President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Somalia with his family in 2011, when he was the prime minister, and took important steps eight years ago to ensure lasting peace in the region. Following that visit, relations between Turkey and Somalia improved dramatically in every respect.
After the Cold War, Turkey’s new political elites developed close relations with Africa. Somalia drew Turkey’s attention through its business diplomacy, due to such factors as export markets, geopolitical interests, geographic proximity and shared cultural, religious and historical links.
From this perspective, Somalia has gained exclusive status in Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy toward Africa. The main reason is that Turkey is seen as a “human power” in Africa, specifically in Somalia, and the international community has appreciated its activities.
As a matter of fact, the International Crisis Group stated, “Turkey is a foreign actor which is to be imitated, rather than to be feared” due to its humanitarian diplomacy.
This article will look into Turkey’s gains in Somalia from past to present, specifically those arising from President Erdoğan’s 2011 visit.
Relations between Turkey and Somalia date back to the 16th century. At the time, the Ottoman Empire sought to prevent Somalia from becoming a Portuguese colony. In the wake of the 16th century, Somalia was ruled by local elements of the Ottoman Empire, following the empire’s demise, by Western colonial powers. During this period, the Ottoman presence in Berbera, just like the presence of the military training center in Somalia today, was the guarantee of peace in the region.
Contemporary Turkish and Somalian relations began with the opening of embassies in 1979, although Turkey’s embassy was closed in 1992 due to the civil war in Somalia. In the following years, Turkey was not indifferent to Somalia’s internal problems and joined the United Nations Operation in Somalia with an army under the control of Gen. Çevik Bir. During the civil war, some Turkish civil initiatives also provided assistance through their local partners.
During the transitional government in Somalia, official bilateral relations remained limited. Following this period, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the late President Abdullahi Yusuf met on the Jan. 29-30, 2012, at the African Union summit meeting in Addis Ababa. At this meeting, Prime Minister Erdoğan asked the Somali president to send a delegation to Ankara to present Somalia’s needs.
The basis of the current problems in Somalia is that Somaliland unilaterally declared its independence from the Federal Republic of Somalia in 1991. In this context, as a result of conflicts and instabilities, many international organizations, especially the United Nations, provided humanitarian aid to eliminate the suffering experienced in the region. However, this aid did not contribute significantly to peace and stability in Somalia. The Republic of Turkey led the initiative for a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Aug. 17, 2011, which was ostensibly a summit to solve the humanitarian crisis caused by instability and famine in Somalia. Forty member states decided to give Somali $350 million in development aid to address the problems.
However, President Erdoğan’s historic visit in 2011 triggered the visit of delegations from other international actors such as the United Nations, the African Union, Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the request and approval of Somali parties (i.e. Somalia and Somaliland), Turkey hosted conferences on Somalia in Istanbul in 2010 and 2011, attended by representatives of international organizations in order to consider the country’s development and reconstruction needs. As a result of these conferences, Turkey’s role turned from mediation to facilitation.
Bilateral relations increased dramatically after President Erdoğan’s official visit in 2011, although Turkish civil initiatives had been responding to Somali’s needs since the middle of the 1990s. However, post-2011, Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy in Somalia has been better coordinated through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA).
Turkey’s official humanitarian institutions, such as TİKA, the Turkish Red Crescent Kızılay and Diyanet Foundation along with civil initiatives such as the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and Helping Hands, have implemented many development aid projects relating to infrastructure, education, health and related fields. For instance, TİKA financed projects in Mogadishu that included rehabilitating the Digfer Hospital, constructing 33 kilometers of roads and building the Somalian Statehouse.
Turkish civil initiatives have implemented many projects in Somalia since the middle of the 1990s. The number of projects dramatically increased after Erdoğan’s visit in 2011. Turkish nongovernmental organization (NGO) projects range from health to education, among others. For instance, IHH has provided free cataract eye surgery, rehabilitated mosques, drilled water wells, distributed free Qurans and sponsored thousands of orphans. In another instance, Helping Hands provided scholarships for Somali students of health and established a children’s hospital in Somalia. Turkish NGOs provided further aid.
Contribution to economic ties
Although the purpose of development aid is not economic gain, the humanitarian initiatives did affect economic relations in a natural process as a result of the contribution to bilateral relations. From this perspective, when the Turkish and Somali relationship is considered, the data shows clearly that 2011 was the turning point.
Turkey’s humanitarian and development aid to Somalia is quite observable between 2007 and 2017. This aid has intended to improve sectors such as infrastructure, agriculture, education, healthcare, transportation and government institutions.
This data reveals that Turkey’s development aid has contributed to bilateral economic ties between the two states, because Turkey’s exports to Somalia have increased dramatically since 2011, from $4.8 million in 2010 to $39.5 million in 2011, reaching $181.5 million in 2018. This increase reflects the natural result of Turkey’s development aid policy.
The resources off the eastern coast of Africa have not yet been detailed in terms of natural gas and oil exploration. However, many experts consider exploration in this region to be both cost effective and efficient. As a matter of fact, according to the Financial Times, the two major oil companies, Shell and Exon Mobil, have recently agreed with the Somali government to conduct exploration of the Somali coast.
From this perspective, as mentioned above, Turkey has both deep historical ties with Somalia and good relationships developed in recent years. So, Turkey has an “exceptional status” in Somalia, and by exploiting this status, as in the Eastern Mediterranean, it could participate in these exploration activities in Somalia.
The conjuncture brought about by the international system that changed and transformed in the post-Cold War period made it necessary for Turkey to update its foreign policy. In this context, Turkey’s new foreign policy strategy has been improved, with regional ties developed, such as in Africa, as well as the extension of its humanitarian diplomacy.
Turkey attracted the attention of international public opinion through assistance to the country during its humanitarian crisis and through its development aid to the country. In this context, Turkey has won a special place in the hearts and minds of the Somali people.
Today Somalia is divided into five provinces: the Government of Somalia in Mogadishu, Somaliland, Puntland, Somalian territory under Ethiopian occupation and the regions under the control of al-Shabab. From this point of view, Turkey can play a leading role in addressing the Somaliland issue that could also include mediation in relation to Puntland. Turkey has made offers of mediation assistance and development aid to Somalia in recent years. If these mediation efforts are successful, Turkey’s prestige in Africa would inevitably increase.
By KAAN DEVECIOĞLU
*Researcher at the Association of Researchers on Africa (AFAM)