Ankara’s assertive intervention in the deadly famine and its ambitious decade-long engagement in Somalia's state-building process has significantly increased its influence across East Africa.
Turkey and Somalia have marked a decade in their ever-growing ties that began with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s breakthrough visit to the war-torn country ten years ago this month.
To mark the milestone, Ankara and Mogadishu announced they will annually celebrate “Somali-Turkey” day on August 19, the day the Turkish planes, defying warnings of attacks, landed in the country.
The year 2011 was extremely tough for Somalia. Whilst suffering at the hands of two decades of civil war with clan-based warlords, rival politicians and Al Shabab militant group fighting for control, a devastating famine hit its shores hard. Above all, innocent civilians paid the ultimate price for lawlessness and lack of urgent action for humanitarian assistance.
Even at the height of the famine, the pictures of starving children did not convince Western actors to help take action. They withheld the aid, claiming it could fall into the hands of militants and left nearly a quarter-million people -half of them children- to die.
Embroiled in a deadly mix of lawlessness, civil war and famine, Somalia was considered a no-go zone by much of the world.
That's when Turkey stepped in. In a landmark visit, Erdogan along with his ministers, state officials and planes of humanitarian aid landed in Mogadishu in August 2011, the first non-African leader to do so in almost two decades.
"The tragedy going on here is a test for civilisation”, Erdogan said after visiting overcrowded refugee camps and crumbling hospitals in Mogadishu.
The visit prompted the biggest humanitarian campaign in Turkish history. Within two months, the public donations and state funds combined reached $300 million. Ankara also organised an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and convinced the member states to gather $350 million for a famine relief package.
While hundreds of Turkish aid workers, doctors and state officials flocked in to establish field hospitals, shelters and delivered medical and food aid to the displaced people, Turkish Airlines became the first international airline to launch direct flights to Somalia in over two decades.
Turkish ambassador to Somalia Mehmet Yilmaz said the intervention drew global attention to the situation in Somalia.
“Only after the Turkish intervention, most of the international organisations and diplomatic missions began to operate in Somalia,” Yilmaz told TRT World.
Turkey’s humanitarian assistance continued even after the United Nations declared the end of famine in 2012. In the same year, Somalia was the second-largest recipient of emergency aid and the fifth-largest recipient of overall aid from Turkey.
The Turkish allyship has challenged “the conspirational worldview that the African country is a no-go zone characterised by violent terrorism, anarchy and destitute”, Abdinor Dahir, a political analyst at the University of Oxford told TRT World.
As Ankara’s help “resuscitated Somalia from near death”, it also helped the re-establishment of the authority in the war-torn country. The first formal parliament in more than 20 years was sworn in and MPs elected a new president in the first presidential election held in Somalia since 1967.
From emergency aid to the state-building process
Once the impact of devastating famine was averted, Ankara knew emergency aid alone couldn’t bring sustainable development and stability. Hence, Turkey diversified its engagement, undertaking a wide range of initiatives ranging from humanitarian projects, development aid and post-conflict state-building in the war-torn country.
Recurring crises cannot be solved by only emergency aid, Mehmet Yilmaz, the Turkish ambassador to Somalia explains.
“State-building and sustainable development are the long term solutions to prevent crises from reoccurring. And the establishment and maintaining of state authority are only possible with a strong security apparatus. Hence, we prioritised these concepts,” Yilmaz told TRT World.
Since then, while Turkish state and non-state actors have been on the ground distributing aid, Turkey has transformed the capital by launching major infrastructure projects, including roads, schools, hospitals and state institutions and the parliament.
As Somalia became a high priority in Turkey's foreign policy, Ankara built the largest Turkish embassy in the Somali capital. Turkish companies reconstructed the Mogadishu seaport, the airport and secured contracts for the management and maintenance of the country’s two largest sources of revenues.
“The one thing that Ankara has done right is evolving its humanitarian diplomacy to a more bilateral engagement with a multidimensional impact. This approach implies the need to build the capacity of the Somali state to deliver service provisions in the health, education and security sectors,” Dr Mohammed Ibrahim Shire, a senior lecturer in Security and Risk at the University of Portsmouth told TRT World.
And the public visibility of Turkish assistance, Dr Shire says, has made a big difference for many Somali citizens who haven’t received state provisions since the collapse of the government in 1991.
Transforming the Somali military
As the fight continues, Turkey has pledged to improve the capacity of the underequipped and undertrained Somali National Army that has struggled for so long to combat Al Shabab militants due to chronic problems such as corruption and deficiencies.
Ankara currently trains thousands of special military and police forces in Camp TurkSom, Turkey’s largest overseas military base that opened its doors in Mogadishu in 2017.
Somalia's special forces called Gorgor (The Eagles) Commando Brigade receive the initial training at TurkSom and they are then enrolled in commando training programs in southwestern Turkish city, Isparta. Through the program, Ankara aims to train one-third of Somalia’s national army.
The Turkish-trained Gorgor troops seem to have proved their effectiveness with capturing a town of Janaale last year, which used to be a stronghold for the Al Shabab operations, Dr Ibrahim Shire said.
“Turkey’s role in rebuilding Somalia’s security institutions is not merely couched in the short-term goal of waging counterinsurgent operations against Al Shabab but rooted in the need for Somalia to achieve self-sufficiency in security matters to reduce the presence of the foreign troops on its soil”, he said.
Turkey also pumps direct cash packages into the Somali economy. Last November, Turkey granted nearly $3.4 million for Somalia’s debt to the International Monetary Fund. Ankara this month announced a $30 million direct donation to Somalia which will be paid in monthly instalments of $2.5 million.
The relations have become closer over the years so much so that Somalia's Turkish-educated Justice Minister Abdulkadir Muhammad Nur joked that "it wouldn't be a lie to say that Turkish has become the second language of Somalia."
A decade on, who has gained what
Erdogan’s historic visit to Somalia was highly symbolic for Turkey, too. It came at a time when Ankara presented itself as an assertive and emerging power to claim a sphere of influence in the region. Erdogan, during the visit, criticised Western nations for failing Somalia and led a nationwide campaign to support ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’ during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
As Turkish aid has flown into Somalia with Islamic solidarity messages, the African country has over the years become a cornerstone of what's been dubbed the “Turkish model” that combines democratic governance and Islamic values with ambitious development plans and a rhetoric urging caution against Western interventions.
The engagement in Somalia has also profoundly impacted Turkey’s rising profile in the African continent.
“Somalia has become Turkey’s gateway to Sub-Saharan Africa, creating new opportunities for Ankara’s foreign policy in the region, and enhancing its status as a global actor”, Dahir said.
In terms of trade, Turkish exports to Somalia reached above $200 million last year as Turkish companies invested $100 million in the country.
For Somalia, Turkish aid helped avert famine but also significantly contributed to the post-conflict state-building process.
Turkey, unlike Western actors, does not attach conditions to its development programmes in Somalia. That aspect, Dahir said, coupled with the horizontal nature of donor-recipient ties and the inclusivity of the projects make the Turkish influence in Somalia effective, impactful and reliable.
Turkey’s rising influence in Somalia is part of the delicate and balanced policy Ankara follows in East Africa. Turkey has improved its ties particularly with regional powers Ethiopia and Kenya who both have interests in Somalia and have been involved in the fight against Al Shabab. Even at the height of regional disputes, Ankara manages to tiptoe in the region. Recently, while Mogadishu and Nairobi locked horns over an ongoing maritime dispute, Kenya ordered 118 armed combat vehicles called ‘Hizir’ from the Turkish manufacturer Katmerciler. In Ethiopia, Ankara prioritises economic cooperation as it is the second-largest foreign investor in the country after China with around 200 Turkish companies.
Turkey’s support for the Somali government expectedly angered Al Shabab as the group launched attacks on Turkish engineers, workers, the Turkish embassy and the army base over the years. Hence, the group remains to be the biggest threat to Turkish entities in the country.
“Another challenge has been the fragility of the Somali state and the resulting political instability… but so far Ankara has remained neutral in the often messy domestic Somali politics”, Dahir said.
However, the deep polarisation in Somali politics could hamper Turkey’s neutral stance. Earlier this year, when the country plunged into a political crisis over the extension of the presidential term, the opposition members targeted Ankara, claiming Turkish-trained forces were used to suppress protests. Turkish Foreign Minister in response, reminding that the forces are under the responsibility of the Somalian government, said that Ankara has been drawn into internal political rifts but it will continue to support the integrity of Somalia.
However, Turkey’s internal challenges may hamper Ankara’s ambitious rise in East Africa which has been underpinned by impressive economic growth. The analysts say the instability in its neighbouring country Syria, ongoing economic downturn and currency crisis might limit the scope of Turkish foreign policy in the region.