Turkey in Somalia: Building relations using brotherhood, aid and dialogue

Saturday June 29 2013

Residents of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, cheer the maiden-commercial flight of Turkish Airlines into the country on March 6, 2012. Photo/AFP

The ongoing “Turkish Spring” if prolonged is likely to hamper the currently budding Turkish-Africa relations.

Turkey’s foreign policy is at the centre of these riots. This will force Ankara to recalibrate its diplomacy with adverse effects on its African policy.

Most likely, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government will devise inward-looking policies to address the demands of the growing middle class.

Since its economic recovery in the mid-2000s, Turkey has made systematic efforts to assert itself as a dominant player in Africa. It declared 2005 the Year of Africa. This focus on Africa has seen Turkey increase its presence there to 35 countries by 2013 up from 12 a decade ago.

Turkish intervention in Africa increased largely in the areas of humanitarian assistance, development aid, economic co-operation and mediation of political stalemates across Africa.

Through the strategic use of soft power, Ankara’s charm offensive has appealed to most African states. In response, Ankara hosts over 30 African embassies. Other political actors, primarily members of the European Union, have propped Turkey as a counter to China’s activities on the continent.


Turkey bears a unique advantage in its engagement with Africa. It bridges the West and the East, being a largely “Muslim country in Europe.” This Muslim identity goes down well especially with African Islamic states.

Of particular interest, however, is Turkish intervention in Somalia. While the Horn of Africa country has been rocked by political unrest since 1991, Turkish intervention has recorded great strides in the reconstruction of Somalia.

Policy drivers and dynamics of Turkey’s mediation roles in Somalia go beyond its initial humanitarian foray into the country in 2011, which saved millions of lives from famine. Most recently, Turkey has attempted to broker a union between Somalia and Somaliland — the self declared independent state in northern Somalia.

Re-enacting Ottoman Empire?

Turkey enjoys a history of relations with Somalia dating back to the 16th Century in the era of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans came to Somalia’s rescue at a critical moment when Somalia was facing Ethiopian and Portuguese expansionism — a relationship that was further cemented by trade links between the two countries till the advent of colonialism at the close of the 19th century.

Domination by the British and Italians in Somalia during the colonial period may have severed this relation. But Turkey opened an embassy in Mogadishu in 1979.
Turkish interest in Somalia was, however, renewed by the adoption of the “Opening up to Africa Policy” in 1998.

Yet this policy was not implemented as Turkey faced internal wrangles and a weak economy crippled by unbridled corruption, high inflation and political unrest, which saw it labelled the “sick man of Europe”.

Through a series of stringent austerity measures instituted by the IMF, Turkey’s economy was revived growing at an average of 8.4 per cent between 2002 and 2009 while making remarkable democratic gains by reducing the political involvement of the military.

This not only re-energised Turkey to become a regional powerhouse in the midst of the recession that struck its neighbours but also enabled it to reach out internationally for markets and resources. It also gave it the economic muscle required to assert its place as a leading player in Africa.

In what is seen as the reinvention of Ottomanism, Turkey has amplified its participation in Africa not only by increasing aid but also making calculated geostrategic manoeuvres on the continent.

Moreover, it has already established itself in partnership with regional bodies, including the AU, Igad, EAC, and Ecowas. Turkey’s activities in mediating conflict and disbursing aid to Somalia should therefore not be viewed in isolation but rather in the same light as similar efforts in Darfur and other African states.

Tears of Somalia

In the summer of 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refocused world attention on the worst famine to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years.

Christened as the famine of the century, the deadly famine pushed over 12 million people to the verge of starvation even as the international community turned a blind eye to the catastrophe.

Braving the dust and security concerns, Prime Minister Erdogan mobilised over 200 Turkish politicians, businessmen, celebrities, journalists and representatives from aid organisations to deliver aid to Somalia, becoming the first non-African head of state to visit the country since 1991.

He sensationally declared that “the tears that are now running from Somalia’s golden sands into the Indian Ocean must stop”. His government donated $49 million while he mobilised private donations of another $365 million to save Somalia from hunger.

Later that year, Erdogan dedicated half of his speech in the UN General Assembly to address the plight of Somalia, calling for international intervention. He declared that Turkey was ready to play a leading role and it aimed at doubling its aid to Somalia.

But he also knew that to address the Somalia plight it had to go beyond relief of hunger.

In a piece he published in the Foreign Policy magazine, Erdogan asserted that “it is not realistic to consider Somalia’s plight as caused solely by a severe natural disaster… in addition to the drought, the international community’s decision to leave Somalia to its own fate is also an underlying factor causing this drama.”

The moral imperatives

In the post-Erdogan visit period, Turkey has scaled up its humanitarian intervention in Somalia. The Turkish government has been warmly received in Somalia, grateful for Erdogan’s daring visit and Ankara sending aid workers. This warm reception can be attributed to the high level of trust established with the government and the notion of “brotherhood” among Muslim people.

Besides the Turkish International Co-operation and Development Agency (TIKA), which implements the two countries’ bilateral development agreement and co-ordinates Turkish government activities in Somalia, there are more than 20 Turkish aid agencies operating in Somalia.

In 2012, TIKA, alongside the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), financed various projects including drilling over 400 boreholes across the country, rehabilitating parts of Mogadishu airport and restoring some government buildings while settling thousands of IDPs.

The Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay) has the most visible project in Mogadishu, having the largest IDP camp with over 15,000 IDPs.

The Turkish government also offered over 10,000 tonnes of food aid to the country the same year while providing medical aid to various parts of Somalia. Notably, TIKA in collaboration with the Islamic Countries Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Centre (SESRIC) has built the first education and research hospital in Somalia at Deva.

Through the Association of Private Universities, Turkey organised over 1,200 scholarships for Somali students to study in Turkey with an estimated budget of $70m. The Gülen Movement also has a huge presence in the country, with links to most agencies.

Ankara has now become the largest aid donor to Somalia, after London. Turkey’s aid to Somalia totalled to over $527 million in 2013, from a mere $97 million in 2010, according to UN reports.

Against the tide of falling official development assistance (ODA) in developing countries, Turkish ODA to Africa, largely Somalia, increased by 38 per cent in 2011.

Awakening giant of the North

Turkey’s policy movers are projecting the country’s intervention in Somalia as purely philanthropic. Turkey insists that the government’s first priority has been and remains the revival of the Somali people. However, one cannot overlook Ankara’s desire to gain profits in Somalia.

The Turks are keen to nurture commercial ties with the awakening economic giant of the Horn. It may be some time before Somalia is back on its feet, but it will sure make a significant trading partner. Already, Turkish businessmen are projected to have made over $50 million in 2012.

Turkish investors are not only building modern shopping malls and hotels, they have also highlighted budding opportunities in the textile, communication, money-market and financial services.

Besides having the longest coastline on the Indian Ocean — a major sea route through which more than 20,000 ships ply — Somalia has some resources that make it an attractive partner in the long term.

Energy-starved Turkey — which currently imports nearly 600,000 barrels of oil per day — will be lured to Somalia’s vast oil reserves, estimated at 10 billion barrels in Puntland alone.

Turkish oil companies have already gone live in Somalia. Most recently, the Turkish oil giant Genel Energy PLC purchased a license to explore for oil in an area of Somaliland that could hold one billion barrels of oil reserves and aims to invest over $400 million in drilling five wells over the next three years.

Ankara’s goal is to increase its trade with Somalia to $50 billion by the year 2025. Turkey’s exports grew four-fold between 2003 and 2011 from a paltry $2.1 billion to $10.3 billion at the close of 2011.

Brokering unity

The talks between Presidents Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia and Ahmed Silanyo of Somaliland held on April 15, at the invitation of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoðlu are the latest indicators of the growing role of Turkish diplomacy in Somalia. The talks were aimed at bridging the differences between the separatist Somaliland and Mogadishu.

The meeting under the auspices of Prime Minister Erdogan is also another giant leap for Turkey in its involvement in Somalia. Though no concrete agreement were reached on that day, it was no mean feat to have the two presidents, who previously could not see eye to eye, in one sitting.

At the end of the talks the two leaders, who also met Turkish President Abdullah Gul, arrived at the “Ankara Accord”.

The accord is based on seven points, which among other issues proposed, include building on previous conferences in London and Dubai, meeting of the two presidents after 90 days to resolve outstanding issues and a partnership of the two Horn states in matters of security, especially in regard to the malignant issue of piracy in the Indian Ocean and the war on terror.

Turkey promised to lend support to find a peaceful solution to the problems between Somalia and Somaliland through dialogue.

This underscores Turkey’s ability to play a larger diplomatic role in the mediation process. Turkey has remarkable advantages in mediation including, not only non-Western identity and non-colonial history, but its historical connection to Somalia, its shared Islamic values and its lack of local proxies or other incentives to meddle in the country’s internal politics. 

The talks represent Turkey’s multi-pronged approach to peace in Somalia. Turkey, which attaches importance to the development and reconstruction of Somalia, hosted the first Istanbul Conference on Somalia in May 21-23, 2010.

The second Istanbul conference dubbed “Preparing Somalia’s Future: Goals for 2015,” followed in May 31 and June 1, 2012.

In 2012, Turkey was also reported to have been covertly establishing a line of communication between Al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group with connections to Al Qaeda, and Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

What has become clear is that Turkey’s role in Somalia has expanded from the initial humanitarian role to a wider diplomatic and economic one. While its humanitarian role cannot be understated, Turkey’s political and business roles are also important. Indeed, Turkey has made a place for itself as a leading beneficiary as the prospects of a stabilising Somalia become clearer.

Read: With emerging peace and stability, the scramble for Somalia is on

Its participation in the reconstruction process has elicited cynicism but also seems to arouse positive reaction from the established international actors in the Somali peace process. Turkey has been forming partnerships with other actors and regional bodies operating in the continent.

Turkey has also joined hands with other Western actors, significantly Germany and France. Turkey has also backed France in its military intervention in Mali.

What will be of interest for observers is how Turkey will emerge from its current crisis at home and reassert itself abroad, including in Somalia.

Charles Kagwanja, is a Research Associate with the Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi Email: [email protected]