Turkey’s economic, humanitarian and nation-building efforts in Somalia have forged a bond that cannot be derailed by terror attacks.
On Sunday, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab group killed a Turkish citizen in the Somali capital Mogadishu. The victim, a construction engineer, working for a Turkish company in Somalia, was mercilessly blown up when explosives planted in his car exploded.
Al Shabaab later claimed responsibility for the targeted assassination. Beyond the personal tragedy, this incident illustrates bilateral relations between Somalia and Turkey.
Turkey is among the very few international actors who believed in Somalia’s success and have subsequently invested in Somalia’s development. In August 2011, Ankara launched its most extensive overseas humanitarian campaign to avert a devastating famine that killed around 260,000 people in the Horn of the African nation.
Once the famine was averted, Turkey became deeply involved in nation-building in Somalia. The country lacked an effective national government since the fall of the military regime in 1991. Decades of prolonged civilian war, severe humanitarian conditions, and the scourge of terrorism have led to the internal displacement of more than two million people in Somalia.
The multitude of Turkish projects implemented in Somalia over the last five years has attracted both local and international acclaim. To the extent that a new term, “The Turkish Model”, has come into being.
One of the reasons Turkish involvement has been effective is because it combines aid with nation-building. While Turkish state agencies and NGOs have focused on reducing the humanitarian crisis, other state-sponsored agencies have been building the infrastructure necessary for the country’s recovery. These include high-impact areas, such as hospitals, an airport and major roads in the capital Mogadishu.
Second, in addition to direct budgetary support provided to the Somali government, Turkey has embarked in capacity-building initiatives to help recover Somali institutions.
Third, the Turkish approach also includes a reconciliation and peacebuilding agenda. For instance, Ankara has mediated between the Somali government and Somaliland, a self-declared republic in northern Somalia.
Lastly, the presence of Turkish diplomats, humanitarian workers and businessmen on the ground was possibly the most significant element that favourably shaped the perception of the majority Somalis towards Turkey.
A Somali friend told me: “The only non-African people in the streets of Mogadishu, after Syrian and Yemeni refugees, are the Turkish nationals. They are building schools, roads and driving cars. They even have conversations with the ordinary people in a city that many consider as one of the most dangerous in the world.”
Al Shabaab’s unease with Turkey
On the one hand, Al Shabaab has previously called the Turkish government an enemy of Somalia because the NATO member was supporting Western operations in the country. However, the reality is that flourishing relations between Ankara and Mogadishu undermine the terror group’s activities on three fronts.
First, Turkey’s support and training of Somali security forces in support to recapture territories from Al Shabaab and restore stability to the country. In this regard, Ankara has built its largest overseas military facility that trains thousands of Somali soldiers annually. Al Shabaab fears that the Turkish assistance would strengthen the professionalism of the Somali army, which in turn would weaken the group’s grip on power.
Second, Turkish projects and businesses have created jobs for thousands of young Somalis, which puts at risk Al Shabaab’s exploitation of poverty – a situation they manipulate to attract recruits to their cause.
Third, the Turkish presence in Somalia challenges Al Shabaab’s claim as the only legitimate Islamic movement. Turkey has built mosques and other religious schools in Somalia to counter the group’s extremist ideology and promote its vision of Islam as part of a functioning democratic state. Here, Al Shabaab, which considers democracy a un-Islamic imposition of Western values, finds itself in a difficult position.
A Signpost on the road to the cooperation with Africa
Turkey’s involvement in Somalia has boosted Ankara’s image as a responsible actor both on the African continent and globally. Engagements in Somalia have helped Ankara formulate its new foreign policy towards Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the words of President Erdogan of Turkey, “Somalia has become a symbol of the relations we wish to establish with our brothers in Africa.”
The Somali experience has raised Ankara’s profile and influence in the humanitarian sector and is a prime example of cost-effective policies for working in Africa and with the rest of the Global South.
Since 2011, numerous academic studies on Turkish humanitarian and development assistance in Somalia have been carried out. The Turkish model in Somalia attracted significant academic attention. To quote President Erdogan again, “with Somalia, the Turkish model of aid has gained recognition in literature.”
Somalia and Turkey have been partners united by values and strategic interests. With this tragic terrorist attack, the alliance between both states are now forged in blood, steel and hope.