Turkey’s soft power in Africa
Just two days before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived in Somalia on June 3, the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization al-Shabaab attacked a hotel in Mogadishu, the capital of the country, killing at least 15 people. Most strikingly the Ambassador Hotel is where Erdoğan and his delegation had stayed in their previous visit to Somalia. Having joined the president’s trip to the “Horn of Africa” as part of the press last week, I was one of those in the convoy passing by this hotel -which has turned into a total ruin.
On our way from the airport to the Turkish Embassy, which Erdoğan opened together with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the Somali people were parading on the sidewalks. They saluted Erdoğan, who was visiting Somalia for the third time since 2011, all the way through, which lasted about half an hour. This extraordinary cheering was far from reasonless.
Erdoğan has been the only foreign leader since 1991 visiting Somalia, i.e. moving beyond the airport in Mogadishu, which other leaders use for their meetings and afterwards leave very quickly. Moreover, there are only three countries which own an embassy in Somalia: Turkey, Qatar and Kenya. Some other countries operate at the airport in Mogadishu. In addition, Turkey’s embassy in Somalia is its biggest diplomatic mission around the world.
This is why Turkey means a lot for Somalis. It is a country which “dares” to come over, to lend its hand against all odds.
It is common to see aid packages and vehicles of the Turkish Red Crescent and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) on the streets in Mogadishu which are labelled as “from the Turkish people to the Somali people.” The only airport in the country, the only asphalt road in Mogadishu and its securest hospital were built by Turkey. A port on the coast and the parliament building are on the way.
Also about to be completed are Turkish military training facilities, which will serve the formation of a new Somali army. Ankara also contributes to the peace negotiations in the country and the consolidation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was formed and internationally recognized in 2012.
Somalia reminds us of terror, war and violence. However the country was originally a vital center for trade in the Antique Age and the Medieval Age. In 19th century it was a colony of Britain and Italy until it became independent in 1960.
The calvary for Somalis started in 1991 when the civil war began. Clashes between Somali clans lasted for more than 20 years, costing hundreds of thousands of Somali lives and just when it was about to be over the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab got off the ground, in 2009.
On top of all this, unprecedented poverty has prevailed in the country. Somalia has been at the top of the “least developed countries” index according to the United Nations for decades. The U.N. had even formed an international peacekeeping force in 1992 in order to fight against poverty in the country.
The average lifespan in Somalia is 50. The unemployment rate is 74 percent and 82 percent of the population is categorized as poor. After all, this poverty is one of the main reasons for the violence in the country.
The other reason is certainly the clashes between the clans, which caused the decades-long civil war and is reminiscent of the colonial age. The colonial order which Britain created in the northern part and Italy in the southern part of the country was based on the rivalry between the clans.
Intrinsically, Somalis belong to the same ethnicity. Moreover, 100 percent of the population is Muslim. What’s more, they are all Sunnis, in other words of the same sect of Islam. Yet despite this unique homogeneity, the country got sucked into civil war because of its tribal structure.
The reason why Somalia was in such demand by colonial powers for centuries was its unique strategic status. The country has the longest coast line in Africa. It stretches across the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. It connects Africa with Asia, since Yemen is just across the Gulf of Aden.
This region is not only the mother lode of the naval trade and naval security across the world, but also hosts vast gas and oil reserves.
The TFG reached an agreement a few months ago allocating the governance of Somalia between the four-five primary clans. Whether it will succeed in brining stability remains to be seen. Yet stability would certainly be created by the country’s development. This is why Turkey’s existence in this region is vital.
This long-term endeavor is a strategic investment not only for Somalia, but also for Turkey. Furthermore, it also aims to compensate the loss of the Middle East markets and to counter-balance Iran’s growing influence in Eastern Africa.
Beyond all these, the fact that Somalis are the neediest people in the world is the main reason behind Turkey’s extension to this country. This is exactly why it is exposed to al-Shabaab’s attacks every time it sets foot in this territory.