Turkey in Somalia: Honest friend or trouble maker?
EDITORIAL |Turkey has reportedly been invited to explore off-shore oil in Somalia, becoming the latest major world power eyeing Somalia’s natural resources. Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told state broadcaster NTV that his country will be sending specialists to explore possible oil in Somali waters, targeting some 15 oil blocks off the Somali coast.
Officials in Mogadishu, however, rushed to clarify that the invitation to explore did not amount to a signed deal yet. Petroleum and Minerals Minister Abdirashid Mohamed Ahmed told local media that the invitation was the symbol of existing “brotherly cooperation” but argued any formalization will follow the required procedure.
Yet Turkey’s revelations mean Ankara is following through a strategy that started nearly a decade ago, on a relationship that had fluctuated for centuries.
Said to be old, dating back to the 1500s, the relationship between the two is also defined, at least in history, as on-off. Defined initially by politics, Somalia didn’t have an embassy in Ankara at least until 1979; just three years after Turkey established one in Mogadishu.
That year, it also marked the beginning of Somalia’s re-alignment to the Western values of democracy and capitalism, after Said Barre’s abandonment Soviet communism in the face of the Ogaden War.
Then in 1991, the relationship went off again. Siad Barre was deposed, Somalia fell among warlords and every foreigner in the country started fleeing.
It wasn’t until August 2011 when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Prime Minister of Turkey made a historic visit to Mogadishu. Shaking hands with then-President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in Mogadishu, Erdoğan, now President of Turkey, became the first leader of global power to visit Mogadishu; long seen as a troubled place and one of the worst places to live due to violence.
Three months later, Turkey opened its revamped diplomatic mission in Mogadishu, the largest embassy Turkey ever built on African soil. President Erdoğan’s visit may have provided the best PR boost for a government that was struggling to hold on against al-Shabaab. But his deeper goal was also to expose the humanitarian situation facing Somalia at the time; millions were in danger of starvation and thousands had been fleeing into Kenya’s refugee camps.
That humanitarian aspect has become the defining factor in Turkey’s growing relations with Somalia. Following that visit, agencies like Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, Turkish Red Crescent and Turkish non-governmental organisations have provided the largest aid to Somalia so far.
According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, since then, Turkish humanitarian and technical development assistance to Somalia exceeded $1 billion. They have built hospital and clinics, sent in their medics in to serve, trained Somali doctors and provided emergency medicine.
Turkey has also given scholarships to more than 1200 Somali students and has been rehabilitating some roads within the city to ease movement. President Erdoğan has since visited Somalia twice in 2015 and 2016 when he inaugurated the embassy formally.
Turkey, says one assessment by the International Crisis Group, has benefited from “widespread Somali gratitude for Turkish humanitarian endeavours and the country’s status as a Muslim and democratic state established Turkey as a welcome partner.” And Somalis themselves admit to this.
Somali Federal MP Mohamed Hassan Idriss argued Turkey’s venture which targeted areas most Somalis feel the most pinch has helped show them as true friends.
“People have trust in Turkey because they have been involved in Somalia’s affairs that affect people and are seen as genuine investors,” he said on Thursday.
“And by the way, their investments in this country are tangible. They have built and renovated hospitals in Mogadishu alone. No other country has contributed to such investment.”
Yet the humanitarian focus isn’t the only tool. Much of Turkey’s interest in the Horn of Africa was visible as the ruling Justice and Development Party (Known as Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) in Turkish) rose in supremacy.
Its foreign policy was about transforming Turkey from passive to a leader in regional issues, using trade, diplomacy and humanitarian development; argue two experts Abdulkarim Abdulle and Bulut Gurpinar from the Gebze Technical University in Turkey.
In a paper published in August 2019, they said Turkey has always desired “geostrategic advantage” and has been developing for some time now.
“It can be argued that Turkey’s security interests in Somalia developed even before the 2011 Erdogan visit,” they argued in the paper; Turkey’s Engagement in Somalia: A Security Perspective.
In 2010, Turkey had signed two security cooperation agreements with Somalia, for example. It included the 2010 Military Training Cooperation Agreement, affected in 2012.
With Somalia’s political and security situation, the authors argued that it is almost inevitable for Ankara not to be involved politically, aiming at strengthening ties with leadership in, Mogadishu through things like defence cooperation.
“The fragile political situation of Somalia and the interconnected Western and regional countries` influence on Mogadishu’s politics may hint that Turks can have the same level of influence.”
That may mean that Turkey, just like other powers playing in Somalia may be accused of committing the same sins; trying to get leadership that toes Ankara’s line. So why is Turkey felt differently?
Dr Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisalam, head of South-link Consultants, a think-tank on Horn of Africa affairs in Nairobi thinks the Turks engage politics without appearing to, by using soft power.
“They have done tangible development in a short period. They have gained the hearts and minds of the Somali people. They are longtime strategists though,” he said.
“Most Somalis now think Turkey has a development agenda for Somalia, unlike Western partners who have involved humanitarian aid for the last 30 years but nothing achieved so far,” he added criticizing the usual relief aid sent to Somalis every year.
Besides defence and humanitarian issues, Turkey’s ambition, it appears has been to boost trade as well. The Turkish Foreign Ministry says volumes of trade between the two have risen from $144 million in 2017 to $187.3 in 2018. By October last year, it was $206 million suggesting a continued rise.
The Ministry doesn’t indicate traded goods, but it is evident it favours Turkey whose national carrier Turkish Airlines flies to Mogadishu directly from Istanbul. Turkey says it has invested some $100 million into Somalia, with its firms running the airport and seaport in Mogadishu.
Yet cautious observers think Ankara may be tripped by usual banana skins. For example, many of the Turkish businesses involved in Somalia are said to be political tools, pushing through influence using business.
“It must tread prudently, eschew unilateralism and learn lessons to avoid another failed international intervention,” ICG said in its report.
“Over twenty years, many states and entities have tried to bring relief and secure peace in Somalia, often leaving behind a situation messier than that which they found,” it noting Ankara may have to seek wider support, and acknowledge Somalia’s problems are many.
Already, Turkey’s presence is divisive. For example, firms running the seaport and the airport are said to be connected to the Turkish President himself, indicating political insurance rather than business relations.
In fact, some critics charge, Turkey cannot escape the very charge levelled on other external powers in Somalia. A Hospital called Digfer, built by the European Union changed its name to Erdogan Hospital.
Turkey was accused of converting other technical schools in Mogadishu into private institutions.
Former Planning Minister Abdirahman Abdishakur, now Wadajir Party leader, argued Turkey is contributing to chaos in Somalia. For example, its development is only usually concentrated in Mogadishu, leaving federal states to serve as some form of political collateral damage.
Do they support a federal Somalia? They haven’t supported their own Kurds from getting the autonomy they demand, even though Ankara’s officials argue they want a peaceful Somalia.
“Somalia suffers from both internal divisions and geopolitical rivalries vying for influence,” Abdirshakur wrote on his Twitter page this week.
Dr Mohamed Hagi, a researcher and political analyst said Turkey may have to strengthen its defence cooperation with Somalia, including bringing troops to defend oil fields, if at all it wants to venture in Somalia’s energy sector.
“Erdogan should deploy troops if Turkey decides to explore oil in Somalia during the period of time preceding – It could really be difficult,” he wrote on Twitter.
With Turkey’s training of Somali Special Forces, some observers have said it could become a target by al-Shabaab, comfortable with any strengthening of Somalia’s security agencies.