Bakary Sambe : "Turkey's ambitions for Africa go far beyond economics". Spécial

In recent years, Turkey's presence in Africa has attracted a great deal of interest from diplomats and international relations specialists alike. It is often analyzed by Western experts in terms of an irruption into a space that some consider to be a private preserve, or sometimes as part of a new competition of models between powers embodying liberal democracy and others that symbolize the return of autocracies. In this interview, Dr. Bakary Sambe, Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute, looks back at the trajectory of Turkey's anchorage in sub-Saharan Africa, from the perspective of the continent itself and the new geopolitical realities taking shape there. This interview is part of the weekly column in partnership with Medi1TV, in which Sana Yassari is interviewed. 

Dr. Bakary Sambe, Recep Tayyib Erdogan has just been re-elected head of Turkey. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about Turkey's presence in Africa. Will Erdogan's re-election strengthen his country's involvement on the continent? Or could we expect a major break?

It's clear that President Erdogan had initiated a genuine policy of intensifying relations with Africa. But an important fact is that Ankara, itself, has dismantled its own instrument of influence as part of the relentless fight against Gülen. In the wake of the 2014 coup attempt, Ankara put pressure on the region's states to get rid of two structures that had acted as relays for Turkish diplomacy in the Sahel, which were making greater inroads among the intelligentsia and major economic players: the Gülen Brotherhood and Atlantique Turquie Sénégal Association (ATSA). While this movement had a great capacity for mobilization and deployment abroad, bringing together within a confederation of different businessmen's associations with over 15,000 members, some followers are regrouping around large-scale projects. Despite its interest in Africa, President Erdogan's stance on the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, and his statements on refugees threatening Turkey's internal security and stability in addition to its "Kurdish problem", leave no doubt as to Turkey's true international concerns. Yes, Turkey is making more of an impact in terms of trade and infrastructure development, benefiting, like China, from the image of a country with no imperial past, primarily geared to conquering new markets at the expense of the former colonial powers. But it's clear that Turkey's ambitions for Africa go far beyond the economy.

For a longer-term analysis, could you explain how Turkey was able to establish itself in Africa to the point where it is now competing with traditional powers that are even beginning to see Turkey as a real competitor in the new partnerships underway on our continent?

Yes, from the early 2000s onwards, a number of Turkish initiatives supported a foreign policy that was just getting off the ground on the continent. Turkey followed in the footsteps of Morocco, which relied on the Moroccan Agency for International Cooperation (AMCI). To support this new policy, Ankara, like its traditional partners and new players in the region, wanted to equip itself with a high-performance exchange tool: TIKA. The Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency opened a regional office in Dakar in 2007. In this context, the diplomat confided that Turkish foreign policy towards Africa "is not only based on economic and commercial objectives, but also integrates a global approach that includes the development of Africa through technical assistance and projects in fields such as disease control, agricultural development, irrigation, energy and education, and a regular flow of humanitarian aid".

But we know that, culturally and geographically, Turkey is too far away from these regions where it seeks a stronger foothold. Is this anchorage then the fruit of a strategy of influence to which today's competitors have paid no attention in recent decades?

Indeed, there are still a number of obstacles in the way of an effective policy of influence. It's true that Ankara is making an economic breakthrough with the construction of infrastructure projects such as Niamey airport in Niger, and is heavily involved in the new city of Diamniadio on the outskirts of Dakar. There's also a revitalization of this policy in the field of religious education, with the establishment of an Islamic complex in the Guinean capital, Conakry, where Turkey was keen to send teachers "under supervision", especially after the failed "coup d'état" of 2014. Ultimately, however, the Sahelian terrain still poses a number of challenges for Ankara, which are far from having been met if it is to assert itself as an imposing player in the great game being played out there. Ankara does not yet have the economic clout of China, with its diplomatic and strategic levers, nor the historical roots within the political elite of its Western partners, let alone the diplomatic agility to build up such image capital as to make up for its disadvantage in relation to Morocco and Saudi Arabia, particularly in the market for symbolic and religious goods. But Turkey's increasingly assertive presence in Africa is a geopolitical reality that will have to be reckoned with from now on.