonetheless, these visits to friendly countries in Africa are part of a larger strategy to boost Turkish business interests and a reproduction of Erdoğan’s image as a defying leader to the world for the domestic audience in Turkey in a different setting. Facing sliding approval ratings at home, this kind of tools will continue to be useful for Erdoğan to increase his popularity before the critical presidential elections to be held next year.

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