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[OPINION] Turkey favors Putin and coup plotters in Sahel/West Africa

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Türkmen Terzi

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have developed a friendship over the past two decades that is highly pragmatic.

Consequently, Turkey and Russia maintain close business ties despite the fact that both nations support opposing warring parties in numerous conflict zones, such as Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, Ukraine, Syria and Libya, to name a few.

However, these wide-ranging conflicting security interests did not prevent the two from working together in Syria against the interests of European countries and the United States.

Ankara and Moscow are currently doing their best to avoid stepping on each other’s toes in West Africa and the Sahel, where both are using recent coup attempts to break France’s influence in the region.

Erdoğan has often been critical of the continent’s former colonial rulers, but he recently criticized an African institution for the first time by speaking out against the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) decision on military intervention in Niger.

While thousands of coup plotters protested against France, and many of them waved Russian flags in front of the French Embassy in Niger’s capital of Niamey, some anti-France demonstrators also brandished Turkish flags several times and chanted slogans in favor of Erdoğan.

“I don’t think ECOWAS’ decision to intervene militarily in Niger is right. Military intervention in Niger would mean that instability would spread to many African countries. I hope peace and stability will be achieved in Niger as soon as possible,” Erdoğan told reporters last month.

Turkish Halk TV host Aysenur Arslan mentioned in her program that Turkey and Russia are cooperating in West Africa and supporting military juntas in Mali and Niger.

Arslan said the president promoted the Bayraktar TB2 drones during his foreign trips in July and convinced Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to buy the drones, which are manufactured by Baykar Makina Sanayi ve Ticaret A.Ş., the company of his son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar.

And Bayraktar supports Erdoğan’s foreign policy goals in conflict zones.

Another prominent journalist, Yüksel Aytuğ, who writes a column in the Erdoğan-friendly Daily Sabah newspaper, called the recent coup in Mali a “freedom movement.” Aytuğ wrote that “Mali’s freedom movement succeeded thanks to armed support from Turkey and Russia.” Aytuğ commented that the Bayraktar drones, in particular, terrified the French government and encouraged the Malian military commander to carry out the coup in 2021.

Niger is strategically important to Erdoğan’s goals because the Muslim-majority country borders Libya, where Turkey has maintained a military presence and made large economic investments since Turkish forces supported the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and prevented General Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA) from taking power in Tripoli in 2019.

As with Libya, Turkey’s relations with Niger date back to early Ottoman times. Turkey’s former pro-Western secular rulers neglected Africa for decades, but Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) opened an embassy in Niamey in 2012, among many other diplomatic missions in African capitals.

The Turkish government has recently signed several agreements on economic and especially military cooperation with Niger. Since then, the Turkish military has been training Nigerien soldiers and Niger has acquired six Bayraktar TB2 drones and Hürkuş-B air combat aircraft under the November 2021 arms deal.

Nordic Monitor reported that Erdoğan’s government is strengthening its ties with Mali’s junta rulers through military aid, training, trade and investment programs to curb Western influence in Africa.

The website mentioned that then-Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar hosted his Malian counterpart, Sadio Camara, and his team, who were recently sanctioned by the US Treasury for their ties to Russia’s Wagner Group.

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones were displayed alongside Russian Albatros L9 military aircraft at a military ceremony in Mali in March. The Turkish and Russian ambassadors attended the event, which was presided over by the head of the country’s junta, Colonel Assimi Goïta, and Mali’s air force chief, General Alou Boï Diarra.

The Turkish government has not condemned recent coups in the West African countries of Guinea (September 2021), Burkina Faso (September 2022), Mali (May 2021), Niger (July 2023) and most recently Gabon (August 2023).

Indeed, Erdoğan and his teams have been spreading anti-French propaganda in Turkey and internationally since relations between Turkey and France became strained due to disputes over gas and oil reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s arms supplies to Libya.

Turkey’s foreign ministry condemned France’s anti-terrorist Operation Serval in January 2013, saying that France was extending its influence to its former colonies such as Mali and Niger, with Ankara proposing African-led solutions to tackle terrorist groups in the region.

Turkey’s influence in the Sahel is very limited compared to the US, France and China, but Turkey’s historical and religious ties to the region are strong, and Turkish drone technology is encouraging West Africa’s junta leaders to limit their defense ties to major powers, particularly France.

It is not without some irony that Erdoğan castigated Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah al-Sisi for overthrowing the government of Mohamed Morsi, and Turkey subsequently severed all diplomatic relations with Egypt for 10 years. It is even more ironic that the Turkish government, which has been seeking international solidarity since the controversial coup attempt of July 15, 2016, aimed at toppling the Erdoğan regime, has been supporting or maintaining close ties with the coup plotters in the Sahel countries.

In neighboring Syria, Erdoğan worked with Putin to limit US and Western presence across the border. But since Washington and the EU imposed tough sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Putin has been expanding his trade and defense ties with African states, making him and Erdoğan the new players in West Africa.


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