BACKGROUND: When a military junta removed Niger’s democratically elected president on July 26, 2023, Niger became the fourth country to experience a coup in the West Africa-Sahel region within the past three years. When including the deposing of the transitional governments by military juntas that were established after their initial coups, then the region has witnessed six coups in three years, with each military government showing little sign of relinquishing power in the near future. Preceding Niger, coups took place in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January and September 2022). Occurring solely among francophone West African nations, the assumption of power by military elites in these impoverished yet mineral-rich countries was justified as an effort on their part to end exploitative neo-colonialist relationships with France.
As with the previous coups in the region, the coup in Niger was accompanied by large anti-France demonstrations in the capital, including an assault on the French embassy, with demonstrators waving Russian flags and expressing their solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, jihadist violence across the three-country border region of the Sahel nations of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger has continued unabated. Although the coup leaders promised to crack down on jihadist violence, the al-Qaeda and Islamic State factions operating in the tri-border region have become emboldened by the removal of French troops from Mali and Burkina Faso. Already in the first six months of 2023, the Sahel has witnessed more than 1,800 terror attacks.
The combination of failed European policies, Russian military involvement, and the widespread presence of jihadist elements from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State was the state of affairs in Libya that prompted Turkey’s increasingly deeper military involvement during the previous decade and ultimately resulted in Ankara’s overt military intervention in Libya during the first half of 2020. The success of Turkey’s 2020 military intervention that reversed the Russian-supported assault on Tripoli and Ankara’s subsequent role as a security provider for the Tripoli government served as a nearby proof-of-concept for African leaders that Turkey could capably act as an alternative security provider, enabling them to sidestep the choice of either allowing Western troops on their soil or becoming entangled with Russian private military companies.
Libya is only one piece of the puzzle in Turkey’s multi-vectored approach to Africa, which saw Ankara open 26 embassies in Africa from 2010 to 2016, including an embassy in Libya’s southern neighbor Niger in 2012. Early into Turkey’s Libya intervention, Turkey and Niger signed a January 2020 agreement to allow Turkey to conduct exploration and mining operations. Ankara and Niamey subsequently signed a broader set of agreements on economic and defense cooperation in July 2020, including a military training cooperation agreement. Following a November 2021 arms deal, Niger received six Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 dronesand 12 Hürkuş-B air combat trainers, capable of also performing light-attack and armed reconnaissance combat missions.
Yet, the current level of military cooperation between Turkey and Niger, as well as with Niger’s Sahelian neighbors, does not fully reflect the significance of the region for Ankara. To understand the full impact of events in Niger and its Sahelian neighbors on Turkey’s strategic interests, one needs to look beyond Turkey’s military relations to its wider commercial investments across West Africa. Turkey has been actively engaged in developing an integrated economic architecture of manufacturing and distribution across francophone Africa stretching from the central Maghreb to coastal West Africa. It is Ankara’s initial success at creating an alternative nexus of inter-regional commercial connectivity that has engendered a fierce systemic competitionwith France.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s central Maghreb-to-coastal West Africa commercial architecture spans two maritime anchor points that each border the Sahel. Algeria, which borders Mali and Niger to the north, is the Afro-Mediterranean connectivity node while Senegal, which borders Mali (and by extension, Niger) to the west is the Afro-Atlantic node. It was no coincidence that one month into Turkey's game-changing Libya intervention Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Algeria and Senegal (along with Gambia) on January 26, 2020. Erdoğan was explicit about Ankara’s ambitions for African commercial connectivity. Declaring Algeria as "one of our strategic partners in North Africa," Erdoğan explained, "Algeria is one of Turkey’s most important gateways to the Maghreb and Africa.” Niger is one of the most strategically important countries for Turkey in this regard as it provides critical connectivity between Algeria and Nigeria via Niger's segment of the Trans-Saharan Highway (Route 2 in the Trans-African Highway system) connecting Algiers on the Mediterranean to Lagos in the Gulf of Guinea.
Turkey’s economic role in Algeria is of vital importance, crucially expanding Algerian industrial productivity beyond the narrow confines of the hydrocarbons sector. Turkey is the largest foreign employer in Algeria and among its top investors. A centerpiece in Turkey's Africa strategy since the 2006 Turkey-Algeria "Friendship and Cooperation Agreement," Algeria boasts the world’s third largest presence of Turkish companies. The Turkish manufacturing base in Algeria has primarily developed around the textile and steel industries. Turkey's textile giant Taypa Tekstil operates Africa’s largest textile production plant in Algeria. The $1.5 billion textile manufacturing mega-complex of its Algerian subsidiary TAYAL SPA employs up to 10,000 Algerians with an annual production capacity of 60 million meters of woven fabric and 30 million garment pieces. Tosyalı, one of Turkey’s top steel manufacturers operates a $2.4 billion iron and steel manufacturing complex, employing 6,000 Algerians.
Beyond francophone North Africa, Turkey's economic outreach to the members of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – has focused primarily on the region's eight francophone members. Long-simmering discontent with France among the francophone members of ECOWAS, combined with their growing dissatisfaction with the poor quality of China’s goods and services, has created a need for an alternative partner that Turkey has excelled at satisfying. Turkey’s business relationships in francophone Africa have been bolstered by its ‘nation-branding’, in which Turkey builds on a shared historical, cultural and religious traditions (often framed as a shared heritage in antipathy to France) to carry out humanitarian aid, education and religious affairs initiatives that bolster its prestige and popularity among the wider African populace.
In particular, Turkey has targeted Senegal whose Dakar port is the Atlantic terminal for both Trans-African Highway Routes 7 and 5 that traverse the major urban centers of West Africa's coastal states and the five Sahel nations. This transportation network will help Turkey obtain first-mover advantage in selling goods and services to the underserved commercial and consumer markets in West Africa’s burgeoning cities, whose rapid growth has been fueled by accelerating urbanization and high birth rates. As in Algeria, Tosyalı built a $2 billion iron and steel manufacturing complex in Senegal. The two plants can cheaply supply Turkish housing and commercial construction projects across West Africa. In speaking about the Senegalese plant, Tosyalı’s chairman Fuat Tosyalı emphasized the strategic connectivity of his company's investment in Senegal, which he described as ‘the gateway to West Africa’. To supply iron ore to its Senegalese plant, which has annual production capacity of 750,000 tons, Tosyalı turned further down Africa’s Atlantic coast to Angola, acquiring and reviving its abandoned Cassinga iron ore mine. Turkish mining operations for iron ore and other minerals required for industrial manufacturing form an increasing strategic priority for Turkey across West Africa. Consequently, mining agreements have formed a key component within Turkey's multi-layered outreach to Niger as well as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.
Turkey’s effort to create a dominant position in West African consumer markets through local production and distribution is best illustrated by its effort to develop a furniture manufacturing base in Senegal. Turkish top furniture maker Doğanlar has created a $50 million bed and upholstered furniture manufacturing facility in Senegal. Employing 1,000 Senegalese, the plant seeks to serve the newly expanding market for beds and pull-out sofas in the urban centers of Senegal and the other ECOWAS countries. The Doğanlar's Senegal facility can benefit from Turkish iron manufacturing in Senegal and iron and textile manufacturing in Algeria to supply its needs for fabric as well as coil and other metal inputs. The Algeria-Senegal-Angola supply chain illustrates Turkey’s evolving commercial architecture of integrated economic activity across that underpins its military industrial complex in Africa.
CONCLUSIONS: Prior to the termination of Operation Barkhane in November 2022, the French-led anti-insurgency campaign against jihadist militants which lasted for eight years, France maintained a double ring of hard power around Libya and Algeria in Sub-Saharan Africa – a Sahelian inner ring of operational facilities in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, supported by an outer ring of permanent bases in Senegal, Cote D'Ivoire, and Gabon. The succession of coups in the Sahel has seen France’s military presence in the center of the inner ring evaporate. After the withdrawal of French forces from Mali and Burkina Faso, the continued service of the 1,500 French troops stationed in Niger hangs in doubt. While Ankara will tread cautiously, Turkey does have an interest in engaging in defense cooperation with the military governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to curtail the expansion of Russia’s influence and the operations of al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants. Ankara can little afford that either expands its power in neighboring Libya.
Turkey’s ability to act is mainly constrained by the limits of its own capacity and resources, which are torn between the opportunities left by a retreating France in Africa and the opportunities that Russia’s weakening has created in the Caucasus and Central Asia. As an expedient, Turkey may increasingly turn to the use of defense cooperation with African nations as leverage to deepen its economic relations. As this will help contain Russian and Chinese influence West Africa and Sahel, it would behoove Washington to engage in a strategic dialogue with Ankara about their common interests in Africa.
Prof. Michaël Tanchum teaches international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Navarra, Spain and a non-resident fellow in the Economics and Energy Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He is also a Senior Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES) and an affiliated scholar of the Centre for Strategic Policy Implementation at Başkent Universty in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). Prof. Tanchum would like to thank Lorenz Brandstätterfor his research assistance. @michaeltanchum
Trans-African Highway System – Routes 5 and 7, Source: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dakar-Lagos_Highway_Map_2019.png