Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a four-day tour of Africa this week, trashing the former colonial powers of Europe and presenting Turkey as a more loyal and understanding development partner for Africans.
“The fate of humanity cannot, and should not, be left to the mercy of a handful of countries that were the victors of the Second World War,” Erdogan declared in his address to the Angolan parliament Monday.
“Today we speak the motto ‘the world is bigger than five’ and this way we fight against inequality in the world,” Erdogan said, derisively referring to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).
“While the world and almost every aspect of our lives are changing, and diplomacy, trade, and international relations are going through radical transformations, we cannot think that the global security architecture will remain the same,” he said.
Erdogan has been a loud critic of the “unjust” UNSC, which he portrays as a privileged club of the 20th Century’s global elite that should be opened to rising powers like Turkey. The UNSC is equally critical of Erdogan for stirring up trouble in Turkey’s sphere of influence to further his ambitions.
Erdogan claimed Turkey, by contrast, is an “Afro-Eurasian state” that rejects “Western-centered orientalist approaches to the African continent.”
“We embrace the peoples of the African continent without discrimination,” he said.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) noted, somewhat paradoxically, that Erdogan’s spin doctors paved the way for his visit by talking up the “strong historical ties” between the Ottoman Empire and the kingdoms of Africa. The message would seem to be that some empires were less imperialist than others.
Erdogan is obsessed with reconstituting the Ottoman Empire – to a very unhealthy degree, according to his critics. During his two decades in power, the Turkish strongman has paid more visits to Africa than any other world leader, touting the benefits of a new alliance built along Ottoman lines with some modern upgrades.
RFI suspected Erdogan sees an opportunity in growing tensions between France and its former African possessions. The French government has openly accused Erdogan of exploiting “post-colonial sentiment” in Africa.
He may also sense an opening in the frustration many African governments are expressing over infrastructure deals with China poorly negotiated by preceding administrations.
Turkish intervention in Libya, at a moment when the Tripoli government was under siege by warlord Khalifa Haftar and teetering on the brink of collapse, gave Erdogan a strong political foothold in northern Africa, including lucrative offshore concessions from the grateful Tripoli government and possibly a permanent military presence. The Europeans are wondering if Turkish troops are ever planning to leave Libya, having driven Haftar back to Tobruk a year ago.
RFI noted Turkey is also getting quite cozy with the Ethiopian government even as Europe, the United States, and the United Nations grow uncomfortable with Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Abiy Ahmed’s brutal war against the rebellious Tigray province.
Abiy’s government is considering a large purchase of the Turkish armed drones that proved so effective in Libya, weapons that could prove decisive against the Tigrayans. Angola, where Erdogan gave his fiery speech on Monday, is also interested in buying Turkish drones and other military hardware, while Turkey has already delivered drones to Tunisia, Morocco, and possibly Rwanda.
Middle East Eye noted on Thursday that Erdogan is assiduously building “hard power” in Africa by selling his Bayraktar drones even when those sales could alienate friendly governments on the continent. For example, Turkey’s longtime friends in Algeria were not thrilled to see their increasingly disgruntled neighbors in Morocco receive a shipment of Bayraktars.
Turkey’s “soft power” in Africa is growing. RFI noted its trade volume with African nations has increased 500 percent since 2003, it now has 43 diplomatic missions on the continent, and Turkey’s national airline serves over 60 African destinations.
Erdogan’s sales pitch to Africa is similar to China’s – so similar that he even borrowed a Chinese slogan on Monday, claiming Turkey wants to advance its relations with Africa on “the basis of win-win and equal partnership while observing mutual respect.”
Like China, the new Ottoman Empire offers developing nations profitable economic arrangements and military support without Western human rights hassles about political freedom and democracy. Erdogan is certainly not going to lecture any other authoritarian strongman about doing whatever it takes to remain in power.
The major eccentricity Turkey expects its African partners to indulge is Erdogan’s endless pogrom against his former ally Fethullah Gülen, who Erdogan accuses of organizing a failed 2016 coup against him. RTI noted Gülen’s Hizmet organization spent many years building a network of Islamic schools across Africa and Erodgan expects African leaders to tear them down.
Erdogan’s vicious dismissal of Europe as a pack of fossilized racist kingdoms that died in World War II was striking given that Ankara is still theoretically interested in joining the European Union. On Tuesday, the European Commission published its latest gloomy annual report of Turkey’s progress toward EU membership – or rather, its lack of progress.
“The EU’s serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed. There was further backsliding in many areas,” the report said.
The report concluded that Turkey’s “accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill” after 16 years.
“It would be in everyone’s interest if the EU, taking into account our common general interests, sees Turkey as a candidate country that is negotiating, not as a partner with whom to have daily give-take relations,” the Turkish government shot back, insisting that it still wants to join the organization its strongman president just denounced as a relic of orientalism.