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[Research Reports] Turkey's Diplomacy toward Africa at a Turning Point
—With Special References to Somalia, Sudan, and Libya—

Masaki Kakizaki (Associate Professor, Temple University, Japan Campus)
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‘Middle East and Africa’ Research Group # 2
The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate in timely fashion the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors’ views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish “Research Bulletins” covering the full range of the group’s research themes.


Since Turkey became an observer state of the African Union in 2005, the country has expanded its involvement in Africa through humanitarian assistance, development aid, as well as support to Turkish companies that were expanding their activities in Africa. While it is certain that Turkey's presence in Africa increased rapidly as a result of these diplomatic efforts, the intra-regional conflicts in the Middle East began to cast a dark shadow on Turkey's African diplomacy in 2019. This report examines the challenges Turkey faces in the three countries that it has traditionally focused on: Somalia, Sudan, and Libya.

(1) Middle East conflicts spreading to Somalia

Turkey's advance into Somalia attracted an early attention regarding its diplomacy with Africa. In 2011, Turkey began providing humanitarian assistance to Somalia, which had been hit by a severe famine, as well as assistance for the reconstruction of Somalia, which had been devastated by its civil war. While other major countries outside the region were hesitant to provide assistance to Somalia, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Somalia to pledge Turkey's support as early as 2011. The assistance to Somalia was a diplomatic strategy to enhance Turkey's prestige as an emerging country and to secure its influence in the Middle East and Africa1.

When the Transitional Government of Somalia came to an end in 2012, Turkey's political involvement in the country increased. Turkey embarked on mediating between the newly established Somali Federal Government and Somaliland seeking independence from Somalia, which led to certain success with the signing of the Ankara Communiqué by the presidents of the two governments in 2013, which affirmed continuation of the peace talks2. In 2017, a Turkish military training base was constructed in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, and Turkish forces began training Somali soldiers. By setting up a large training facility in Mogadishu, Turkey demonstrated its long-term willingness to engage in Somalia's nation-building. Furthermore, in January 2020, President Erdogan demonstrated his willingness to developing oil reserves off the coast of Somalia, stating that "The Somali Government requested joint oil development" 3.

Turkey's advance into Somalia has not always been progressing smoothly. Although Turkey has been involved in the talks between Somalia and Somaliland as a "fair broker", Turkey is a supporter of the Somali Federal Government from the point of view of Somaliland; some regard Turkey's "mediation" as "intervention". Although the Turkish government expressed its willingness to act as a mediator again in 2019, the June summit between Somalia and Somaliland was held in neighboring Djibouti, not in Turkey. The mediator was Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed Ali, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 20194. Turkey's increased involvement in Somalia has also made it a target for terrorism by the Sunni militant group Al-Shabaab. The presence of Turkish troops in Somalia poses a high risk, as evidenced by a suicide bombing in January 2020 by a man posing as an enrollee at a Turkish military base. There is a widespread perception in Turkey that behind Al-Shabaab's terrorist attacks on Turkish facilities lies the UAE, which is in confrontation with Turkey. In a statement issued on April 30, Turkey's foreign ministry criticized the UAE for supporting al-Shabaab and causing instability in East Africa5. In this way, the confrontation in the Middle East between Turkey and Qatar on one hand and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other has been reflected in Somalia; these countries are moving closer to Somaliland and Puntland in an attempt to counter Turkey and Qatar6.

(2) Sudan

Turkey is being forced to reconsider its Sudanese policy after President Omar Al-Bashir was ousted in a coup in 2019. Turkey strengthened its presence in Sudan from around 2011, when Sudan, which lost much of its oil revenues due to the separation and independence of South Sudan, attempted to attract foreign investment7. Since Turkey and Sudan agreed in 2013 to strengthen their economic cooperation, they also deepened their security ties. In 2015, the two countries conducted joint military exercises in the Red Sea, and a defense industry cooperation agreement was concluded in 2017. The two countries have also joined forces, together with Qatar, over the Libyan civil war, supporting both the National Salvation Government8 and the current Government National Accord (GNA), both of which are heavily influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. President Erdogan made his first visit to Sudan as the head of state in December 2017. The talks between Erdogan and Bashir resulted in a number of agreements on trade and investment. More notable was the agreement to lease Suakin Island to Turkey. The Turkish government has said it will develop the Red Sea island as a tourist destination and a stopover for pilgrims to Mecca, but concerns remain that Turkey may use the island as a naval facility in the future9.

President Erdogan had built close ties with President Bashir, but the fall of the latter marked a new phase in Turkey's Sudan policy. At the beginning of the coup, Turkey avoided any conspicuous involvement in the situation in Sudan. It was assumed that Turkey, which had supported Bashir, was forced to rethink its strategy. Still, President Erdogan expressed dissatisfaction with the coup that ousted President Bashir10. Since he himself had become the target of a coup d'état back in 2016, President Erdogan demonstrated strong aversion to the political changes in Sudan. Some Turkish media argued that "the coup in Sudan was orchestrated by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and its real target was Turkey"11 and reported that these countries were pressing the Sudanese authorities to halt the lease of Suakin to Turkey12.

So far, Turkey has indicated that it will continue to support Sudan. In Sudan after the coup d'état, the ruling military junta was at odds with pro-democracy demonstrators, so Western countries and the African Union began mediation efforts. In July, the military and demonstrators agreed on a "division of power". In August 2019, a signing ceremony was held in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to mark the division of power between the Sudanese armed forces and the opposition, which was also attended by the Turkish foreign minister13. Ankara hopes to maintain its influence in post-Bashir Sudan by continuing its engagement rather than undermining its relations with the interim government. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are rapidly approaching the new Sudanese regime through economic assistance, leading to weakening of Turkey's position in Sudan14.

(3) Libya

Finally, we consider Turkey's Libya policy. In Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in Tripoli in 2016 through the intermediation of the United Nations. However, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar did not recognize the GNA, and had effective control of eastern Libya. Then, in the spring of 2019, Field Marshal Haftar started to march on Tripoli, intensifying armed clashes with the GNA. Various countries continue to intervene in Libya's civil war with their own expectations. Turkey sought to expand its influence in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak through the Muslim Brotherhood, but a coup in 2013 brought down the Morsi regime and destroyed Turkey's strategy. However, in neighboring Libya, Turkey stepped up its intervention after the Muslim Brotherhood established the Justice and Construction Party there in 2012. In response, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, concerned about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, supported the LNA, creating a confrontation in Libya between Turkey vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.

There are also economic factors behind Turkey's intervention in Libya. Turkish major construction companies had been in Libya since the 1970s and had many projects in the country. A total of $16 billion worth of projects that had been awarded to Turkish companies are thought to have been suspended due to the civil war15. Moreover, Turkey has already secured various projects from the GNA in anticipation of post-conflict reconstruction.

Turkey's policy on Libya changed drastically at the end of 2019. Turkey signed a military agreement on the provision of weapons and military training with the GNA, which found itself in a position of military inferiority to the LNA. In 2020, based on this agreement, Turkey sent Libya Bayraktar TB2, Turkish-made unmanned combat aircraft, and Hawk surface-to-air missiles, and dispatched Turkish military support personnel. Furthermore, Turkey sent mercenaries who fought for Turkey in the Syrian civil war to Libya16. With Turkey's support, the GNA succeeded in driving out the LNA from around Tripoli.

Turkey and the GNA signed a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of maritime areas in the Mediterranean Sea at the same time they concluded the military agreement. In the eastern Mediterranean, where neighboring countries have been intensifying moves over natural resources, countries such as Greece, Egypt and Cyprus have pushed ahead with the pipeline plan by excluding Turkey and northern Cyprus which is recognized only by Turkey. Therefore, Turkey established a new Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with Libya. According to the agreement, the EEZs of Turkey and Libya would meet each other in the eastern Mediterranean, hindering the development of pipelines by Greece and other countries. As a matter of course, Greece and other countries have not approved the establishment of the EEZ, intensifying the confrontation.

The fact that the GNA was driven off militarily by the LNA was an opportunity for Turkey, which had been at a disadvantage in the competition for resources in the eastern Mediterranean, to turn the tables. In other words, Turkey forced the GNA to accept maritime demarcation in return for military assistance. GNA officials told the Associated Press that, during more than a year of pressure from Turkey, the interim GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj had refused to agree to the maritime demarcation; however, he eventually signed a memorandum "unwillingly"17. Sarraj himself apparently believed that the interim government did not have the authority to sign international agreements on territorial waters.

In Libya, the GNA and the LNA-backed parliament in eastern Libya agreed on a ceasefire in August and called for presidential and parliamentary elections as early as next March. Sarraj's base of support inside the GNA is not solid, though, and anti-government protests spread across Tripoli and Misrata in August18. There is also growing discontent that the GNA has made too many compromises to Turkey, and future developments could destabilize relations between the two governments.


Turkey has been at odds with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt over the Qatar crisis and relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent years, East Africa and North Africa have begun to reflect this rivalry. Turkey has invested political and economic resources in Somalia, Sudan, and Libya in particular to strengthen its relations with them. However, Turkey's policy toward Africa is entering a new phase as anti-Turkey countries such as the UAE have joined forces to strengthen ties with African countries. Israel, which agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain, is also confronting Turkey and, if Israel cooperates more actively with the UAE and other countries against Turkey from now on, it will become a further obstacle to Turkey's African diplomacy.

(September 17, 2020)

1 Richard Lough, "INSIGHT-Turkey Tries Out Soft Power in Somalia," Reuters, June 3, 2012.
2 "Somalia and Somaliland Sign 'Ankara Communique'," Anadolu Agency, April 13, 2013.
3 "Erdogan Says Somalia Has Invited Turkey to Explore for Oil in its Seas-NTV," Reuters, January 20, 2020.
4 Harun Maruf, "Somali, Somaliland Leaders Resume Talks in Djibouti," Voice of America, June 15, 2020.
5 "Turkey Calls on UAE to Stop Supporting Illegal Actors, Funding Terrorists," Daily Sabah, May 1, 2020.
6 Brian M. Perkins, "UAE Expands Its Influence in the Horn of Africa," Terrorism Monitor, volume XVIII, issue 12, 2020.
7 Ece Göksedef, "Sudan'da Darbe: Türkiye, Ömer El Beşir'in Devrildiği Ülkeye Ne Kadar Yatırım Yaptı?" BBC TÜRKÇE, April 17, 2019. 8 The National Salvation Government (NSG) was formed in Tripoli in September 2014 by political forces that refused to recognize the parliament established in the wake of the 2014 Libyan parliamentary elections, and it enjoyed support from Islamist and other parties; the NSG was dissolved in April 2016.
9 Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero, "Turkey's Move into the Red Sea Unsettles Egypt," Middle East Institute, January 17, 2018,
10 "President Erdoğan Calls for Sudan to Restore Peace, Democracy," Daily Sabah, April 1, 2019.
11 For example, see İsmail Numan Telci, "Devrim kKrşıtı Güçler Sudan'da 'Mısır Senaryosu' Peşinde,"Anadolu Ajansı, June 11, 2019.
12 Merve Şebnem Oruç, "Who is Disturbed by Turkey's Presence on Sudan's Suakin Island?" Daily Sabah, May 10, 2019.
13 Ahmet Furkan Mercan, "Turkey's Support to Sudan Will Continue to Grow: FM," Anadolu Agency, August 17, 2019.
14 Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, "The Great Game of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Sudan," Project on Middle East Political Science, June 16, 2020,
15 "New Deal Bears More Projects for Turkish Firms in Libya, Investments, Exports to Follow," Daily Sabah, August 14, 2020.
16 Can Kasapoglu, "Turkey's Air Defense System Deployments to Libya," The Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), January 17, 2020,
17 Samy Magdy, "Joining the Conflict in Libya, Turkey Sees Economic Gains," Associated Press, June 30, 2020.
18 Fehim, Tastekin, "What is Turkey's Role in Tripoli Political Tremor?," Al-Monitor, September 3, 2020.