Turkish-African relations: past, present and future

Turkish-African relations: past, present and future


Turkish-African relations in the 21st century constitute one of the prime orientations of Turkish foreign policy at present. The relations between Turkey and Africa have gained a substantial momentum since the declaration of Turkey as a strategic partner of the Continent by the African Union in January 2008.  Being an Afro-Eurasian state, Turkey’s policy of opening out to Africa is not just the reflection of a transient political and economic expectation. Indeed, to understand the Turkish – African relations better, one must consider the historical relations of Turkish people with Africa. The first state founded by the Turks in Africa was the Tulunids, which ruled today’s Egypt in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the subsequent period, the Ottoman Empire prevented colonial expansion in North Africa. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, an African State, played a major role in preventing the penetration of colonialism in East Africa. These historical ties would be a sufficient reason to understand why Turkey should turn her face to Africa. Current relations between Turkey and Africa, especially in the last two decades, are evidence of the aforementioned relations with the continent. This paper aims to reveal the relations between Turkey and Africa in the 21st century.


Turks entered Africa with the army of Caliph Omar in the 7th century for the first time. During the Battle of Talas between China and the Abbasid Caliphate; Uygur and Karluk Turks helped the Arab army, and they eventually won the battle. Uygur Turks embraced Islam and started to fight in the Abbasid army as hired commanders upon the request of the Abbasid general Ziyad ibn Salih al-Khuzai. According to the Arab sources, they had meticulously planned for the Qarluqs to turn on their allies when the time was right. Chinese sources mark this as a “flagrant act of betrayal at the hands of the Turks” which they cite as the main reason for them losing the battle.[i]

As a result of the meeting of Arabs and Turks, two nations began to fight against crusaders as the protectors of the crescent.  With the Abbasid expansion, as far as Spain, Islam became a recognized religion in the African continent. Chronologically, Tulunids, Mamluks and Ottoman States bequeathed remarkable cultural heritage in Africa as far as Mozambique. This article aims to examine the Turkish presence in Africa from past to present.

Turks in Africa

Turkish presence in Africa began with the migration of people from Asia in the 9th century with the Tulunid Dynasty. In AD 868, the Turkish officer Ahmad ibn Tulun considered himself as an independent governor of Egypt. Tulunids were officially called as Fi AmaratulTulunid al Turkiyya. The young Tulunid achieved political and military gains, enabling him to extend his authority from Egypt into northern Iraq, and as far as to the Byzantine frontier by AD 890.

The Tulunids ‎were a dynasty of Turkic origin and were the first independent dynasty to rule Egypt, as well as a large portion of Syria. The Mosque of ibn Tulun is located in Cairo, the oldest and the largest mosque in the city surviving in its original form, which is probably the most substantial evidence of Tulunid Sultanate in Northern Africa.[ii]

Another Turkish State in Africa was Mamluk Sultanate, officially called al-Mamālīk ed-Devletü’t-Türkiyye, established in Egypt. Mamluks also played an important role in Africa, being the first to use regular naval force in the Red Sea. Tunisian scholar Ibn Haldun from the Middle Ages, describes the Turkish migration from Asia to Africa in Mamluk period in the 13thcentury as the following:

Azerbaijan’s eastern point in this section is Ardabil, on a portion of the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea enters this section from the east from the seventh section and it’s called the Sea of Tabaristan. On its northern shore, in this section, it contains a portion of the country, the Khazars. They are Turkomans. To the west, it contains the land of the Finland Turks and from Yemen to the Turks in the farthest north. Very recently, the Turkish dynasty has made its appearance in Egypt. Egypt’s ruling dynasty consists of the Turkish rulers and their groups. They succeed each other in power, and the rule circulates among them, passing from one branch to another. The (Turkish) rulers then chose horsemen and soldiers from among the white slaves (Mamelukes) who were brought to them. As for the dynasties of our own time, the greatest of them is that of the Turks in Egypt. In the Turkish dynasty in Egypt, the name of doorkeeper (hajib) is used for persons of authority (hakim) among the men who hold power, that is, the Turks. These persons have to enforce the law among the people in the town. 

Ibn Khaldun continues to describe it by saying :

Turkish built a great many colleges, hermitages, monasteries, and endowed them with mortmain endowments that yielded income. In the Maghrib the dynasty of the Seljuk Turks gained domination over the Muslim empire. They kept the caliphs in seclusion, until their dynasties were destroyed. We have likewise heard that in the Sudan and in the land of the Turks.[iii]

Ibn Haldun’s definitions explained Mamluk presence in Northern Africa; as far as Sudan. Two important events worth being mentioned regarding the historical role that Mamluks played in history. In the Seventh Crusade, Ayyubids and Bahariyya Mamluks defeated Louis IX of France between 1248 and 1254. Similarly, the Sultan of Mamluks, Baibars managed to defeat Mongol Emperor Hulagu Khan in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. No doubt, African soldiers played an important role in these campaigns to protect an Egyptian state from its enemies. In this period several times of migrations shaped the social structure of the nations from Asia to Africa and this had given rise to common Afro-Asian customs and traditions in both continents. Historian Habshi Amarat noted that:

[…] the Mamluks of medieval Egypt or the Slave Kings of the Delhi Sultanate, the principal difference being that the elite slaves of Egypt and Delhi had been ethnic Turks and those of the Deccan were Ethiopians, Habshis.

Ethiopians were known as Habshis in Arabic and Turkish literature.  Indeed, Mamluk Turks influenced the society on cultural and linguistic points of view. There are also signs of the linguistic influence of the Turkish language on some Bantu Languages, particularly Kiswahiliand isiXhosa in the Middle Ages. In Turkish “Yes” is “Evet” and “No” is “Hayır”. Similarly, in Xhosa “Yes” is “Ewe” and “No” is “Hayı”. Additionally, some surnames in the DRC and South Africa are etymologically Turkish origin, for example Denisova and Chimusa. According to Dr Emile Chimusa, a lecturer in population genetics at the University of Cape Town, there was an important Asian migration to Africa in the Middle Ages and while this population assimilated into local ways, they bequeathed a cultural legacy that affected local languages in Africa. It would thus appear that Mamluk presence in some ways impacted African nations through its language, history and cultural heritage.[iv]

Ottoman presence at the of East Africa

After the decline of the Mamluk State in 1517, the Ottoman Empire established relations with African Emirates.  African scholars due to the language barrier have mostly neglected research on Ottoman expansion across the Indian Ocean in the early sixteenth century as most sources were written in Ottoman Turkish. This said, Portuguese sources suggest that the Ottoman Navy was the most powerful sea force in the Indian ocean in the sixteenth century.

However, before the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in the southern Arab lands and the shores of the Indian Ocean, The Portuguese reached western India at the end of the fifteenth century with the landing of Vasco da Gama and his crew, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. They established themselves in various strategic points around the Indian Ocean seeking to dominate the ancient trade which ran from Southeast Asia and India to the Mediterranean world through the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and adjacent lands.[v]

Alfonse de Albuquerque, who gave a more imperial shape to the Portuguese presence in Indian Ocean, became the governor of India in 1509. The letter of Afonso dated April 1512 and addressed to King Manuel, made clear enough the intention of the Portuguese monarch; “I understand that you want to take the spices and other precious goods from India against the wishes of the Muslims and that you want to destroy the trade with Mecca, Jeddah and Cairo”. All these demands would according to Portuguese monarch enable him to control the entrance to the Red Sea and thereby take control of the trade, destroy the port of Jeddah near the Islamic holy lands, burn the Mamluk fleet at Suez and open up communications with Prester John, the legendary Christian ruler in Ethiopia. The Catholic Christian forces came near to the heart of the Muslim territories, the holy lands Mecca and Medina. This was indeed a turning point for the Muslims who were led by Ottoman Admiral Selman Reis and who eventually forced the Portuguese to retreat with eight hundred deaths.

When the Ottoman admiral Selman Reis who had also served the Mamluks, reported in 1525 to the grand vizier Ibrahim Pasha, he described the Portuguese power in the Red Sea with the following sentences: “Each ship resembles a dragon with an open mouth. It is impossible for anyone to appreciate the power of these arms and ships unless he actually sees them. Nor it is possible to describe them. When our ships are ready and God willing move against the Portuguese to destroy them”. A campaign was originally organized against the Safavids in Iran and eventually ended up with the conquest of Syria and Egypt. Late Prof. İnalcik stated that the conditions of Arab lands were ready for Ottoman rule in which many factors, such as military, economic, religious, etc. had played their historical roles. What really had brought Ottomans to the shores of Indian Ocean? Did Ottoman policymakers have a master plan, particularly from an economic point of view towards the southern boundaries? No doubt the conquest of Egypt, was politically and economically one of the most important additions to the Empire. The route from Damascus to Hejaz was of particular importance since it was normally the route of the pilgrimage caravan. The pilgrimage not only had the religious significance but also an economic concern. Most important reason from the religious point of view was the title of the Ottoman Sultans khadimul haremeyn al sharifayn, which means the servant of the holy lands, Mecca and Madina. Trade was equally important, the pilgrims who came together in Mecca and Medina from all parts of the Muslim World found a meeting an opportunity for trade.  The Ottomans inherited from the Mamluks the function of guarding the Red Sea against the Portuguese and in particular the Hedjaz which they did not rule directly but through the sheriffs, Prophet Muhammad’s descendants.[vi]

The Portuguese reached Western India at the end of the fifteenth century and established themselves with naval operations at an astonishing speed at various strategic points around the Indian Ocean, seeking to dominate the ancient trade of spice and silk which ran from India through the Red Sea. Towards the middle of the sixteenth century Baghdad was conquered and Ottoman State established trade and military links with the Persian Gulf during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. According to some documents from Turkish archives, Portuguese attacked the Island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf in 1559. Prof. Orhonlu discovered a report about the 1559 campaign against Bahrain. The document explained the reason for the conflict as below: 

To the governor of Basra,

It has been reported that the Portuguese misbelievers, have gone against Bahrain with some galleys and galleons and captured some Muslims causing disorder. It is also possible that they may raid against Mocha and Aden. This governor (kapudan pasha) of Mocha has no galleys and security of that area is important. Two of the galleys stationed at Suez should now be sent to Mocha to protect the region. (Turkish Archives, TPA, Muh. Defteri, XXIIl. p. 64).

An important collection in the Turkey President Archives is the Ruus registration, which contains materials of an administrative nature and provides information about appointments, honors and rewards. They were prepared by an headquarter, called Ruus Kalemi attached to the Imperial Council and covered the period from 1547 to 1908. For instance, according to this record, first commercial activities were dated in 1544 in Red Sea. Some Portuguese historians like R. B. Serjeant also confirmed the accuracy of the Ottoman sources in his studies. Serjeant, notes that:

From the ample documentation at our disposal, we are already well acquainted with the Portuguese attitude toward the South Arabian coastal sultans. For the part played by the Turks, actual Turkish sources are hardly even tapped.[vii]

Apart from archival documents sometimes travelogues and memoirs also highlight the social-cultural life in the Ottoman frontiers in Africa. Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi visited Sudan in 1640 and mentioned a Turkish mosque, which was established in 1580. During his last journey, Evliya Çelebi wanted to fulfill his obligation as Muslim by visiting Holy Land of Mecca for hajj. Çelebi returned to Istanbul to groom from his last journey. Then, he headed to Mecca through the west side of Anatolia, after visiting southern Anatolia he went to Egypt through Suez with the Egyptian jamaah of hajjis. Then Evliya Çelebi visited Sudan and Ethiopia; he stayed there for some time and reported his observations to Istanbul.  Çelebi noted that he stayed in Suakin for 12 days and commented on a palace and a masjid which were established by the Ottoman Major General Ozdemir Pasha. The information given by Çelebi matched the Turkish official records. Ottoman archival documents highlight further episodes in the region and indicate that Ottoman Statesmen already planned to open Suez Canal to control the region.[viii]

To Governor of Egypt

In order to protect hajj convoy from India to Mecca and Medina and provide safety in the Hedjaz region against Portugal threat in the Red Sea, the Sultan ordered a decree to send engineers and architects to open a canal between Mediterranean and Red Sea.

In January 1568 

When Governor of Bagdad, Sinan Pasha was appointed as a commander in chief of Yemen, he was sent to Aden Gulf to chase away Portuguese galleys from the region. An Ottoman archival document highlights that Bahrain, Aden, Mocha in dangers of Portuguese attack and Sinan Pasha immediately went there to protect the region. One of the major Arabic sources on the sixteenth century was al Barq al Yamani fil fathul Uthmani which was written by the Imam Qutbul al din Muhammed al Nahrawali, he resided in Mecca where he served as Mufti till 1582. This source was devoted to Sinan Pasha’s re-conquest of Yemen. Though loyal to Ottoman authority, al Nahrawali had severely critiqued the Shi’i Zaydis in the region. A Turkish religious scholar, Abu Bakr Effendi who visited Mozambique in 1865, also mentions Sinan Pasha’s activities in Eastern Africa along to Red Sea. Effendi mentioned about the presence of an Ottoman Mosque established in Maputo by Sultan Selim in the sixteenth century. He also noted that he prayed at the mosque and saw it the imam of the mosque praising the Ottoman Sultan.[ix] These well illustrate the Turkish presence in the Southern Africa in the pre-1652 period.

English historian Peter Holt stated that, when Ottoman Empire had begun to establish itself in Egypt, they had to face problems, inherited from the Mamluks. The Portuguese had already set up their military strongpoints and therebycovered quite an extensive range.

For various other reasons the Ottoman State, began to demonstrate more enthusiasm towards the wider world and respond to the request of some of the Muslim States in the Indian Ocean against the Portuguese menace. The vizier of Hormuz sent a letter in 1528 to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, to provide him with military help in order to expel the Portuguese from Hurmuz. The ruler of Gujarat also sought Ottoman military help. Mustafa Bey went to India in 1531 with 600 Turkish soldiers and 1300 Arabs and also with weapons. They expelled Portuguese from Diu in India.[x] In the following years, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat sent an envoy to the Ottoman capital and requested an Ottoman armada against Portuguese in Indian Ocean in 1536. Obviously, it would be very challenging for the Ottomans to defeat the Portuguese maritime in the Indian Ocean where the seas of different temperatures necessitated different sailing techniques. The geographical conditions and formidable sea power were the main obstacles confronting the Ottomans. However, many factors encouraged the Ottomans to go further. Ottoman fighters, gunners, and firearms were now in demand in all over the Muslim countries for the defence against Portuguese.[xi] The Portuguese intolerance in religious matters also catalysed Muslim people to ask help from the Ottoman State. Indian historian Sahabi Ahmad notes that;

The Haj might be purely a matter of religious obligations for the pilgrims but for those who were involved with its process and with its logistical and transport arrangements, it had many other ramifications commercial cultural and diplomatic. At one point of time, during the 15-16th century it had become a merchandising opportunity of first magnitude and the Ottoman kings from the very beginning had played a very significant role in the facilitation of Haj. They had paid special attention to this affair right from the day when they became the Custodian of the two holy places Mecca and Medina Sharif after their capturing the territories in Saudi Arabia, particularly Hejaz area. Since then we observe a visible relationship between the two countries. It became a serious matter of concern both for Mughal and Ottoman states even during 16th century when the sinister designs and a desire of establishing a Portuguese hegemony in the Red Sea became a threat.[xii]

At the light house of Cape Point, an illustration about the campaign between Portuguese and Turkish indicates that Portuguese had to turn around the continent due to Ottoman Sea power in the Mediterranean Sea. The caption read as follows:

The European age of African maritime experience began in the 15th century after the powerful Turkish Empire had blocked the overland route to the East. 

Certainly, some hidden documents between the Ottoman Empire and Portugal will shed light on many mysteries in the field in time to come. We have not greatly advanced the study of commercial history of the southern Ottoman expansion since the days of Fernand Braudel, Cengiz Orhonlu and Salih Ozboran. Certainly, further studies on the sixteenth and following centuries are needed in placing into the historical context of the Ottoman commercial presence in the Indian Ocean. We need to both develop a greater understanding of history of the Ottoman southern expansion and to see Ottoman history within a wider perspective in terms of its contribution to African Studies. 

There is another important matter between Ottoman State and African states. That is the forgotten migration of Africans to Turkey and Turks to Africa.[xiii] In the seventeenth and eighteenth century some African artisans and merchants migrated to commercial cities in Turkey, such as Muğla, Aydɪn, Izmir and Istanbul. For instance, the first black pilot in world history, Ahmet Ali Effendi’s ancestor migrated to Izmir from Nigeria many years ago and as an Ottoman citizen he became the first pilot of African origin in the world history. Similarly, Egyptian origin musician Safiye Ayla studied in the school of music in Istanbul around 1920 and became one of the most renowned Turkish musicians. Some other movie artists of African origin and movie stars played an important role in the establishing of the Turkish cinema in Turkey. On the other side some Ottoman families from Manisa, Izmir, and Istanbul moved to African countries for various reasons. Grandchildren of Professor Abu Bakr Effendi have been still staying in Cape Town for more than 150 years. Great grandfather of Professor David Benatar also moved to South Africa in the nineteenth century. Similarly, famous South African poet Tatamkulu Africa of Egyptian origin. His great grandfather moved to Egypt in the nineteenth century from Istanbul. Mamluks and then Ottomans protected African lands with African nations until the early 1900s. Thus, Turkish and African families mixed with each other due to migration across both continents. This paper has offered a glimpse of historical background within the African continent. It shares the dynamic exchange between Turks and Africans. Through the use of diverse archival sources, it offers us an alternative and richer picture of this various order and skill of African people as merchants, warriors, sailors and scholars. This is a step towards revisiting the western representation of Africa and Africans.[xiv]

Turkish response to Western colonialism in Africa

While colonialism may have declined in practice, its residue remains. We must just consider how inhabitants in Ghana, Senegal, Congo, Algeria and in Madagascar speak French, while in Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and in South Africa speak another western language, English. Colonialism’s legacy continues to permeate almost all aspects of life on the continent. Within its fifty-two countries, descendants of Africa continue to fight against western imperialism.

Historically, colonizers have always found a way to legitimate their colonial activities by arguing that they were improving the “Dark continent”.  Yet, the Ottoman State managed to administer northern Africa—as far as Ethiopia—for more than four hundred years without a single person being forced to speak Turkish or to convert to Islam.  Instead, the Ottoman State established schools at the Cape of Good Hope in order to educate neglected Muslims on the continent.[xv]

African scholars due to the language barrier have rarely examined Turkish presence in Africa with Turkish sources.  However, Turkish people have settled in Africa for more than a thousand years.  After Tulunid and Mamluk dynasties in Egypt, the Ottoman State played a crucial role in northern Africa. Their campaigns with Portuguese powers determined the destiny of the Muslim nations in East Africa and shores of Arabian lands.  Apart from challenging the Portuguese through their military might, Turks developed mercantile relations in the Indian Ocean. Migration from Turkey to Africa and vice versa led to inter-marriages between Africans and Turks and this has caused a common lineage. For instance, while Ismail Joubert of Turkish origin gained South African identity and became Tatamkulu Afrika, a pilot of Nigerian origin by the name of Ahmet Ali Effendi became an Ottoman lieutenant in the Turkish military. The existence of an Ottoman Mosque in Mozambique at present is another evidence of Ottoman traces in southern Africa from the sixteenth century. Studies show that African and Asian nations created Afro-Asian identities through the migration and trade across the continents from past and present.[xvi]

Turkish – African relations in 21st century

Ottoman – African relations during the period of the Republic of Turkey have also continued with the same sincerity as in the Ottoman State period. In 1926 he was appointed as a consul to South Africa and Ethiopia on behalf of the Republic of Turkey in 1933. However, the former Republic of Turkey to develop friendly relations with African states and even organized an sport activity with the Egyptian national football team in 1925. In 1941, a South African Muslim pilgrim Yakup has left a legacy of virtue to the the Government of Turkey due to old historical relations between Turkey and South Africa. Republic of Turkey was established diplomatic relations major, and only in a few years, in 1917, the legendary Libyan leader Sheikh Ahmed Senusi of the War of Independence came to Turkey and supported the Turkish nation. Upon the proposal of the Libyan Government, Turkish statesman Sadullah Koloğlu became the Prime Minister of Libya in 1955.[xvii] In 1961, the Republic of Turkey to protest the apartheid regime in South Africa sent an ambassador to Tanzania in an international conference in Morocco. Therefore, historical relations with all the states from South Africa to Egypt; from Sudan to Nigeria all have remarkable historical memories with Turkey. The former African relations, depending on the historical relationship continues a at larger level.

Even though the newly established Turkish Republic did not hold the economic capacity for a comprehensive footprint in Africa, the first Turkish embassy was opened in 1926 in Sub-Saharan Africa, Addis Ababa, and in Ethiopia. It also implemented health care measures in Madagascar against the plague in 1945. Its geographical distance from Africa gradually decreased in the 1950s and it recognized all newly independent states during the decolonization period. Turkey enhanced its relations with the African continent by opening a consulate in Nigeria in 1956, and Ghana in 1957, and an embassy in Ghana in 1964. It continued to open embassies soon after Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan gained independence. This trend continued with embassies in Nigeria in 1962, in Senegal in 1962, and in Kenya in 1968. Last but not least, the first diplomatic visits between officials of Sub-Saharan African countries and Turkey took place with the visit of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selasiye to Turkey in March 1967, and the visit of the Turkish President Cevdet Sunay to Ethiopia in December 1969.[xviii]

Although Turkey sought to diversify its foreign policy in the mid-1960s and 1970s seeking support from the international community on the back of the Cyprus issue – this expected support was not received. Due to its deteriorating relations with the U.S. in the 1970s, Turkey’s eagerness for enhanced relations with African countries became more visible. Turkey opened an embassy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1974 and sent medical assistance to Zimbabwe, as an early example of foreign assistance of Turkey to Africa, and in 1978 and signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with Sierra Leone in 1979.

History and contemporary context of Turkish-African Relations Turkey’s perception of Africa has historically been divided into the realms of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.[xix] The last decade of this period saw the final demise of the Ottoman Empire, its loss of control in both North and Sub-Saharan Africa and the formation of the Republic of Turkey. The second period, between 1923 and 1960s, witnessed Turkish-African relations plummet, mostly due to overriding domestic problems within each other. Particularly, Turkey supported African countries for their independences in 1960s. From this time to 1998, not much happened between Turkey and African countries excluding some countries in South Africa such as Libya and Egypt.[xx]

In Africa, European colonization precluded relations in the first half of this period, while the daunting task of postcolonial state building left little time for non-superpower allies in the second half. For its part, Turkey was focused on building a new Turkish state and establishing good relations with neighbouring countries. What little engagement Turkey had with Africa was limited to North Africa. Especially during the Cold War, in an effort to align itself with the West, Turkey largely voted in lockstep with the U.S. on Africa matters in the United Nations, and thus had no comprehensive plan of its own towards the continent.[xxi]

Defence and security issues in the continent

 The new Turkish African relationship has a number of militaries, security, and strategic dimensions that have thus far gone largely unconsidered. The spectrum of Turkish African security affairs ranges from instances of equitable partnership with some of the continent’s more powerful states to Turkish protectionism towards the continent’s more tumultuous states to instances of training and collaboration on various topical issues. At the most equitable end of the Turkish-African security spectrum is the Turkish-South African relationship. This is to be expected since Turkey and South Africa are very much similar: they are both powerful leaders of their respective regions that are wealthier than their neighbours and seeking increased power in the international political economy. Their relationship is thus, in many ways, that of equals. Most notably, in September 2012 Turkey and South Africa agreed to sign a defence industry pact called the ‘Defence Industry Cooperation Agreement,’ which would allow for greater cooperation and alignment in security and defence affairs. This agreement falls under the larger umbrella of the recently established Bi-National Commission, which aims to deepen the Turkish-South African relationship. Their security relationship runs deep in the private sector as well. In an attempt to update its helicopter fleet in 2006, Turkey was engaged in a multi-year bid to buy the Rooivalk attack helicopter from the South African defence firm Denel. Though it eventually decided on another model, the infrastructure for the acquisition of South African-made weapons is certainly in place, evidenced by the fact that Denel is up for the acquisition of a Turkish demining contract later in 2012.[xxii]

While Turkey engages some African countries as equals, it offers assistance to others, most notably Somalia and Sudan. Particularly in the case of Somalia, Turkey has recently garnered international attention for its comprehensive development assistance to support peace and reconciliation. After some of the last members of the al-Shebab terrorist group were chased out of Mogadishu in August 2011, Ankara flooded the city with around 500 development and aid workers, and since then has given the country approximately $50 million USD in development assistance. In the same month Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan made history by becoming the first non-African leader to enter the city limits of Mogadishu since the country collapsed after the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, while Turkish Airways subsequently became the first major commercial carrier to fly into Mogadishu since then. In May 2010, Turkey hosted the UN Somali summit in Istanbul, where Turkey promised development aid and military assistance to Somalia, in the form of providing training to Somali soldiers. In February 2012 Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that Turkey was poised to contribute both material and capacity-building resources.[xxiii] Turkey also sees itself as a legitimate mediator in the country, given its Muslim heritage. To that end, Somalia’s interim Prime Minister Abdulweli Mohamed Ali was quoted as saying; “Since the coming of Turkey there has been a paradigm shift…You can create peace and stability by working on the security side, but also on the development side at the same time. That is what Turkey is successful at.” Turkish perspectives on engagement with Africa the Turkish population’s perceptions on the government’s new African engagement vary. While the depth of relations with Africa is not widely known in Turkey, the high-level visits between Turkish and African officials do attract attention. In general, people in Turkey are unsure about the benefits that Africa could offer to Turkey, and while no “anti-Africa” lobby exists, some citizens are curious why Turkey would want to invest so much time in the continent, given that it has never been a high priority for Turkish foreign policy. Some perceive the new engagements on the continent to simply reflect a deepening of relations with Islamic countries, rather than with Africa. In particular, President Gül’s trips to Kenya and Tanzania in 2009 and in 2010 were viewed as a deepening of relations with Islamic countries, more so than an opening to Africa. The EU also frequently sees Turkey’s Africa push as a rebuttal to the country’s rejection and its resultant search for new alternative markets. Turkey’s defiant stance towards the EU is due to frustration over the fact that, after years of negotiations, visits, and periods of slow progress (followed by periods of stagnation), Turkey’s longstanding application to join the organization has gone nowhere. This rejection, coupled with Turkey’s increasingly independent and confident stance in the world, is now leading it to question its desire to join the EU. In this context, Turkey’s hosting of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir three times, despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region, and against the EU’s disapproval, attracted significant attention as an act of Turkish defiance of the organization.[xxiv]

Developing Turkish relations and cooperation with the African Continent constitute one of the basic principles of our multi-dimensional foreign policy. It is expected that Africa will play a more active role in the international system as of the second half of the 21st century and assume an increasingly important role on the global stage. The economic and commercial potential and geopolitical weight of the rapidly developing continent in several areas have started to attract a vast number of countries and investors to Africa in recent years.[xxv]

Turkey shares its own historical experience, social, political and cultural accumulation as well as its opportunities and resources with African countries under the principle of “African solutions for African problems” and on the basis of mutual benefit. Constructed on a historical foundation, Turkey’s Africa policy involves establishing political, humanitarian, economic and cultural relations on bilateral, regional, continental, and global levels.

In recent years, significant progress has been made in our relations with the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries in numerous fields. Turkey’s African Initiative Policy process, which started in 1998, gained momentum when our country became an observing member and strategic partner of the African Union 2005 and 2008 respectively. Since then, rapid progress has been made in several fields such as trade, investment, cultural projects, security and military cooperation, development projects. The African Initiative Policy, which was successfully completed, has been replaced by the Africa Partnership Policy as of 2013.[xxvi]

With our Africa Partnership Policy, which is the product of an integrated understanding that includes the activities of public institutions, private sector, non-governmental organizations and humanitarian aid organizations, we aim to contribute to the peace, stability, economic and social development of the Continent, and develop our bilateral relations on the basis of equal partnership and mutual benefit.

Mutual high-level visits play an important role in maintaining our Africa Partnership Policy. Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of the Republic of Turkey has visited (Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Egypt, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of South Africa, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia) 28 African countries so far, including in his Prime Ministry period.

Turkey attaches importance to opening diplomatic missions in all African countries, in order to enhance its relations with the continent. While the number of our embassies in Africa was only 12 in 2002, it increased to 42 by the end of 2019. African countries have shown their appreciation for Turkey’s attachment to the continent by increasing the number of their embassies in Ankara to 36, which used to be 10 in the beginning of 2008.[xxvii]

Along with our embassies, Turkey’s activities in the continent have become further prevalent with the help of our institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (​​AFAD), Yunus Emre Institute, the Turkish Maarif Foundation, the Turkish Religious Foundation, Anadolu Agency and Turkish Airlines (THY).[xxviii]

One of the most concrete indicators of our strengthening relations is our developing economic ties and rapidly increasing trade figures. Our total trade volume with the African Continent has increased from $5,4 billion in 2003 to $25,3 billion in 2020. Our trade volume with Sub-Saharan African countries, which used to be $1,35 billion in 2003 has reached $10 billion  in 2020. Despite the pandemic conditions of 2020, Turkey has managed to keep the trade volumes stable, which is a considerable success. The volume of projects undertook by Turkish contracting companies rapidly expanded and reached $19,5 billion in Sub-Saharan African countries and $71,1 billion in the African continent. Turkey has established joint Business Councils with 45 African countries and 40 Sub-Saharan African countries.[xxix]

Turkey aims to increase the number of Turkish Airlines flights to Africa and facilitate interaction among businesspeople in order to turn our country into an intersection point for the African people to access to the world and to strengthen the ties between our people. Having reached 60 destinations in 39 countries before the pandemic, Turkish Airlines is gradually increasing its number of flights with the lifting of travel bans. We continue our humanitarian and development aid activities in almost every corner of the continent with the assistance of the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Turkey, the General Directorate of Turkish Red Crescent and Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and our non-governmental organizations. Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) currently operates 22 Program Coordination Offices across Africa. The scholarships provided by our country to African students is strengthening Turkey’s African policy. So far, Turkey has awarded 13.119 African students graduate, post-graduate and doctorate scholarships since 1992. Up until today, 249 diplomats from the African countries have participated in “The International Junior Diplomats Training Program”, which is being organized every year since 1992 by the Diplomacy Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey. Furthermore, our Diplomacy Academy organises training programs on diplomacy, archive and communication in order to develop capacity building and human resources, upon the requests received from the Foreign Ministries of the African countries.[xxx]

Relations with the African Union

Accordingly, $10 million in foreign assistance was allocated for Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan. The new government’s quest for improved relations with Africa aimed to rebuild centuries-old relations with the continent. Turkey soon signed cooperation and TET agreements from 1987-1997 with Nigeria, Chad, Djibouti, Gambia, Zambia, Botswana, Sudan, Senegal, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guinea. Turkey also opened an embassy in Pretoria, South Africa in 1994 and Turkish President Turgut Ozal visited Senegal in 1996. In addition to the bilateral relations of Turkey with the African countries, relations with the African Union are getting stronger. Turkey became an observer member of the AU in 2005 and was declared strategic partner of the Continent at the Summit held in 2008. The relations attained a sustainable mechanism at the First Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in Istanbul, which was held on 18-21 August 2008.[xxxi]

Turkey and Africa have agreed to implement projects simultaneously in various fields along with the five-year schedule program, which was adopted with “The 2015-2019 Joint Implementation Plan” at the Second Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, held on 19-21 November 2014 in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea. In this context, projects developed according to the priorities of the African countries, in the fields of trade and investment, peace and security, education and culture, youth empowerment and technology transfer, rural economy and agriculture, energy and transportation have been implemented.[xxxii]

In addition, Turkey took the decision to carry out “Ministerial Review Conferences” with the AU, during the Summit meetings to be held every five years. The Second Turkey-African Union Ministerial Review Conference was held in Istanbul on 11-12 February 2018. The Conference constituted a good opportunity in addressing all aspects of Turkey-Africa Partnership.

We aim to host the Third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in 2021, under the auspices of H.E. Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of the Republic of Turkey. We believe that the Summit will start a new stage in our relations with the AU and Continental countries.

The AU also aims to develop and enhance its relations and strategic partnership with our country, which is underlined in the 2063 Agenda: “The Africa We Want of the African Union”. Hence, Turkey and the AU attach importance to the AU 2063 Agenda, as well as the 2030 Agenda for “Sustainable Development of the United Nations” as the guiding frameworks to enhance their partnership, based on inclusive growth and sustainable development of the African countries.[xxxiii]


This article gives insight into Turkey’s African engagement while casting a critical analysis on the sustainability of Turkey-Africa relations and draws upon the rising power literature to examine how Turkish foreign policy has been conceptualized and situated theoretically. Moving from an examination of the multilateral dimension of Turkey’s Africa policy with a focus on soft power instruments of public diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, religious activities and airline diplomacy, it illuminates on the economic and military dimensions of Turkey’s policy including trade relations, business practices, security cooperation and peacekeeping discourse. Overall, it shows the way Turkey follows for African opening and how this can be integrated into the country’s wider interest in gaining global power status and its desire to become a strong regional power.

After decades of generally being overlooked in the geopolitical sphere, Africa is increasingly attracting the attention onto new actors on the continent, such as India, Brazil, Iran, and Turkey. Ankara’s initiatives in Africa are a relatively new but important developments that Turkey hopes to elevate its status as a key regional and global power. Indeed, Turkey is trying to create a new image for itself in international affairs in taking advantage of its soft power and diplomatic clout to show how it can be an asset for the 21st century global order. As such, the world is likely to see a more assertive Turkey in African politics and one that is more involved in conflict resolution, particularly in the continent’s Muslim states.


[i] Turner, John P. 2013. Inquisition in early Islam: the competition for political and religious authority in the Abbasid Empire. London: I.B. Tauris

[ii] Teaching Company, and Kanopy (Firm). 2017. The Egyptian Mamluks. San Francisco, California, USA]: Kanopy Streaming, The Great Courses.

[iii] Ibn Khaldūn, and Darwīsh Juwaydī. 2015. Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldūn. Ṣaydā, Bayrūt : al-Maktabah al-ʻAṣrīyah

[iv] Gençoğlu, Halim. 2020. In the Turkish archival sources Turkey – Africa. Ankara: SR Yayınevi.

[v] Özbaran, Salih. 2009. Ottoman expansion toward the Indian Ocean in the 16th century. Şişli, İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi University Press.

[vi] Yavuz, Hulûsi, and Rumûzî. 2003. Yemen’de Osmanlı idâresi ve Rumûzî târihi; (923-1012/1517-1604). Cilt 1 Cilt 1. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi.

[vii] Serjeant, R. B. 1946. Material for a history of Islamic textiles up to the Mongol conquest. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press.

[viii] Evliya Çelebi, Orhan Şaik Gökyay, Zekeriya Kurşun, Seyit Ali Kahraman, Yücel Dağlı, İbrahim Sezgin, and Robert Dankoff. 1996. Seyahatname 1. Kitap 1. Kitap. İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları.

[ix] Effendi, Abubakr, and Mia Brandel-Syrier. n.d. Demonstration of religious practice of Islam as taught and explained. Leiden: Brill.

[x] İslamoğlu-İnan, Huri, and Peter C. Perdue. 2020. Shared histories of modernity: China, India and the Ottoman Empire,    New Delhi : Routledge India.

[xi] Khafipour, Hani. 2019. The empires of the Near East and India: source studies of the Safavid, Ottoman, and Mughal literate communities. New York Columbia University Press.

[xii] Farooqui, Salma Ahmed. 2011. A comprehensive history of medieval India: twelfth to the mid-eighteenth century. India : Pearson India Education Services.

[xiii] Cengiz Orhonlu. 2011. “Osmanlıların Habeşistan Siyaseti 1554-1560”. Turkish Journal of History / Tarih Dergisi. 20 (15): 39-54.

[xiv] Gençoğlu, Halim. 2017. Ottoman traces in Southern Afrika the impact of eminent Turkish emissaries. Libra

[xv] Housley, Norman. 2012. Crusading and the Ottoman threat, 1453-1505. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press

[xvi] Gençoğlu, Halim. 2020. Ottoman cultural heritage in South Africa: Islamic legacy of the Ottoman Empire at the tip of Africa (archival records, photos and documents) = Güney Afrika’da Osmanlı kültürel mirası : Osmanlı imparatorluğu’nun Afrika’nın ucundaki Islam mirası (Arşiv kayıtları, resimler ve belgeler). Ankara : Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları.

[xvii] Gençoğlu, Halim. 2018. Güney Afrika’da zaman ve mekân: Ümit Burnu’nun umudu Osmanlılar. İstanbul, Libra Kitapçılık ve Yayıncılık

[xviii] Kavas, Ahmet. 2017. Geçmişten günümüze Afrika. Cağaloğlu, İstanbul : Kitabevi.

[xix] Turkish analyst Mehmet Özkan notes, however, that, in contrast to North Africa, Turkey has generally viewed Sub-Saharan Africa as a distant geographic land of poverty, hunger, communicable diseases, and civil wars however this is incomprehensive statement. Ottoman Empire never had a negative aspect towards Sab-Saharan Africa. If this was true, the Ottoman Empire would not have sent Turkish scholars to Southern Africa such as Mudarris Abubakr Effendi. See, Gençoğlu, Halim. 2020. Ottoman cultural heritage in South Africa: Islamic legacy of the Ottoman Empire at the tip of Africa (archival records, photos and documents) Güney Afrika’da Osmanlı kültürel mirası : Osmanlı imparatorluğu’nun Afrika’nın ucundaki Islam mirası (Arşiv kayıtları, resimler ve belgeler).

[xx] Law Library of Congress (U.S.). 2020. Regulating electronic means to fight the spread of COVID-19: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, England, European Union, France, Iceland, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Russian Federation, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates. https://purl.fdlp.gov/GPO/gpo140559.

[xxi] Dijkstra, Klaas-Douwe B., Asmus Schröter, and Richard Lewington. 2020. Field guide to the dragonflies of Britain and Europe: including western Turkey and north-western Africa. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife

[xxii] Donelli, Federico. 2021. Turkey in Africa: Turkey’s strategic involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: I.B. Tauris

[xxiii] United States. 1930. Markets for sawmill and woodworking machinery in Turkey, Greece, Egypt and South Africa. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. http://books.google.com/books?id=t-8ArwFQZ3wC.

[xxiv] Tepeciklioğlu, Elem Eyrice, and Ali Onur Tepeciklioğlu. 2021. Turkey in Africa: a new emerging power? New York : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[xxv] Özel, Işik. 2017. State-business alliances and economic development: Turkey, Mexico and North Africa. Abingdon, Oxon : Routledge.

[xxvi] Dijkstra, Klaas-Douwe B., Asmus Schröter, and Richard Lewington. 2020. Field guide to the dragonflies of Britain and Europe: including western Turkey and north-western Africa. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife

[xxvii] Donelli, Federico. 2021. Turkey in Africa: Turkey’s strategic involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: I.B. Tauris.

[xxviii] Cigdem, Aslan, and David Duarte. 2014. How do countries measure, manage, and monitor fiscal risks generated by public-private partnerships? Chile, Peru, South Africa, Turkey. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/record?docid=000158349_20140923115126.

[xxix] Donelli, Federico. 2021. Turkey in Africa: Turkey’s strategic involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. London: I.B. Tauris.

[xxx] Noor Shimaal (Musical group). 2003. Where Africa meets the Orient: [music from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan–]. West Sussex, Great Britain: ARC Music. http://www.aspresolver.com/aspresolver.asp?WOMU;388889.

[xxxi] Cigdem, Aslan, and David Duarte. 2014. How do countries measure, manage, and monitor fiscal risks generated by public-private partnerships?: Chile, Peru, South Africa, Turkey. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/record?docid=000158349_20140923115126.

[xxxii] Berg, Willem van den, and Jos Meester. 2019. Turkey in the Horn of Africa: between the Ankara Consensus and the Gulf Crisis. [The Hague]: Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

[xxxiii] United States International Trade Commission. 2002. Oil country tubular goods from Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela:investigations nos. 701-TA-428 and 731-TA-992-994 and 996-1005 (preliminary). Washington, DC: U.S. International Trade Commission. https://purl.fdlp.gov/GPO/LPS31511.

Halim Gençoğlu

Historian Halim Gençoğlu is the author of four books and several articles in African Studies. He was born in Türkiye in 1981. After his Bachelor's degree in Historical Studies, he completed his second Master’s degree in Religious Studies and Doctoral Studies in Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town. Dr Gençoğlu continues his academic research as a postdoctoral fellow in Afro-Asian Studies and contract staff in African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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June 2024