For decades, fostering strong relations with sub-Saharan Africa has been a pillar of France’s foreign policy. Paris has been keen on forging close relations with the countries of this region, arguably making France the most important foreign player south of the Sahara.
France and Turkey Vie for Influence in Sub-Saharan Africa
France maintains a wide range of accords with most sub-Saharan countries in different fields from foreign aid and technical assistance to defense cooperation. This has all helped France to wield considerable power and influence over these countries in the political, economic, social and cultural fields.
This French influence, however, is being challenged by Turkey, an arch rival to Paris. In recent years, Ankara has been seeking to gain a foothold in the former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.
An example of this was last month’s visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Niger, where he signed a host of agreements on economic and defense cooperation. This visit came a few months after the two countries signed an agreement in January of this year to allow Turkey’s General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration (MTA) to conduct exploration and mining operations in Niger.
Although Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries with chronic hunger and malnutrition, the African country is rich in natural resources such as uranium. According to the British Geological Survey, Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium.
Of note, two-thirds of electricity generated by France come from nuclear power. One-third of the uranium used in this power production was mined in Niger by the French company Areva.
Niger is also a next-door neighbor to Libya, where Turkey and France support opposing rivals. While Turkey backs the UN-recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, France, along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, supports eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The Turkish military assistance has helped repel a year-long assault by Haftar on Tripoli and forced him to retreat to the central city of Sirte.
Erdogan’s African Tour
In the same month of January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a three-state African tour that took him to Algeria, Senegal and Gambia – all three were former French colonies.
Ankara sees Algeria as an important gate for its connectivity with the rest of Africa. The country is the largest in Africa, covering an area of 2,381,741 square kilometers, and possesses a sizable amount of natural gas and petroleum deposits, making it the fourth-biggest economy in the region.
Algeria is Turkey’s fourth natural gas supplier after Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan. It also offers attractive investment opportunities for Turkish companies. Turkey is one of the top foreign investors in Algeria, with investments worth $3.5 billion.
“Algeria is one of Turkey’s most important gateways to the Maghreb and Africa,” Erdogan said during his visit to Algeria. The country was an Ottoman vassal state from 1519 to 1830, when the French invaded and colonized the country. The Turkish president also visited Gambia, a former French colony which is home to one of France’s four military bases in Africa. He also visited Senegal, one of the rising economies in West Africa with an annual growth of more than 6% since 2016. Turkey has also gained a strong political and economic clout in Tunisia, a next-door neighbor to Libya and a former French colony, where the Islamist Ennahda party, which is backed by Turkey, maintains a majority in parliament.
The French Response
These Turkish efforts to have a foothold in the former French colonies leave Paris with the possibility of pushing back against Ankara in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Turkish analyst Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES), France maintains a double ring of hard power around Algeria and Libya – an inner ring of operational facilities in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, supported by an outer ring of permanent bases in Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon.
In July, unidentified warplanes carried out an airstrike on Turkish air defense systems at al-Watiya airbase in Libya. Although no side has claimed responsibility for the attack, speculations were rife that the planes took off from one of the French military bases in Africa.
Both Paris and Ankara are also engaged in a bitter standoff in the eastern Mediterranean over oil exploration rights in the area, raising fears that this rivalry could escalate into a military confrontation between the two NATO allies.