Muslims living in Mali's Segou village, receive aid packages prepared with the donations of Turkish people and distributed by Turkey Diyanet Foundation (TDV), in Segou region, Mali on 13 April 2021. Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Commentary / Africa 12 minutes

Turkey in the Sahel

Ankara is strengthening ties with Sahelian capitals, building mosques and hospitals and opening up export markets. Its defence pact with Niamey has led rivals to suspect its intentions. Turkey and other outside powers should do what they can to avoid unnecessary additional competition in the region.

Since labelling 2005 the “year of Africa”, Turkey has built political and economic ties across the continent through aid and trade, part of an agenda to extend its reach around the globe. Spearheading this push, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as Turkish prime minister until 2014 and since then as president, cultivated relations with African leaders, helped Turkish companies gain access to new markets and bankrolled projects casting Turkey as a custodian of Islamic culture in heavily Muslim African countries. In its attempts to gain influence in Africa, Ankara is jockeying with not just Western but also Arab states. The latter competition has transposed the rivalry between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on one side, and Turkey and Qatar, on the other, onto conflict-prone regions like the Horn of Africa, often worsening instability. But it is Turkey’s overtures to another region – the Sahel – that have recently rattled Western and Gulf Arab governments, which fear that Turkey’s presence might threaten their geopolitical interests in a place many view as a crucial battleground in the war with jihadist insurgents.

Already the military-heavy French-led approach in the Sahel is faltering. As Crisis Group has written previously, communal killings, Islamist militancy and popular frustration with governments seen as ill equipped to quell the violence and protect citizens are on the rise. Jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 and intercommunal conflict has surged. The three central Sahelian states – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – struggle to hold territory, let alone assert state authority, in areas contested by militants. Meanwhile, jihadists are entrenching themselves, mounting rural insurgencies, tapping local grievances to recruit fighters and expanding their operations. Disappointment with the failure to stem insecurity has given rise to anti-French sentiment in Sahelian capitals. A big push by Turkey, which has a fraught relationship with France, to present itself as an alternate security partner could aggravate tensions. In November 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Turkey of undercutting France’s West African ties by playing on “post-colonial resentment”. (Separately, in June 2021, he announced plans to halve the number of France’s 5,100 troops in the Sahel by 2023.)

Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection.

In reality, Turkey’s forays into the Sahel have so far been mainly an exercise in soft-power projection. Ankara’s activities in the region are mostly focused on development support and commercial engagement. True, it has signed a defence accord with Niamey. It is also the case that in Somalia, Turkish aid and business subsequently led to more military engagement, though for the most part Turkish involvement there has been constructive and not in conflict with Western aims. Sahelian states and external powers would be better served by taking the best of what Turkey has to offer rather than seeing it as an inherent threat – especially as Macron and Erdoğan, who held a private discussion on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June, appear to be mending ties. Recent efforts to quell tensions between Turkey and Egypt and between sparring Gulf states suggest a broader rapprochement may be on the cards. Instead of competing in the Sahel, external powers should find ways of cooperating for the troubled region’s benefit. 

Soft Power 

Turkey’s motives in the Sahel thus far appear primarily economic. Indeed, according to Ankara, expanding trade is its main priority in the region. But some observers look at Turkey’s role in Somalia and in the wider Horn of Africa, and wonder how far its engagement in the Sahel might go.

Turkey’s rivals often cast its growing presence in Muslim African countries like Somalia and Sudan as motivated by ideology – in particular the goal of boosting prospects for the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists – or by desire to increase its geopolitical heft. This perception is not wholly inaccurate. Ankara’s extensive support for Somalis facing a devastating famine in 2011 earned Turkey enormous good-will. It then used this clout to bolster the interests of local allies, sometimes drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2017, Ankara opened a military base in Mogadishu, the biggest training base of its kind outside Turkey. It has also established a firm foothold in a Mogadishu seaport it views as critical to its strategy of projecting military power across key nodes of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Turkey is now one of Somalia’s most influential foreign actors, a role many Somalis view in a positive light. It does not coordinate its activities with the Somali security forces, for example, with Western powers, but neither is it at loggerheads with them.

Still, focusing on those angles alone risks overlooking what seems to be a key part of Ankara’s engagement in the Sahel to date – capitalising on shared religious identity to advance its economic interests. True, such engagement could also lead to further bilateral security cooperation, as it has in Somalia, and fuel competition with Turkey’s Gulf rivals. But, for now, Ankara’s main focus seems to be pursuing projects and investments in the Sahel that won public support, paving the way for Turkish exporters in a new market.

As it opened embassies in Bamako (2010), Ouagadougou (2012) and Niamey (2012), Ankara set out to woo religious and political elites as well as appeal to the needs of struggling populations. In Mali, for instance, it built a mosque in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital for the High Islamic Council of Mali, the country’s most powerful religious association, and rehabilitated another in former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s hometown. In Niger’s northern city of Agadez, it restored the Grand Mosque and the Sultan of Aïr’s palace. This allowed it to stress Turkey’s historical links with the region’s sultans, the first of whom oral histories say was born in Istanbul in the 1400s. At the same time, Turkey rolled out much-needed assistance in health care, water and education. It built hospitals in Bamako (completed in 2018) and Niamey (in 2019) and dispatched mobile clinics to provincial Malian towns such as Koulikoro and Sikasso. The Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), Turkish charities and NGOs also stepped in to improve rural dwellers’ access to religious schooling and water.

As they have elsewhere in Africa, locals welcomed the projects, helping to open up markets for Turkish consumer goods and boosting Ankara’s efforts to secure contracts for Turkish construction, energy and mining companies. While Turkish trade with the Sahel is still small compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese and French exports to the region annually, it has grown substantially over the last decade. Trade between Mali and Turkey, for instance, increased more than tenfold, from just $5 million in 2003 to $57 million in 2019. Crucial to boosting commerce was the launch of direct Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul to Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou, which opened new trade routes for Sahelian entrepreneurs deterred by Europe’s increasingly strict border policies. Meanwhile, a direct Turkish Airlines flight from Bamako to Jeddah has proven popular with African pilgrims.

Some Turkish projects have done less to win hearts and minds. In 2017, following the coup attempt in Ankara that the Turkish government blamed on the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher self-exiled in the U.S. since 1999, Turkey’s Maarif Foundation signed an agreement with Mali’s education minister enabling it to take control of a network of eighteen Gülenist Horizon schools in Bamako. The heavy-handedness of the takeover alienated some alumni, and the schools’ reputation has suffered.

As elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, Turkish construction in the Sahel typically focuses on infrastructure. In Niger, Turkish companies delivered a range of projects that were key to Niamey’s hosting of the June 2019 African Union summit, including a new international airport and a five-star hotel. With Mali, it signed a tentative agreement for a metrobus system in Bamako.                           

Hard Power

Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments.

As Ankara pursues commercial opportunities in the Sahel, Turkish officials say they see military power as necessary to protect their investments. Turkey first adopted a cooperative approach to security in the region. This approach included providing diplomatic support to multilateral efforts such as Mali’s Algiers peace agreement, signed by the government, a coalition of pro-government armed groups and an alliance of rebel groups in 2015. Ankara also gave $5 million to the G5 Sahel force, a regional coalition which in 2018 began deploying troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger largely to fight Islamist militants in the tri-border area conjoining Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. A more controversial form of military assistance came in July 2020, when Ankara and Niamey signed a defence pact that could – the text remains secret – lay the groundwork for direct operational support from Turkey to Niger in the future. The deal was concluded only a year after reports emerged that France would mothball its Madama base near the Libyan border in Niger’s far north and potentially hand it over to the UAE (any talk of the Emiratis taking over the base has now ended). The Turkey-Niger pact set off alarm bells in Paris and Abu Dhabi. Both capitals saw it as a potential means of extending Turkish influence in neighbouring Libya and a sign that Turkey hopes to establish a base in Niger, as it has done in Somalia.

The Turkey-Niger deal led to a flood of rumours of Turkish regional meddling, all of which Ankara denies and which indeed various sources deem baseless. An August 2020 Emirati policy paper, for example, warned that Ankara was arming militants in the Sahel and West Africa to seize control of natural resources and spread political Islam. The same month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu became the first senior foreign official to meet with leaders of the 18 August coup in Mali, fuelling speculation among some observers that Turkey had been involved in the Keïta government’s ouster. In early 2021, after months of tensions between Turkey and France in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, French politicians and commentators hinted that Turkish-deployed jihadists might be behind an uptick in improvised explosive device attacks on French soldiers in Mali. According to various senior Malian officials, northern Malian armed groups and Western diplomats in the region, such rumours reflect growing anxiety over the scope of Ankara’s regional ambitions. One Turkish official in the region complained that the tensions in the Mediterranean have already made many of the Sahel’s European partners reluctant to cooperate with Turkey.

The Turkey-Niger defence agreement reportedly contains plans for Turkish troops to train and support Nigerien forces fighting the various splinters of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency and to help them secure the country’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Niger’s tense presidential election – the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power that took place despite violent protests, police repression and voting irregularities – appears to have delayed these plans’ implementation. Senior military officials in Niamey have told Crisis Group that the pact will come into full effect at the discretion of President Mohamed Bazoum’s cabinet following his inauguration in April.

In Mali, for years the epicentre of the Sahel’s conflicts, Turkey’s military footprint is limited to a few security assistance programs in the capital. In 2018, Ankara began hosting Malian officers for training in Turkey and supplying Mali’s army with light weapons and ammunition. There are signs that the UAE and Qatar – the latter a close Turkish ally – are vying for influence. A senior political official told Crisis Group that a January 2020 deal with the UAE to sell Mali 30 Typhoon armoured vehicles was intended to sideline a project that would entail Qatar purchasing French helicopters for the Malian military. More Emirati deals, if they are made, might lead Turkey to up its involvement.

Competition or Cooperation?

Although many Sahelians have cheered Ankara’s rapid push into the region, some Gulf Arab and Western states have reacted negatively. Perceptions that Ankara is seeking to extend its military influence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if they prompt Abu Dhabi to scale up its own military presence. For now, however, there is little evidence that Ankara is preparing to be anything other than a bit player in the region’s conflicts.

Western partners ... regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region.

As for Western partners, they worry about Turkey as an economic competitor and regard warily Turkey’s newly assertive posture in the already heavily militarised region. Western diplomats tend to both exaggerate and downplay Turkish influence. One European diplomat, for example, labels Turkey’s activities in the Sahel as an “offensive”. At the same time, this very diplomat notes that Ankara’s interventions have so far been opportunistic rather than part of a bigger strategic plan. In reality, Turkish aid and investments pale in comparison to the substantial sums Western powers with deeper pockets have splashed out. While the European Union and its member states have pumped more than $8 billion into the central Sahel since 2014 in development cooperation alone, TIKA data show that it barely spent $61 million between 2014 and 2019. Another Western diplomat contends that it is too early to say whether Turkey building schools and hospitals as a sweetener for developing export markets indicates modest, primarily economic ambitions, or a broader geopolitical agenda – one that might later entail sending troops or mercenaries or promoting Islamist governance in the region.

Many [Sahelians] have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor.

Among Sahelians, on the other hand, Turkey has amassed good-will. Many have welcomed Turkey as a powerful international actor with whom they have more in common than Europe, Russia or China and from whom they may have much to gain. They tend to see Turkey as less overbearing than the European Union or France, and as a partner with similar interests. Turkey, for example, is not bent on curbing migrant flows like Europe. Islam is a common bond. Many Sahelian policymakers and businessmen chafe at the region’s reliance on European aid and French military support and say they are interested in diversifying alliances. “Western countries are too visible in our conflicts. We would like to see Arab or Muslim countries like Turkey play a more active conflict resolution role”, a Western-educated Malian academic noted. Niger, for its part, is optimistic about the prospect of Turkey’s defence cooperation. “The intelligence sharing, capacity building and military training that Turkey is offering in the framework of the defence agreement will be of great help in improving security,” a senior Nigerien defence official told Crisis Group.

While Turkey’s push into the Sahel, given its limits, seems for now unlikely to upset regional dynamics, it is critical to avoid another layer of geopolitical competition in the region.

The chief danger is that Ankara continues expanding its presence, thus motivating Gulf actors like the UAE, whose regional engagement has been relatively limited so far, to further enter the fray. The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, and between sparring Gulf states, is still in its early days; it is unclear how far it will go in dialling down the competition among those states that has often played out with destabilising impact across North Africa and the Horn. All sides would be better off avoiding opening up a new arena in the Sahel. Ideally, especially given France’s planned downscaling of bilateral military cooperation, Turkey would continue supporting multilateral efforts in the Sahel and restrict any bilateral military cooperation to security forces training, which would go some way to dispelling rumours about its intentions.

For their part, European partners should overcome their reluctance to collaborate with Turkey. Ankara can contribute to infrastructure, development projects and the multilateral initiatives that Europe supports. Turkey’s regional ambitions may not yet be fully developed, and the defence pact with Niger is understandably seen – by Ankara’s rivals but also more broadly – as a potentially risky new form of regional militarisation. For now, though, European capitals should consider the potential benefits of cooperating in the Sahel with a country whose goals in the region – which thus far entail mostly dispatching aid and trade to support fragile states – largely align with Europe’s own.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.