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Armed with battle-tested drones, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been deepening defence ties with African countries ahead of a major gathering of the continent’s leaders in Istanbul.
The two-day Turkey-Africa partnership summit starting Friday comes fast on the heels of a top-level business forum in October that focused on investment and trade.
The next phase of this fast-blossoming relationship is security, experts say, with a host of African leaders looking to buy up military hardware at cheaper prices and with fewer strings attached.
Leaders and top ministers from 39 countries — including 13 presidents — have confirmed attendance, with Erdogan set to make a speech on Saturday.
Ankara already has a military base in Somalia, and Morocco and Tunisia reportedly took their first delivery of Turkish combat drones in September.
Angola became the latest to express an interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) during Erdogan’s first visit to the southern African country in October.
Turkey in August also signed a military cooperation pledge with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has been embroiled in a war with Tigrayan rebels for the past year.
“The most important sector is the defence sector because this is a new asset. Turkey has pushed this sector a lot, especially drones,” Federico Donelli, an international relations researcher at the University of Genoa, told AFP.
‘Everyone asks about UAVs’
Russia has been the dominant player on the African arms market, accounting for 49 percent of the continent’s imports between 2015 and 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
But interest in Turkish weaponry is peaking.
The TB2 Bayraktar model is in high demand after it was credited with swinging the fate of conflicts in Libya and Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the past few years.
The drones are made by the private Baykar company, run by one of Erdogan’s sons-in-law.
“Everywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAVs,” Erdogan boasted after a visit to Angola, Nigeria and Togo in October.
Some of the closest scrutiny has focused on Turkey’s ties with Ethiopia, where a brutal conflict has killed thousands, displaced more than two million and driven hundreds of thousands into famine-like conditions, according to UN estimates.
A Western source said Turkey sent an undisclosed number of combat drones in support of Abiy’s campaign earlier this year, but that Ankara has since responded to international pressure and halted the sales. “Ethiopia can buy these drones from whoever they want,” Turkey’s foreign ministry spokesman said in October, neither confirming or denying the sales.
Drone diplomacy? Turkey’s growing presence in Africa
Official Turkish data does not break down the details of military sales to individual countries, only giving the total sales amount for each month.
These have soared spectacularly in the past year.
Turkish defence and aviation exports to Ethiopia rose to $94.6 million between January and November from around $235,000 in the same period last year, according to figures published by the Turkish Exporters Assembly.
Sales to Angola, Chad and Morocco experienced similar jumps.
Turkey’s drones first made international headlines after Ankara signed two deals with the UN-recognised Libyan government covering maritime and security in 2019.
It then swarmed the conflict zone with drones, stalling an advance by rebel eastern forces backed by Turkey’s regional rivals and paving the way for a truce.
Turkey cemented its drones’ reputation last year by helping Azerbaijan recapture most of the land it lost to separatist ethnic Armenian forces in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh nearly three decades ago.
“Now Turkey with drones has more cards to play when they have to bargain with other countries,” researcher Donelli said.
“This is a very good bargaining chip for Turkey.”
The head of Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board — the NGO that hosted the October forum in Istanbul — insisted the growing relationship was not just about weapons.
“We care about the defence sector and our relations with Africa,” the board’s head Nail Olpak told AFP.
“But I would like to emphasise that if we see the defence sector only as weapons, rockets, guns, tanks and rifles, it would be wrong.”
He highlighted Turkish mine-clearing vehicles in Togo, which qualify as defence industry sales.
Donelli agreed, referring to Togo’s plans to improve its army with the support of Turkey through training and armoured vehicles, weapons and other kinds of equipment.
Turkey has reportedly set up a web of 37 military offices across Africa in all, in line with Erdogan’s affirmed goal of tripling the annual trade volume with the continent to $75 billion in the coming years.