International report

African influence at stake in diplomatic row between Paris and Ankara

Issued on:

The war of words between France and Turkey over cartoons portraying Islam's Prophet Muhammad is the latest ugly spat between the two Nato members. But underlying the simmering diplomatic tensions is an increasingly bitter rivalry for influence in Africa.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been feuding bitterly with French President Emmanuel Macron on a number of geopolitical flashpoints.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been feuding bitterly with French President Emmanuel Macron on a number of geopolitical flashpoints. AFP/File

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month accused Western countries of seeking to "relaunch the Crusade".

Erdogan was targeting French President Emmanuel Macron's defense of the publication of cartoons of Islam's prophet Muhammad, which French teacher Samuel Paty used in his class on freedom of expression, only to be brutally murdered by an Islamist extremist.

Erdogan used the cartoon controversy to reaffirm his self-declared role as the global defender of Muslim rights.

"It is an issue of honor for Turkey to stand against the attacks against the Prophet who honored Mecca, Medina, Africa, Asia, Europe, in the whole world, and at all times," said Erdogan.

But the bitter cartoon controversy is being exacerbated by competition for influence in Africa.

"There is a different regional positioning," said analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Edam research institution in Istanbul.

"With France having established a strategic alliance with the United Arab Emirates, ostensibly to fight against the influence of political Islam in the Middle East and Northern Africa. And where Turkey is seen on the contrary as belonging to the other camp, namely of supporting political Islam through its relationship with the different entities and the Muslim Brotherhood"," Ulgen added.

Erdogan is a strong critic of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah, el-Sissi, a key French ally. And, of course, France and Turkey back rival sides in the Libyan civil war.

In recent months, Turkish and French warships have had some near misses off the shores of Libya over French claims that Turkey has been violating a United Nations Libyan arms embargo.

"France is used to ruling the roost in northern Africa, for many years, with no challengers. But right now in north Africa, there are two challengers to France, China, and Turkey", said retired Turkish admiral Cem Gurdeniz.

"Therefore, they are very much disturbed by the presence of Turkey and they are much disturbed by Turkish navy operations off the coast of Libya because they are used to thinking they are the only rooster in the neighborhood," he added.

The Turkish military already has a presence in Libya. But Turkey is now challenging France's powerful influence in many of the predominantly Muslim West African countries which were former French colonies."

"Turkey wants to be a new player, a political player in Africa," claimed Africa expert Emre Caliskan of Oxford University.

"So Turkey wants to engage diplomatically, economically and militarily, and that would be a great threat to France's presence in the region," he added.

This year, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu signed a defense agreement with Niger and a significant mineral; exploration deal. Ankara is also courting Mali. Turkey has opened more than a dozen new embassies across Africa in the last decade.

Caliskan believes Erdogan will likely exploit the latest row over the Mohamed cartoons in his challenge of France's' influence in Africa.

"This will have a positive impact on Turkish presence in sub-Saharan Africa," argues Caliskan.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app

Others episodes