Can Turkey save Sudan from collapse?

President Erdogan's historic visit at the end of 2017 marks Turkey's growing influence in (and over) Sudan.

Just the Basics

  • Turkish investment in Sudan is increasing as Recep Erdogan seeks to boost Turkish influence in North Africa

  • Erdogan’s support of Sudan acts as a welcome distraction from the country’s economic and social ills

  • The Turkish government is taking its war against its domestic opponents into Africa, targetting organizations linked to Fethullah Gullen

2017 ended in a flurry of activity in Turkey-Sudan relations, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan becoming the first Turkish head of state to visit Sudan in over sixty years. Erdogan’s visit to Sudan was part of a three country North Africa trip, and his second trip to Africa in 2017. Engagement with Sudan in particular, and Africa in general has been a consistent feature of Erdogan’s regime, as Turkey seeks to become a leading player in the continent.

Seeking to distinguish Turkey from other, more fair-weather partners, Erdogan has made a concerted effort to build relationships in Africa in order to broaden Turkish overseas investment and collaboration prospects. Increasingly at odds with the EU, (itself facing uncertainty) and bordered by instability in the Middle East, Turkey is looking to Africa for growth opportunities. That being said, it is important to note that this turn towards Africa is not a new trend, but rather an intensification of Erdogan’s long-standing affinity for the region.

Erdogan's Africa pivot no mere flight of fancy

Since coming to power, Erdogan has visited 24 African countries, and Turkey has increased the number of embassies on the continent from 12 to 39. In 2005, while Erdogan was prime minister, Turkey declared 2005 the ‘Year of Africa’; part of increased efforts by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to jump start Turkey’s ‘Open to Africa’ policy. These efforts had been delayed due to the 1999 earthquake and 2000-2001 economic crisis. Moreover, during his tenure as prime minister, Erdogan oversaw the launch of the inaugural Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in 2008, (which saw the African Union declare Turkey a strategic partner): the second summit occurred in 2014. 

The concrete results of this engagement has been the substantial increase in bilateral economic activity. Alongside Turkish Airways now flying to 55 destinations in 33 African countries, development contracts for Turkish firms have increased from $9.6 billion in 2002 to $46.5 billion in 2012. Similarly, trade has increased from $750 million in 2000 to $23.4 billion in 2013.

It is thus within this context that we turn to Turkey’s engagement with Sudan, notably the up tick in recent deals and meetings by top-level officials at the end of 2017. Erdogan’s historic visit to Sudan became a national event, with Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir touring the country with Erdogan. Both leaders announced the creation of the Sudanese-Turkish Business forum, with Erdogan bringing hundreds of Turkish business leaders along on his trip to Sudan. Turkey has also announced plans to boost ship building efforts and cooking oil distribution at Port Sudan. Overall, both countries aim to boost trade ties from the current $500 million to $10 billion by 2027.

Of particular note, is Sudan’s permission for Turkey to establish a military presence in Sudanese territory, ostensibly to counter piracy and human trafficking. By capitalizing on this offer, Turkey will gain a further foothold in the Red Sea. Ankara already has a military base in Somalia, with any future base in Sudan neatly book-ending Turkish presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Noting increasing interest from both Western and Asian nations for erecting bases in the region, Turkey is losing no time in ensuring its influence is not diminished. This is especially true with regards to the establishment of facilities by China and Japan in Djibouti, as both countries are key competitors for African development contracts.

Erdogan a welcome distraction for Sudan's regime

Turkish-Sudanese relations are drawing increasingly closer, as Erdogan has long been a prominent voice for removing Sudan from America's sanctions list. Calling the sanctions “misguided” and “unjustified,” Erdogan commented on the suffering inflicted by said sanctions on the Sudanese people during his visit. Such an announcement is an effective way for Turkey to raise its profile in the country, curry favour with ordinary citizens and garner credit for the lifting of sanctions. In response, Erdogan received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sudan to much fanfare.

The end of U.S sanctions has given Sudan increased breathing space in which to seek out foreign investment, yet important economic and social problems continue to the plague the country. Erdogan’s visit was a great public relations coup for Bashir, allowing him to associate himself with Erdogan’s popularity among Sudan's people. The visit, and its attendant announcements, also provided a convenient distraction for the government, which flooded the media with even the most minutest details of the visit.

The highlight from Erdogan’s visit was his promise to rebuild the ancient pilgrimage site and port on Swakin Island. One of the oldest seaports in Africa, Swakin was long an embarkation point for pilgrims heading to holy sites in Arabia, as well as a site of religious importance in its own right. For its part, Turkey hopes the restoration will increase tourism and religious package deals. As part of the restoration deal, Sudan is temporarily ceding control of the island to Turkey to allow for the restoration. Sudan’s increasing dependence on Turkey, as well as complaints of neo-colonialism on Ankara’s part are showcased against a telling backdrop: Swakin is home to Ottoman-era ruins from when parts of Sudan were ruled from Istanbul.


Slated for restoration: Ottoman-era ruins dominate Sudan's Swakin Island


Sudan's economy enters 2018 in shambles

This wave of coverage also helped dilute reports on the conditions in the country, notably widespread goods shortages and the fiscal disaster facing the government. Sudan has warned the media not to report on the shortages in the country, although given that the shortages affect everyday necessities one wonders at the futility of such an order. With buses in some cities at a standstill due an acute fuel shortage and bakeries across the country turning away customer due to a lack of flour, any media blackout seems moot, given the direct impact on the lives of ordinary Sudanese.

Moreover, oil rationing has seen fuel limited to less than four litres for cars and fifteen for commercial vehicles. Aside from the impediment said rationing poses to ordinary travel and business as usual, there are worries that the fuel shortage will prevent the country from harvesting and transporting this year’s harvest. This situation provides Turkey with another avenue to increase its influence in Sudan, with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) distributing 300 tons of seeds to locals, thereby preventing 500,000 subsistence farmers from having to migrate. TIKA is also aiding the Sudanese government with refugee influxes from Darfur and South Sudan.

All this comes as Sudan is moving towards a floating exchange rate and liberalizing the US dollar purchase price, in a bid to aid its moribund economy. Yet with inflation above 50% and the lingering effects of decades of sanctions, corruption and mismanagement, Sudan is facing a crisis as it enters 2018. Ibrahim El Sheikh, former president of the Sudanese Congress Party goes further, calling the situation in the country “very grim” and that “all the vital indicators indicate that Sudan is about to collapse.”

“The budget of 2018 is a real disaster,” notes Prof. Hamid Eltigani, head of the department of public policy and administration at the American University of Cairo.

“68 percent of the revenues depend on taxes and 32 percent on borrowing; whether from the banking sector or from [other] countries. Oil and gold revenue will exit the budget altogether [...] the Sudanese government has officially abandoned spending on services, especially education and healthcare.”

Khartoum's failures are Ankara's opportunities

The lack of services provides Turkey with another means to increase its influence in Sudan; with Erdogan announcing his intention to create a Turkish-Sudanese university. Furthermore, Sudan has become an arena in the Erdogan regime's war against the influence of Fethullah Gülen and the so called Gülenist Terror Organisation (FETO). Sudan has already closed down schools previously run by FETO and has aided Turkey in the arrest (at Ankara’s direction) of Turkish nationals suspected of financing the Gülen Movement.


Turkey's (conveniently) omnipresent bogeyman - Fethullah Gullen


These school have since been transferred to the newly created Maarif Foundation, which is tasked with taking over pro-Gülen schools across Africa. This pro-government foundation has in turn capitalized on existing Gülenist education infrastructure in Sudan to set up a network of pro-Erdogan schools, helping to fill the services shortfall in Sudan. Turkish aid and development assistance is also helping Sudan provide a modicum of healthcare services to its people, with the Nyala Turkey-Sudan Training and Research Hospital overseen by TIKA serving some 120,000 patients.

The Bottom Line

Sudan’s institutional failings are providing Turkish organizations and companies with opportunities to take on leading roles in the delivery of economic and social services. Consequently, this is giving Turkey an inside track on Sudanese contracts and development projects, as Turkish organizations increasingly augment the Sudanese state itself. This allows Turkey to outmanoeuvre potential rivals as well as shape development priorities and policies from all levels to benefit Turkish interests in Sudan. The Ottomans may be gone, but with Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan increasingly being described as ‘neo-Ottoman’, their successors may be on the way back.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.