'The tears that are now running from Somalia's golden sands into the Indian Ocean must stop' declared Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2011, following a highly charged visit to Mogadishu at the height of the 2011 Somali Famine. The Turkish Prime Minister had arrived to a rock star's welcome in the Somali capital – at every stop his motorcade was greeted by crowds shouting 'Soo dhawoow Turkey' (Welcome Turkey). Turkish flags adorned the city, and mothers promised to name their sons 'Tayyip' and their daughters 'Istanbul'.
Erdogan was the first non-African premier to visit Somalia in twenty years. His visit came just days after the Islamic militia al-Shabaab had been driven out of the capital by African Union forces. He had arrived with a large delegation that included his wife, daughters, cabinet ministers and pop stars. His wife, Emine Erdogan, was photographed holding children with bloated bellies in refugee camps outside the capital. However sincere its motivations, the verbal and visual rhetorics of Erdogan's visit were minutely and expertly choreographed.
These images resonated both internationally and at home. A mere few weeks later Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the leader of the Turkish opposition, underlined the success of Erdogan's political and diplomatic coup in Somalia by making a visit of his own to the country.
In an article in Foreign Policy of October 2011, Erdogan said that the international community's failure to act in Somalia was a moral failure, and a result of the 'colonial logic' that had long defined western interactions with Somalia, and with Africa as a whole. His trip was both a repudiation of that logic and a defiant articulation of Turkey's emergent moral foreign policy: Erdogan framed his intervention as a 'litmus test' for our 'modern values', and spoke of 'obligations' between nation-states and peoples.
According to Mary Harper, the author of Getting Somalia Wrong? and Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, Erdogan's visit 'came from the heart… it was human, emotional'. The Economist declared his trip to be a 'statement of common humanity', 'courageous' and 'beyond cynicism'. Although acknowledging the trip was choreographed and designed in part to 'boost his standing back home', the paper concluded, like so many in and outside Somalia, that Erdogan's intervention was 'statesmanship' at its best.
Erdogan's elegantly orchestrated trip to Somalia was the crowning achievement of a broader Turkish overture towards the country that has seen Turkey's private sector raise $360 million in aid to Somalia in 2011, matched by $49 million from the Turkish government. In 2012, 1,200 Somali students received full scholarships to study in Turkey, worth an estimated $70 million.
The East Africa Famine – the worst to hit the region in some 25 years – played a strong role in sparking Turkish engagement with Somalia. According to the London-based Turkish analyst Ziya Meral, there was a 'genuine concern and passion' about helping the Somali people. In the summer of Erdogan's visit, charity appeals played nightly on Turkish television. Ajda Pekkan, a pop star entering her sixth decade of success, captured the popular mood by performing a special concert in support of the country. This unlikely Bono had been joined by Turkey's first ever Eurovision winner Sertab Erener in accompanying the Erdogan family on their trip to Mogadishu. Surrounded by a choir of children dressed in white, the concert culminated in Pekkan's own version of the 1985 USA for Africa classic 'We Are The World'. $115 million was raised in charitable donations in the month of Ramadan alone.
Prior to the famine, Turkey had the first Istanbul Conference on Somalia in 2010, attended by representatives from 57 countries and 11 international organisations. The second Istanbul Conference, under the theme of 'Preparing Somalia's Future: Goals for 2015', took place in 2012.
Turkish development strategy has perhaps been most strongly articulated in education: a Bedir Somali-Turkish High School is now a feature of Mogadishu, just as there is a Turkish-Somali School in Hargeisa, the capital of semi-autonomous Somaliland. The Turkish relief organisation Kimse Yok Mu recently sponsored a scholarship for 350 Somali students, which received as many as 10,000 applications. The Turkish Government itself has sponsored 1,500 scholarships for Somali students at universities in Turkey.
According to Julia Harte, a writer based in Istanbul, around half of these scholarships are at religious institutions. Furthermore, Kimse Yok Mu is an organisation with close ties to the Gülen movement, a moderate Turkish Islamic movement whose alleged infiltration of state institutions like the police has been controversial domestically, while abroad it is known for its global network of schools. The relationship Erdogan has fostered with Somalia is rooted in a sense of shared religious values – the notion of a brotherhood between the two nations is at the heart of much of the PM's rhetoric.
In April of this year, President Abdullah Gül hosted the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud alongside Ahmed Mahmoud Silanyo, who is the President of the self-declared state Somaliland which is internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia. The meeting was designed to reopen dialogue the two parties after the country's leadership change. The result was the signing of the Ankara Communiqué, a significant coup for Turkey.
With Turkish support, the two parties agreed to continue a dialogue, to refrain from using inflammatory language and to meet every 90 days in Istanbul. They also agreed to cooperate with respect to aid and development in Somaliland, and to share intelligence and cooperation in the fight against terrorism and piracy. Though the communiqué did not address Somaliland's bid for statehood, it nonetheless marks a key turning point in the country's journey out of chaos. By stark contrast in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron was unable to persuade President Silanyo to take part in the second London Conference (7 May 2013). Silanyo was quoted as saying, 'although British Prime Minister David Cameron wanted otherwise, we repeated our preference not to participate in the conference'.
Turkey's relationship with the Horn of Africa can be traced back as far as ties between the Adal Sultanate (1415 – 1577) and the Ottoman Empire. Turkish connections to the region lasted until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the disparate kingdoms of the Horn were colonised by Britain, France and Italy. The nation of Somalia emerged in 1960 when Italian and British Somali colonies united under a democratic government. In 1969 a military coup brought General Said Barre to power. He would rule Somalia until the collapse of the state in 1991.
Barre's regime was a paragon of post-colonial brutality. He was strongly influenced by the Soviet Union, and by the Baathist and Nasserist politics of the Arab Middle East. Barre used their template to forge a 'tribal socialism' – fusing Islam, Somali traditions and tenets borrowed from other totalitarian regimes. Although Barre styled himself as 'Guulwaadde' (Victorious Leader) and 'Jaalle Siyaad' (Comrade Siad) and furiously developed a personality cult, he ultimately failed in his attempts to create a unified state on a non-clan-defined basis. As a result of the brutality of his regime, and a disastrous war with Ethiopia, his authority came to be challenged within Somalia. Throughout the 1980s inter-clan factionalism and tensions between the country's main clans rose eventually descending into civil war in Somaliland in 1988, before spreading throughout the country.
The effective collapse of the state in 1991 created a power vacuum, and Somalia was abandoned by the international community. Interventions like the Clinton administration's Operation Restore Hope in 1993 (immortalised in the blockbuster Black Hawk Down) only compounded Somalia's reputation as a 'failed' state. The 2000s saw the emergence of al-Shabaab, a powerful Islamic militia whose close links to al-Qaeda ushered Somalia into the arena of the War on Terror. Increasing piracy in the Gulf of Aden through the 2000s helped cement Somalia in the popular imagination as the world's most dangerous country. In 2009, an article in Foreign Policy reflected this perspective: 'Somalia became the modern world's closest approximation of Hobbes's state of nature, where life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. To call it even a failed state was generous. … Since 1991, Somalia has not been a state so much as a lawless, ungoverned space on the map between its neighbours and the sea.'
Despite this recent, traumatic history, Somalia has alluring features and a strategic position that give a deeper dimension to Erdogan's moral, post-colonial rhetoric. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa: some 20,000 ships and 11% of the world's petroleum passes through its waters into the straights of Aden. Of course largely it is the piracy off the Somali coast which attracts global attention, and according to the World Bank cost $18 billion annually between 2005 and 2011.
The recent discovery of oil in Puntland highlights Somalia's potential as a future source of energy. Surveys have suggested that there could be as many 10 billion barrels within its oil reserves. This discovery has, unsurprisingly, been a 'motivating factor for international re-engagement in Somalia', according to Harper. Turkish oil companies are active in Somalia, and recently the Turkish oil giant Genel Energy PLC purchased a license to search for oil in an area of Somaliland that could hold 1 billion barrels of oil reserves. Genel has stated their aims to spend $400 million drilling five wells in Africa over the next three years.
The Turkish Army and Navy have reacted to Somali Piracy by training their Somali counterparts, and the two nations have signed an independent military cooperation agreement. Turkey's Parliament recently voted to continue the mandate for Turkish anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, making Turkey one of the four NATO countries committing naval assets under Operation Ocean Shield.
Turkey's actions on the ground in Somalia show how a nation with an emerging economy and emerging sense of its international role can, in a strikingly bold and successful way, play a positive role in a developing country. Somalia has been treated for generations as an aid recipient – symbolic of the imbalanced African-West relationship. The Turkish approach, however, rooted in reconstruction and education, and so far has been received positively by the Somali people.
'Although Turks do take security precautions, their presence is not intrusive' Harper comments. Turks walk the streets of the city with relative ease, and staff from the Turkish Embassy in the heart of the city often venture beyond its secured walls. Turkish diplomats speak with respect for Somalis. Where some Westerners see only obstacles, many Turkish businessmen, Harper feels, see opportunities. For much of the past two decades Western aid agencies, including the UN, have operated out of Kenya: the image of the western aid worker in an air conditioned office in Nairobi was pervasive.
Erdogan drew notice when he eschewed the armoured personnel carriers favoured by Somalia's own elite, traveling instead through the country in just a bulletproof car. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told the BBC, 'There was a perception that nobody can go to Mogadishu. We try to destroy the perception. We came – now many others can come.'
Moreover, Turkey is keen for its relationship with Somalia to be seen as a brotherhood– and Ahmet Davutoğlu has stated that 'the Turkish Government is going to demolish the old building of the parliament and completely rebuild it'. This hugely symbolic undertaking speaks volumes about how Turkey sees its relationship to the African country, and likewise about how Somalia sees Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkish construction companies have been instrumental in the capital, building malls and roads giving the capital much-needed infrastructural development.
Somali reactions to Turkish interventions have been positive. From Facebook groups such as 'Thank you Mr. Erdogan for the visit and help to Somalia' to YouTube songs penned by enthusiastic Somalis eager to pronounce their love for the republic like 'Istanbul – A Somali Song for Turkey'. Turkey appreciation parties are thrown by Somalis in the diaspora, such as one in Toronto which was attended by the Turkish Consul General. Britain still gives more in aid to Somalia than Turkey, but it would be hard to imagine Somalis hosting parties to celebrate Britian's increasing role in Somalia.
It is this bold intervention of aid, from both the Turkish government and its people that has won the nation such kudos. Meral says this is a 'giant shift' for a country which 10 years ago was stagnant, with limited foreign policy reach beyond its region. Now, however, the popularity of Erdogan stretches from Egypt to Gaza to Somalia.
Elsewhere in the Horn region, Turkey has been proactive in facilitating peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan, and Eritrea and Ethiopia. Meral suggests this is part of a regionally integrated strategic approach, using soft power to cultivate 'cultural warmth'. Meral argues that Somalis and other Africans are 'weary' of Western interests in the region, because of the history of 'Western imperial arrogance', and it helps that, as Harper says, Turks have come to Somalia with no 'pre-judged impressions'. It is just as crucial that the Somalis have few preconceptions about the Turks.
Behind the moral rhetoric, Meral says that there is a hard-nosed pragmatism underpinning Turkey's relationship with Somalia. He describes Erdogan's foreign policy as 'non-ideological', and says that the AKP's foreign policy is driven not by romantic notions of Turkishness, but by the goal of diffusing tensions and creating opportunities for Turkey through dialogue.
At the beginning of 2013, Erdogan embarked on a tour of Gabon, Niger and Senegal. On the tarmac at Istanbul Atatürk airport he declared to assembled journalists that 'Turkey aims to increase its trade volume with African countries to $50 billion by 2015'. In the past three years, Turkey has opened nineteen embassies on the African continent. This means it now has a total of twenty-six south of the Sahara, with more opening this spring in Chad, Djibouti and Guinea. Following China, Brazil and India, Turkey is the latest emerging economy looking for political and economic influence in Africa, diversifying away from the crisis-ridden European economy and to a more prominent role globally.
As of 2011 Turkey's exports to Africa were worth $10.3 billion a year, an increase of 390% from 2003 ($2.1 billion). Turkish investment in Africa reached more than $5bn in the same year. Turkey has a lot to gain from investment and bilateral business relations with the world's fastest growing continent. Turkish Airlines is now serving most major African cities such as Addis Ababa, Dakar and Lagos, and Istanbul Atatürk Airport is increasingly becoming a major regional hub, and as of 2013 is the third fastest growing airport in the world.
In 2009 Turkey won a seat as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council, largely because of votes of African nations. It hopes to do the same in 2015, and again the votes of African nations will be crucial. Somalia offers an important theatre in which to develop Turkey's image as a resurgent power in the twenty-first century; a growing economy, unhindered by colonial history in the region, forging new, multipolar, global relationships.
Comparisons have been drawn between Turkey's African policy and the country's aspirations in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union – a policy that always existed more in the minds of Turkish politicians than on the ground. More recently 'Neo-Ottomanism' has been touted as a grand strategy, even if it excites pundits in London and Brussels much more than Turkey's neighbours, whose own problems seem to have had a higher place on the agenda than Turkey's overtures — whether that be Greece's monetary crisis or Syria's civil war. Still, intervention in Somalia can be compared to similar attempts to reach out to its neighbours – particularly in the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, and in Bosnia, where Turkey is a top five investor. This is undeniably a feature of Turkey's strengthened economy, on the back of which the Erdogan's AKP government has greatly increased the country's aid budget.
Erdogan has framed his outreach to the Somali nation as a response to the famine crisis – explaining the fact of his administration reaching beyond its traditional sphere of influence as a question of moral imperatives: 'it is a basic human obligation to pursue international cooperation and solidarity to provide solace for those suffering from natural and man-made disasters'. Notwithstanding the economic success that has characterised Turkey under Erdogan's leadership, the country itself remains a net recipient of aid, and projections of the Turkish economy's growth this year are far lower than previous years. Rocked by the catastrophic Van Earthquake in 2011, eyebrows have been raised about the morality of diverting funds much needed at home to Somalia. Kurdish commentators contend that the lack of aid reaching Van was every bit as political as the volumes reaching Somalia.
With the opening of the Somalia Conference 2013 in London today, the country is firmly back on the top of the international agenda, and Erdogan's government can claim to have stolen a march on their rivals. The challenges remain huge in Somalia – the internationally recognised government barely controls much beyond the capital, Al-Shabab remains a threat, and Mogadishu was rocked by two huge explosions this weekend, killing at least ten people. The road out of chaos will be a long one, but, it seems Turkey has taken a bet on Somalia's future, hoping its role will be bear fruits in the long-term.
Erdogan has made much of the moral imperative to intervene in Somalia, and has echoed this language elsewhere in his discussion of Turkey's role in Africa. Earlier this year, when the Turkish Prime Minister touched down in Niamey, Niger, he made a speech criticising the historical role of Western nations in the region. Speaking at a joint press conference with Niger's Premier Mahmadou Issoufou he declared, 'that is why we are in Niger today. We do not aim to take this country's oil, gold and diamonds, but to show how we can build brotherhood, make an effort to advance development and fight for freedom of a colonial logic that has endured here for centuries'.
Contrast Erdogan's trip to Mogadishu with the single visit Barack Obama made to Africa during his first term – Turkey is taking the initiative in reconfiguring the standard narratives that shape global aid, engaging with the multi-polarity of twenty-first century global politics through its own post-colonial rhetoric. Whether or not Erdogan's policy comes from a genuine place of humanitarian concern, his approach so far has been remarkably successful, both in terms of Somalia's development and Turkish opportunities.
Turkey has stated its intention to become the world's tenth biggest economy before the emblematic date of 2023, which marks 100 years of the Turkish Republic. Potential economic expansion in Africa is key to this economic target, and Somalia has formed a crucial cornerstone of Turkey's policy in the region.
Erdogan's Turkey seems remarkably competent in its navigation of the changing realities of the global system. As the Eurozone collapses, Erdogan's eyes seem firmly fixed on resurgent Africa to provide new avenues for Turkish economic expansion. Turkey has won respect among Somalis for its bold humanitarian efforts – respect it hopes will translate into economic opportunity. In the newest scramble for Africa, Turkey is playing to its strengths, and unsettling its rivals.
This article originally appeared in BÜLENT, journal of contemporary Turkey. The journal can be found online at BULENTJOURNAL.COM