The Soft Power Role of Turkey in Somalia

Turkey has recently assumed a leading role in the international quest to help Somalia regain political stability and economic normalcy. This stems not only from its genuinely humanitarian concerns but also from its broader strategic interests in Africa.

Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

Turkey has suddenly and vigorously undertaken a series of initiatives to help Somalia out of its dire political and economic crisis. Turkey’s first visible initiative was organising a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on 17 August 2011. The meeting was attended by 40 member states of the OIC and was intended to support Somalia, which was in the grip of a famine. It ended with a pledge to donate $350 million of humanitarian aid to Somalia.    

Two days after this meeting, on 19 August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan visited Mogadishu. Against a backdrop of volatile security, he brought with him his wife, his children, ministers, businessmen and artists. The visit to Mogadishu was the first by a non-African leader in two decades. The primary objective of the visit was symbolic, as Turkey wanted to negate the perception that Mogadishu is irreversibly insecure and a no-go area. The second objective was to draw international attention to the need for more emergency humanitarian assistance to Somalia. 

By defying the apparently serious security risks – Al Shabaab was only expelled from Mogadishu a week before, on 8 August – Erdogan’s visit was unquestionably a morale booster for Somalis. As Somali political analyst Abdihakim Aynte argues, the visit ‘gave unprecedented validity to the Turkish efforts and reinforced the popular theory that Turkey is distinctly – and uniquely – a reliable fellow Muslim nation that can create global awareness about Somalia’s plight’. In September 2011, in his speech during the General Debate of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly, Erdogan also forcefully drew attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia. The speech further enhanced Turkey’s reputation in Somalia as a trustworthy and respectful stakeholder. This fact was not lost on more security-conscious and geopolitically competing regional players used to bullying Somali political actors into submission.

Since Erdogan’s audacious visit, the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu has been reopened and an ambassador, Cemalettin Torun, who has practical experience in humanitarian assistance, was speedily appointed. The challenges awaiting Torun are Herculean as Turkey embarks upon a major reconstruction programme in Somalia. It will rebuild the greatly damaged road from Mogadishu airport to the city centre and plans to build hospitals and rehabilitate existing medical facilities. It also plans to build a waste-disposal facility in Mogadishu and to provide trucks to remove the city’s uncollected garbage. Schools run by Turks have opened up in Mogadishu and hundreds of university scholarships have been provided for Somalis to study in Turkey.

Moreover, the Turkish Red Crescent established an Internally Displaced Persons’ site where food is distributed and shelters are built. It is also digging water wells and plans to support the construction of an urban water system in Mogadishu. Turkish aid workers work and move safely in Mogadishu and no major attacks have directly targeted them. Yet, the terrorist blast in Mogadishu on 4 October 2011, which killed more than 70 Somalis, apparently targeted students queuing up to apply for Turkish scholarships. Turkey provided medical care in the wake of this dreadful attack, which showed that not all sides in Somalia appreciate Turkey’s involvement. 

Lastly, Turkish Airlines has become the first major non-African airline in 21 years to operate regular flights to Mogadishu. The flights are operated twice a week from Istanbul to Mogadishu via Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The stated objective of the flights is to reconnect Somalia to the rest of the world and to make it easier for the large Somali diaspora scattered across the world to go back to Somalia. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ arrived in Mogadishu on 6 March 2012 to launch the first Turkish Airlines flight. Bozdağ’s visit was also intended to assess how best to manage and implement Turkey’s assistance to Somalia.

It can be asked what the real purpose is of these mostly unilateral initiatives, and of Turkey’s dynamism in Somalia. Will Turkey’s aspirations lead to misrepresentations and to unintended consequences in Somalia, including stirring resentment from Al Shabaab? Does Turkey adequately understand the divisions, strains and ploys in Somalia’s polarised politics? Will Turkey’s credibility and popularity in Somalia plummet if the implementation of its reconstruction programme proves sluggish? Is Turkey just a selfless and compassionate Muslim state carrying out an unconditional mission of humanity in another Muslim state that is suffering? Is Turkey only trying to rekindle its historical relations with Somalia that go back to the Ottoman Empire, which had, at the height of its power in the 16th century, occupied parts of Somalia that were then added to its territory?

All these practical questions need to be answered. But onlookers should avoid premature judgments about the nature and durability of Turkey’s motives and calculations on the probability of measurable success in terms of its initiatives on the ground. Only time will tell.   

One undeniable fact is that because of the active role it has assumed in Somalia, Turkey has, at least according to anecdotal evidence, won broad acceptance among the usually hyper-suspicious Somalis. A prominent Somali living and working in Mogadishu, for example, very enthusiastically told the author of this article that ‘Somalis love Turks and what they’re doing’. It is also noteworthy that its diplomatic efforts in Somalia presented Turkey with an important opportunity to illustrate its soft power in Africa. It is certainly an indication of Turkey’s foreign policy ambition to become a major economic and political player in Africa.  

Indeed, Turkey announced in 2003 its new and more assertive foreign policy towards Africa, which was fast-tracked by Erdogan’s 2005 high-profile visits to South Africa and Ethiopia. Since these unprecedented visits, Turkey has secured an observer status at the African Union, which now considers Turkey a strategic partner. In 2008, Turkey organised the Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit. Fifty African states attended the summit, which adequately demonstrated Turkey’s outreach to Africa. In the same year and looking ahead, Tur­key also established new embassies in Africa. The total number of Turkish embassies on the continent will reach 33 by 2012. 

These embassies will all be tasked with identifying opportunities for trade and investment and establishing a long-term Turkish presence on the continent. Just as for other emerging economic powers such as India, Brazil and China, Africa possesses untapped natural resources that are important for Turkish industries. African states could also provide large and fast-growing markets for Turkish products. Moreover, in its global pursuit of diplomatic allies, Turkey’s outreach to Africa has largely paid off. Indeed, in 2009 Turkey depended on Africa’s 54 members of the UN General Assembly to win a seat as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council, which it may seek to win again in 2015.  

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