Derna’s collapsing dams reveal Turkey’s growing presence in Africa
So far, 3,300 people have been reported dead in Derna, but the final toll might top 20,000. At least 43,000 have been displaced. The investigation by Libyan authorities suggests that the tragedy was compounded by the failure of a Turkish company to complete repair work on the collapsed dams. Turkey’s presence in Libya is but a small part of its growing economic and political footprint in Africa.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Human agency, not fate appears to be behind the sudden tsunami-like wave of water, mud and debris that swept over the Libyan coastal city of Derna, after two old, neglected dams broke. The main suspect in this case is Turkey.
A preliminary investigation by Libya’s General Prosecutor's Office point to shortcomings in the upkeep of the dams, whose collapse worsened the impact of Cyclone Daniel.
The death toll currently stands at 3,300 but the United Nations and international agencies estimate that at least 10,000 people are still missing, in all probability swept away by the fury of the waters, bringing the final count to around 20,000.
More than 43,000 have been displaced and remain in urgent need for food, drinking water, medicine, and psychological support.
In Derna, the dams that burst had developed the first cracks back in the 1990s, noted Prosecutor General Al-Seddik al-Sour, who promised “rapid results,” adding that those suspected of corruption or negligence "have already been identified". While he did not name them, some fingers point in the direction of Turkey.
The two dams, Abu Mansour and Derna, were originally built by a Yugoslav company in the 1970s. Two decades later, an Italian consulting firm found cracks that represented significant damage, and called for the construction of a third dam.
In 2007 Gaddafi contracted a Turkish firm, Arsel Construction Company, to do the repair work, which was seemingly completed in November 2012.
However, problems within the company, compounded by Libya’s civil war and the dictator’s fall, resulted in delays.
According to the General Prosecutor's Office, Arsel started work only in October 2010 due to lack of funds and stopped five months later when Libya descended into chaos. In the end, the work was never completed.
Whether because of lack of funding or fighting, the dams had serious structural problems and the Turkish company’s failure to finish its work played a key role in the disaster.
The case well illustrates Turkey’s close relationship and growing presence in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, often clashing with the area’s former colonial powers.
In West Africa, for example, France and Turkey are at odds with each other. In late 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron accused his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of seeking hegemony in a traditionally French preserve.
For the past 20 years, Turkey has in fact tried to extend its influence in Africa. Through the 2008 Africa Opening and the 2013 Africa Partnership Plan, Ankara has pursued economic development for local communities as well as stronger military ties with the continent’s governments.
The Libyan crisis also highlights the role of African countries in Turkey’s multidimensional foreign policy, making it one of most active players in Africa. President Erdogan is the driving force behind this.
In some places, where other powers fled, Turkey became the only foreign country present, like Somalia. Since 2011 the Turks have promoted private investments and built infrastructure in the East African country, as well as provided humanitarian aid, opened consulates and built military training capacity.
Turkish Airlines is also the only airliner offering direct flights to the Somali capital Mogadishu after all other air carriers pulled out.
Turkey has deliberately built up its ties with Libya, Somalia and Africa more generally; while in 2009 it had 12 embassies in the whole continent, it now has 43.
President Erdogan himself has visited 27 African nations, more than all other international heads of state or government and Turkey’s national airliner flies to 39 African countries, second only to Ethiopian Airlines.
Militarily, Turkey has troops stationed in Somalia, Mali, Central Africa, Libya and Djibouti. Defence and military-related affairs are indeed major aspects in the Turkey-Africa relationship with drones, a key component, especially in the past few months with the TB2 Bayraktar UAV combat drone.
For Ankara, Africa is a top priority in terms of economic cooperation and trade, promoted through Turkey-Africa economic and trade fora in cooperation with the African Union.
The first Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum in Istanbul in 2016 drew 42 countries and more than 2,000 business executives. The second one in 2018 focused on investing together for a sustainable future. The third one was held in Istanbul in October 2021.
In 2018, Turkey also set up the Turkey-ECOWAS Economic and Trade Forum
Cooperation in the energy sector has also increased, with increasing flows of oil and gas from African suppliers to Turkey, al-Jazeera reported. Turkey has become the fourth-largest buyer of Algerian gas. About 90 per cent of the trade between Nigeria and Turkey is gas.
In the Sahel, Turkish trade still lags behind that of France and China, but it is growing by leaps and bounds with Ankara aiming to triple it to US$ 75 billion a year.
Religion also plays a role. Turkey has spent considerable funds building and upgrading mosques.
In Mali and Niger, Turkey has also drilled hundreds of water wells and boosted these countries’ electricity capacity. Hopefully, such work will have better results than in Libya and no one will have to go through what the people of Derna experienced.