By Aisha Ali
In late February, amid terror attacks and a double-digit drop in tourism, Istanbul hosted representatives from over 50 countries and 11 international organizations for the High-Level Partnership Forum (HPLF). The goal of the two-day event was to discuss the reconstruction of post-war Somalia, with specific emphasis on national security, youth engagement, and women’s empowerment. During his opening remarks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed that “…the stability of Somalia is not only important for Somalia, but for the region and the continent.”
Mr. Erdoğan’s belief in the necessity of Somali stability has been evident in Turkey’s relationship with the Somali government, and its citizens, over the last decade. Redevelopment assistance in Somalia has become a prime focal point of Turkey’s foreign policy in recent years, in large part due to their shared religion and friendly history during the Ottoman Empire’s reign. Since the 2011 East African famine, when Turkey was one of few countries providing direct food relief to Somalia, the ties between the two countries have only grown stronger. Turkish schools in Mogadishu offer tri-lingual instruction in Turkish, Arabic, and English at no cost to locals, while buildings flying the Turkish flag cover the capital’s skyline. Throughout their partnership, Turkey has managed to accomplish some ‘firsts’ in post-war Somalia by reopening their embassy in Mogadishu, offering direct flights to and from Istanbul, as well as scheduling repeated visits from their head of state, Mr. Erdoğan. In fact, the popularity of Turkey’s president was so high after his first visit to the country in 2011 that the name ‘Erdogan’ became a top choice for Somali newborns.
Turkish investment, which has now reached over $100 million, has been well received in Somalia because, unlike other sources, the aid is direct. United Nations subdivisions, and Western powers that send aid to the country through them, are notorious for wasting donor funds on high administrative overhead costs. The stringent bureaucracy of international aid organizations doesn’t help projects get off the ground either. Similar to China’s dealings on the African continent, projects initiated by the Turkish government focus on infrastructure as a pathway to development, which is apparent by the recent construction of roads, buildings, and health facilities in Mogadishu. However, the main area where Chinese and Turkish investments differ is in their expected returns; Chinese development groups sign contracts trading infrastructure projects for rights to natural resources. Chinese-led projects also rarely involve a transfer of skills to the local population, while their Turkish counterparts pay for training seminars in Istanbul to help local business owners gain expertise. In an effort to address national security concerns, Turkey has even begun construction on a military base used to train Somali soldiers.
So far, Turkey has yet to cash in on its good favor with the Somali government. But will that change? Some analysts have been suspicious of Turkish investment in Somalia, claiming the country is attempting to use its influence to reconstruct the Ottoman Empire. Former Foreign Affairs Minister, and current Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has refuted this claim, insisting that Turkish aid to Somalia comes from a purely humanitarian standpoint. But Turkish investment and aid is no longer confined to Somalia. Over the past two years, Turkey has extended its hand to other countries on the African continent, even going as far to open embassies in places where they previously had no diplomatic ties, like Equatorial Guinea. Indeed, Somalia may have just been a starting point for Turkish involvement in African affairs. Clearly indicated by the Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, last held in November 2014, Turkey’s goal is to implement a plan for sustainable development between 2015 and 2019. Additionally, the country’s official development assistance agency, Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), has increased its spending budget to $800 million a year on operations in 28 African nations over the last three years.
Expanding influence in Africa is bound to make people uneasy. The continent has a history of being colonized and exploited for its natural resources without thought given to the political and economic implications. So far, the main argument against Chinese investment and aid stems from this uneasiness. But with the downturn in the Chinese economy in the first half of 2016, many African nations will be looking elsewhere for assistance and partnership on infrastructure projects. Perhaps, without particularly planning for it, Turkey has secured its place as Africa’s newest main benefactor.
Picture by UNSOM Somalia