By winning the hearts and minds of the Somali people, Turkey has succeeded where others have failed. Here is why.
This is the third in a three-part series on the challenges and opportunities facing Somalia. You can read the first part here and the second here.
If you want to fly to Mogadishu, it will likely be via Turkish Airlines, the only international carrier flying into Somalia. You will arrive in a spanking new terminal run by Favori LLC, a Turkish company. The roads are freshly tarmacked by TIKA, Turkey’s development agency. The solar-powered street lights — also from TIKA. The Turkish Red Crescent provides everything from refuse collection, road construction, waste water treatment to debris removal. Several thousand Somali students also study in Turkey on government scholarships. In all, Turkey doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition.
So what is Turkey doing in Somalia and why is it so popular with us Somalis? What’s behind the emergence of so many Turkish flags in Mogadishu?
These are some of the questions asked by officials and observers from Western nations, neighbours, and some Arab countries. They are puzzled by the sudden rise of Turkey in Somalia. The problem, however, lies with their arrogance and their determination to keep Somalia in a subservient position. Ask any Somali about Turkey and they will give you a candid answer.
Simply put, Turkey is popular with Somalis because its intentions and approach benefits both peoples. The two nations have historic links but renewed relations began in August 2011, during the height of the Somali famine. Two planes carrying Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, along with a delegation of politicians, business people, charity workers and the media landed in Mogadishu.
It was clear Erdogan and his team were responding to the graphic pictures of malnourished children they saw on their television screens. Millions of Somalis inside the country were suffering from acute hunger, and many more were deeply traumatised. We felt powerless and abandoned by the world.
However, Erdogan’s visit lifted Somali morale and brought much needed global attention to the crises. Turkey came to our rescue during one of our most desperate times. That’s how the Turkish people won the hearts and minds of the Somali people.
I was covering the famine at the time and I met some of those affected by the disaster. The suffering that I witnessed will always remain with me.
What particularly made me angry was hearing from humanitarian agencies that the US had decided to withhold aid and told others to follow suit. Officials in Washington thought if the local population were starved, they would turn against Al Shabab thereby weakening the group.
That cynical strategy of using food aid as a weapon didn’t bring the demise of Al-Shabaab — but it has certainly contributed to the deaths of thousands of poor Somalis.
Ankara decided to look beyond the politics of men in suits; it took a pragmatic approach. Turkish charities immediately arrived in Somalia to distribute food supplies.
At the same time other projects started, such as rebuilding the airport, the port and the largest hospital in the country, as well as the main roads in the capital. Erdogan announced that Turkish Airlines would start flying to Somalia — the first international carrier to do so for more than two decades — enabling the Somali diaspora easy access to the country. Thousands of Somali students were given scholarships. “Traditional donors” usually talk about figures and release well-written statements, while doing very little on the ground. But Turkey’s engagement policy was effective and fruitful.
On the political front, Turkey has been very sensitive in not being seen as another foreign entity keen on exploiting Somalia. One particularly successful strategy has been by working with the central government rather than with clans.
In contrast, the West, neighbouring countries, and some Arab nations bypass the central government and lend direct support to various clans fighting over power and influence. This triggers further division.
The most important issue for the US and the EU is the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ which in reality means bringing more guns into Somalia — a nation already awash with weapons.
The UAE has been making unilateral moves, signing lucrative contracts to run some of Somalia’s major ports. This tiny Arab nation is fast earning a lot of disdain within the country. Somalis rightly disapprove of foreign actors who don’t respect the sovereignty of the nation.
Challenges facing Turkey
Turkey, however, faces enormous challenges in cementing and deepening its nascent relationship with Mogadishu and, more widely, the Somali people. Somalia is without doubt a complicated place riven with internal rivalries. External regional actors continue to exert a negative influence on Somalia, and international actors vie for influence in a strategically important region.
It is difficult for foreigners to fully grasp Somalia’s internal politics because we are a complex society. It’s a country where loyalty to clan or religion is entwined with the motivation to make money or gain power.
Navigating this minefield is bound to test Turkey’s patience and will in Somalia.
Some foreign governments, who are unhappy with Turkey’s involvement in this African nation, are working hard to undermine it.
The most overt method to undermine the relationship is to buy off powerful individuals and clans to turn against Turkey.
So far, it hasn’t worked, and as long as Turkey doesn’t give them an opening, they won’t succeed.
Turkey limiting its presence in Mogadishu could however be seen as support for a particular clan. The anti-Turkey coalition will try to capitalise on this assumption.
One way to counter this is for Ankara to expand its projects beyond the capital city, while building on its successful partnership with the central government. It must avoid being dragged into the Al Shabab conflict. Many Somalis regard the so-called ‘War on Terror’ as a cover for ulterior motives. Turkey must not be seen cooperating with countries that have sown destruction in Somalia.
For now however, the relationship between Ankara and Mogadishu is flourishing. Turkey has committed $400m to Somalia, becoming one of the largest contributors of aid and development in the country. Its presence is not only limited to giving money.
Last year, Turkey opened its largest embassy in Africa, and last month, it inaugurated its largest overseas military training base in Mogadishu.
Turkish companies are running big businesses, hospitals, and schools. Turkish-made products are highly marketable. One of the most profitable destinations for Turkish Airlines is Somalia. Even in the UK, Turkish furniture shops have become popular with Somalis in London — the largest group in Europe.
Turkey stands to reap many long-term benefits from this relationship. We have the longest coast in the continent and there are vast untapped natural resources like oil and minerals.
Somalia is in the Horn of Africa — a strategic location for world trade and a major gateway to Africa.
If Turkey safely navigates through the politics in Somalia, the rest of Africa is likely to come easily. Turkey’s mission in Somalia will be a blueprint for any relationships it has on the rest of the continent.