Turkish drone sales loom in the background of Erdoğan’s visit to Africa

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on a four-day tour of Africa on Sunday with his eye on promoting Ankara’s budding commercial presence on the continent. 

Speaking to reporters prior to his flight from Istanbul to Angola, Erdoğan declared that Turkey was on it's way to "becoming Africa's leading trade partner" and declared that it was his desire to see his country "succeed together" with its African trade partners. The president is set to attend a pair of forums hosted by Turkish businessmen, who are pinning their hopes on Erdoğan opening up new investment opportunities by the end of his trip. 

In the background of this visit is the ongoing matter of recent Turkish drone sales to Morocco and Ethiopia. Exports of Turkey’s famed Bayraktar TB-2 strike drone has been a source of pride for the Turkish defence industry as it cashes in on their military successes in Syria, Libya and in the South Caucasus. 

Morocco was reported to have secured the sale of 13 TB-2 drones in April with early deliveries of an unspecified number of platforms in September. According to local media reports, Morocco made these purchases as part of a $70 million deal with Baykar, the drone manufacturer headed by Erdoğan’s son in law. 

On October 14, Reuters reported that Ethiopia was also in the process of acquiring an unspecified number of Turkish drones, but has yet to finalize the sale. Neither Turkish or Ethiopian officials publicly confirmed any deal, but Reuters’ sources say it has yet to be finalised with Addis Ababa. 

For Turkey, the sales would be another notch in its belt of successful drone exports after completing deals with allies like Ukraine, Qatar and Azerbaijan. However, if completed, Turkey risks inflaming regional rivalries in North and East Africa, while adding to concerns that they can be used in conflicts rife with human rights abuses such as Ethiopia’s ongoing war in Tigray province. 

Morocco is believed to be growing into a formidable drone power in North Africa. Rabat already operates US, Chinese and Israeli-made platforms, but they were believed to be unarmed surveillance platforms. Speculation however mounted after a mysterious airstrike in the disputed Western Sahara territory on April 8th that Morocco may be in the possession of armed or weaponised surveillance drones. 

For decades, Morocco has been facing a separatist group from the Polisario Front which seeks independence for the Western Sahara from Rabat. Human rights organisations have documented how Moroccan authorities impose a harsh regime on the territory, suppressing civil liberties in a bid to weaken the rebels. After decades of quiet, Polisario announced in November 2020 that it would be resuming hostilities against the Moroccan security forces.  

Ethiopia too has drawn concern from observers for its military campaign against rebels from the northern province of Tigray. Like Morocco, Ethiopia has relied on airpower to hit rebels in the region, but they have in the past resulted in the loss of dozens of civilian lives. There has been speculation that drones were used to carry out some attacks, but it has not been confirmed. 

Officially, Turkey has called for a diplomatic solution in both conflicts, but the drone sales appear to be part of a bid to restore a degree of regional influence. 

Unlike in other parts of Africa where Turkish interests revolve around commercial gains and soft power, its involvement in the north and east of the continent is part of a geopolitical competition with hard power playing a more important role. 

In a region where it competes for influence against rivals like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia and France, Turkey has been at work looking for potential partners. Erdoğan previously maintained good relations with the former Islamist regimes in Egypt and Sudan, but both were felled in military coups supported by its competitors. 

Since then, Erdoğan has asserted Turkish might through a military intervention in Libya to save his ally, the UN-recognized Government of National Accords (GNA), from collapse and maintaining a military base in Somalia. On the diplomatic front, Ankara has looked to tone down certain rivalries, such as the acrimonious one with Egypt and its Gulf allies with mixed success. 

However, signs are emerging that Turkey’s drone sales can create headaches for some of these overtures by placing itself adjacent to contentious local disputes. 

In the case of Morocco, Turkey has experienced a tense relationship with the kingdom compared to its comparatively stronger relations with Rabat’s rival next door, Algeria. The two have been at odds since achieving independence in the 1960s, owing to disagreements over the Western Sahara and accusations of interference in one another’s affairs. 

Recently, these tensions burst into the open again as Algeria cut diplomatic relations in August. Algiers soon after shut its airspace to Moroccan aircraft and refused to renew a gas supply contract for a pipeline through Morocco to Europe. Algeria justified these by citing Moroccan “provocations” and interference in Algerian internal affairs. 

For Turkey, Algeria is an important partner through its status as Ankara’s fourth largest energy supplier and a diplomatic ally on Libya. While Turkish state-owned outlets played down the impact a drone sale to Morocco would have on ties to Algeria, Turkey’s ambiguous stance on the Western Sahara has been noted in Algiers. As the prospect of more clashes between Algerian-backed Polisario and Morocco looms, any role of Turkish drones in hostilities may create trouble for relations with Algeria. 

It is similarly unclear how a Turkish drone deal with Ethiopia may alter efforts to restore relations with Egypt. Erdoğan previously proposed to mediate the two’s dispute over the construction of a dam by Ethiopia on the Nile River, shortly after a visit by an Ethiopian delegation to Ankara over the summer. This was taking place at a time when diplomatic momentum was progressing slowly towards normalising relations between the Turks and Egyptians.

Egypt has witnessed the crushing impact of Turkey’s Bayraktar drones when they devastated the forces of their proxy in Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and concern over the deal has been visible. At a time when talks with Egypt were moving along, reports about a Turkish drone sale to Ethiopia in July were swatted down as false by the Turkish Embassy in Addis Ababa

However, after it was reported three months later that a deal was possible, Egyptian officials were reported to have been urging the West to freeze any sale. Another source told Reuters that the matter was serious enough to raise with Ankara for clarification in normalisation talks. 


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