Algiers, Algeria | AFP | President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Algeria on Monday as he embarked a new tour of Africa in a bid to ramp up Turkey’s growing influence throughout the continent.
The Turkish strongman touched down in Algiers, the first leg of the trip that he described as “historic” and that will see him also visit Mauritania, Senegal and Mali.
“Algeria is one of our most important trading partners in the region… We want to strengthen our military, security and cultural relations,” Erdogan told a news conference in Istanbul before departing.
Accompanied by several ministers and businessmen, he said he would hold talks with Algerian leaders on relations between the two countries, with a focus on energy as well as regional issues.
On his third visit to Algeria since taking office in 2003, all eyes will be on Erdogan’s expected meeting with ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80, who rarely appears in public.
Bouteflika, who has held office since 1999, suffered a mini-stroke in 2013 that affected his speech and mobility.
According to Algerian state media, 796 Turkish companies employ more than 28,000 people in the North African country.
Turkey has injected more than $3 billion mostly in textiles, pharmaceuticals and steel in Algeria, making it one of the largest foreign investors in the country excluding hydrocarbons.
Trade between the two countries reached almost $4 billion in 2017.
The government daily El Moudjahid said Erdogan would inaugurate the “largest textile factory in Africa”, in Relizane, west of Algiers.
In an interview with the Echorouk newspaper, Erdogan said economic relations would be strengthened through agreements that are being negotiated.
He criticised importation barriers put in place by Algeria “which slow down the development of trade between our two countries”.
Erdogan’s trips to Mali and Mauritania will be the first-ever by a Turkish president, with security likely to feature high on the agenda in Mali which is battling with a string of attacks and kidnappings by jihadist groups.
– Seeking influence –
An infrequent visitor to Europe as ties with the West strained, Erdogan has made repeated visits to Africa since becoming president in 2014.
Just two months ago, Erdogan made his first trip to Sudan, where he met President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), before continuing on to Tunisia and Chad.
Last year, he visited Madagascar, Mozambique and Tanzania and has also made trips to Ethiopia, Uganda, and conflict-torn Somalia where Turkey has taken a lead in rebuilding efforts.
Turkey has scented an opportunity to build influence in Africa through delivering aid, setting up transport links and offering its expertise in construction.
Turkey currently has 41 embassies in Africa, up from 12 in 2009, and wants to eventually have top-level representation in all 54 nations on the continent, state media said.
Flag-carrier Turkish Airlines, 49 percent of which is held by a sovereign wealth fund, has also expanded its network to reach 52 destinations in Africa, from Accra to Johannesburg.
Aside from bolstering trade and political ties, a major priority for Erdogan has been to stamp out the influence of a network run by Fethullah Gulen, the preacher exiled in the US whom Ankara blames for a failed coup in 2016.
Gulen, who denies ordering the putsch, has built up an educational network in Africa.
But Erdogan says the continent has served as a centre for “exploitation” by Gulen.