Turkish delights or tough nuts?
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit Nigeria last week as part of his four-country Africa tour. This visit is important in a wider geopolitical context. Despite the pandemic, trade volumes between Nigeria and Turkey reached $2 billion last year, making us Turkey’s largest trading partner south of the Sahara. The just-concluded Turkish-African Business Forum and the Turkish African Partnership coming in December show Turkey filling a gap in Africa that has been created by their larger NATO partner; the United States’s seeming disinterest. It puts Turkey in direct competition with the two other big geopolitical players in Africa, France and China. Since 2002, Turkish diplomatic presence in Africa has gone from 12 to 42, and Turkish Airlines flies to more African countries than any other international flag carrier.
Last year, Turkey volunteered to pay off about US$3.4 million of Somalia’s debt to the IMF, and following that, Mogadishu passed a law opening the way for Turkish oil companies to search for oil in Somali waters. Coming soon after Turkish oil companies got concessions for similar work in Libya, one can say that Turkey has pulled ahead of Saudi Arabia in an unspoken contest for leadership of the Islamic world. That move solidified Erdogan’s moves in crafting his image as the leader of the Islamic world, in an unspoken tension with Saudi Arabia.
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A norm in international politics is when a leader has domestic problems, foreign adventures are a good distraction. Critics say that Erdogan’s many domestic issues: the poor outing of his AKP party in Istanbul’s mayoral election; the weakening Turkish lira; high inflation; are responsible for his foreign adventures in its near abroad (Turkey almost came to blows with Greece over mining and exploration rights off Cyprus); Syria, where it has a natural interest; there was the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict which saw Turkey play into a geopolitical space that Russia sees at its own; Libya, where siding with the UN-backed Government of National Unity brought it into conflict with France and Russia, both of which backed the rebel Khalifa Haftar; and then there is competition against France in the Sahel. France has accused Turkey (and Russia) of being behind rising anti-French sentiment in West Africa, but this ignores, at least in Turkey’s case, history.
Turkish arms have always found their way into Nigeria and have been a source of concern for security officials
Turkey’s growing presence in Muslim African countries has deep roots. In Nigeria for example, Saudi Arabia’s version of Sunni Islam (Wahabbism) seems to be dominant, but Nigeria’s northern Muslims has extensive historical ties with Turkey dating back to trade between Kanem-Bornu and Ottoman Ankara’s extensive support for Somalis facing a devastating famine in 2011 earned Turkey enormous goodwill. It then used this clout to bolster the interests of local allies, sometimes drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nigeria has been on the receiving end of such games, with illegal arms from Libya conflict flowing down from Chad which shares a land border with Libya, down into Nigeria and has fuelled insecurity in the country. Turkish arms have always found their way into Nigeria and have been a source of concern for security officials. In 2017, the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Hameed Ali expressed concern over the 671 pump action rifles imported from Turkey.
But from the Buhari government’s point of view, Turkey is an ideal defence partner. You see, unlike Western powers who hypocritically cast an air of moral concern, Ankara cannot be bothered over “little inconveniences” such as human rights. This means that Turkey would sell weapons, including from its storied drone programme, to the Nigerian government without attempting to tell them how to use such weapons. Think of the furore over the recently purchased Super Tucano planes from the US, and you’ll catch my drift. Zamfara Governor, Bello Matawelle recently claimed that his state bought drones from Turkey to use against terrorists operating in the state. This disinterest in who the final customer is would, in the short to medium term at least, prove profitable for the Turks.
Economically, Nigeria and Turkey signed a number of agreements on taxation, mining, hydrocarbons, energy, defence, and cooperation between our youth and foreign ministries. In 2016 when President Erdogan last visited Nigeria, he asked President Buhari to close down education and cultural centres linked to Fetullah Gulen, a US-based cleric whom he accused of masterminding the attempted coup of July 2016. Nile University Abuja was one of the schools asked to shut down, but the Buhari administration declined. This may change with the new agreements.
But as Erdogan continues his moves to revive Turkey’s Ottoman Era influence, strategic rivals such as France and the larger western world see him as a threat to their influence and are warning African powers that Turkey could undermine them. The world is about interest, so Western hypocrisy should not cause any tears. Erdogan’s real danger is what our people may learn from him. His success in eroding constitutional checks on his power is a blueprint for wannabe civilian dictators, like President Buhari.
Following the coup attempt, Mr Erdogan has carried out a purge of Turkish society. He has closed 189 media outlets and jailed hundreds of journalists. Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2019 index of press freedom. Almost a hundred thousand people have been arrested, more than 6,000 academics have been dismissed from their posts, 4,463 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed in the purge.
Bilateral relations between an increasingly authoritarian state are problematic for citizens of a country that its leader visited on the same day the police clamped down hard on protesters who gathered in major cities to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Lekki Massacre, the killing of peaceful protesters against police brutality by the Nigerian military.