Kenya: Forging a Symbiotic Relationship with Turkey

Over the past 20 years, Turkey has substantially expanded its economic and defense relationship with Kenya as part of a broader effort to build its presence on the continent. However, despite these positive developments, there are tensions between Kenya and Turkey surrounding the current situation in Somalia. Although Kenya has some space to pursue its agenda in Somalia without fear of significant Turkish backlash due to its position as a logistical gateway to the region essential to Turkish economic ambitions, Kenya should seek to foster a mutually cooperative relationship with Turkey. Such a positive relationship would allow Kenya to diversify its economic and development partners as well as accessing an alternate source of advanced military equipment. For Turkey, such a relationship would provide a launching point for its economic ambitions in East Africa and access to new markets for its goods. It would also further Turkish efforts to increase its international standing.

Economic Ties

The volume of bilateral trade between Kenya and Turkey in 2019 was USD 225 million. Of that, Turkish exports accounted for USD 208 million and Kenyan exports for only USD 17 million. Turkish exports consist primarily of refined petroleum products, technology, iron and steel, and some agricultural products. Tea, tobacco, vegetable seeds, produce, and raw materials used in the leather industry comprise the majority of Kenya’s exports to Turkey. Trade volume between the two countries since 2005 (when it was USD 52 million) has more than quadrupled. Turkish construction firms have completed eleven projects in Kenya with a combined value of USD 377 million.

Turkey’s economic activity in Kenya remains limited compared to other major actors. China, the EU, India, and the US all have much stronger economic ties with Kenya. Turkey plans to continue increasing its exports to Kenya in the coming years, with a particular emphasis on machinery, automotive, electronics, chemicals, and some food products. Turkey is also seeking to become more involved in Kenya’s defense, mining, and energy industries. Increasing Turkish imports provides an opportunity for Kenyans to have access to a wider variety and an increased supply of particular goods (refined petroleum products, automobiles, electronics). Turkey argues its investment and increased trade helps Kenya further its progress in the country’s Big Four Agenda priority areas (food security, universal health coverage, affordable housing, and an improved manufacturing capacity). While there is some demand for Turkish goods in Kenya, the Turkish market is already saturated with goods equivalent to typical Kenyan exports. This makes it much more difficult for Kenyan exporters to turn a profit in comparison to their Turkish counterparts.

Defense Ties

Turkey’s defense industry has expanded throughout the Horn of Africa. On January 27, 2021, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) announced it would order 118 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) from Katmerciler, a Turkish armored vehicle manufacturer. Katmerciler beat out firms from South Africa and the US, which are both major MRAP manufacturers, to get the USD 73 million contract. The vehicles, HIZIR MRAPs, will be primarily deployed in counterterrorism operations. The MRAPs were certified by NATO. However, a whistleblower reported substantial safety concerns surrounding the MRAPs, saying that they were selected based on a “doctored report.” Turkey also trains dozens of Kenyan police officers to support Kenya’s counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts.

Conflicting Interests in Somalia

Turkey has a heavy footprint in Somalia. The country is home to Turkey’s largest overseas military base and embassy in the world. The military base holds over 200 Turkish military personnel and can train up to 1,500 soldiers at a time. Turkey hopes to bolster its economic clout by promoting trade with Somalia. It has also been motivated by humanitarian concerns (Turkey’s humanitarian intervention during the 2011 famine in Somalia earned it significant goodwill among Somalis). Turkish involvement in Somalia is also linked to competition with the Arab states that have interests throughout the Horn of Africa.

Although both Kenya and Turkey have invested in stability in Somalia, they disagree on their support for the country’s current administration under President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo). Relations between Somalia and Kenya are at a low point. According to an article from The Africa Report, relations have deteriorated due to meetings between Somaliland’s and Kenya’s presidents, the blocking of Kenyan khat imports to Somalia, alleged Kenyan interference in the Jubaland Federal Member State’s election, and nationalist posturing by Somalia’s president. However, a fact-finding mission led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) found no evidence to back Somalia’s allegations against Kenya. Somalia hotly disputes the findings. In contrast to Kenya, Turkey firmly supports Farmajo’s administration and enjoys cordial relations. A pro-Turkish newspaper accused Kenya of “outlandish and undiplomatic behavior” and of using “bullying tactics” regarding its dealings with Somalia.

A Path Forward for Kenya’s Relationship with Turkey

At present, Turkey’s economic relationship with Somalia is more important than with Kenya.  Despite Kenya having a much larger, more sophisticated economy, Turkey exported nearly USD 36 million more in 2019 to Somalia. Somalia is also, as stated earlier, home to Turkey’s largest overseas military base and embassy. However, Kenya’s strategic position as the gateway to East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes makes it critical to Turkey’s economic ambitions on the continent moving forward. As a result, Kenya has space to pursue its national interests in Somalia (even those contrary to Turkish ones) without a fear of a substantive backlash. However, despite this advantageous geopolitical dynamic, Kenya’s objective should be to foster a cooperative relationship with Turkey that does not allow the countries’ conflicting interests in Somalia to dominate the narrative.

Turkey’s interest in a positive relationship with Kenya is not a selfless act and should not be viewed as such. Closer relations with Kenya would provide it with access to a large market for its goods (including military hardware) as well as a launching point for the expansion of its economic ties with other countries in the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa. An expanded presence in the region would serve as a boon to Turkey’s efforts to increase its prestige on the international stage. However, none of these benefits for Turkey necessarily have a negative impact on Kenyan interests.

This being the case, it is equally in Kenya’s best interest to pursue a mutually cooperative relationship with Turkey. Doing so will offer Kenya several potential advantages. First and foremost, improved Kenya-Turkey ties will allow Kenya to diversify its economic and development partners. This would make more products available to Kenyans, potentially lowering the prices of similar goods imported from elsewhere. Also, economic ties with Turkey will not carry the same ‘baggage’ among Western partners as do the ever-expanding economic ties with China. At the same time, Turkish development assistance comes with fewer strings attached than aid from the West. Second, a stronger partnership with Turkey will provide Kenya with an alternative importer of more advanced weapon systems that Kenya may need for her security. This would allow for a more competitive procurement process that would benefit the Ministry of Defense and the Kenyan taxpayer.

Joseph Hartung is a Researcher at the HORN Institute.

Photo: H.E. Lt Gen Johnson Mogoa Ondieki, CBS, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kenya to Turkey delivering a keynote speech during the Kenya-Turkey Business Forum in Ankara in 2019 (Photo Credit: Government of Kenya)

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