EDITORIAL: Turkey’s future policy in Somalia must focus on institution rebuilding

The outgoing Somali president Farmajo [L] and Turkish ambassador Mehmet Yelmez [R] [Photo: Villa Somalia]

EDITORIAL | One of the hottest stories in Somalia this week is the status of Somalia-Turkey relations. Somalis, and Turks, are marking ten years of re-established relations and as reflected in colorful languages from both politicians and government officials, Ankara has earned lots of points in helping alleviate Somalia’s daily problems.

From aid relief to education scholarships to security support, there has been little to find about Turkey in Somalia that hasn’t gone as expected.

The story began in August 2011. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Prime Minister of Turkey arrived on the scene in Mogadishu as Somalia battled one of its worst droughts in nearly five decades. Coupled with a brutal al-Shabaab, the drought had forced thousands into local camps as well as refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. It was a sad tale as world media portrayed stories of dying malnourished babies.

By visiting Mogadishu, Erdogan became the first global leader to tour Somalia in its post-Siad Barre years. But breaking the ice of fear in traveling to Somalia was just the first victory. Turkey also showed the world that Somalia needed help and that Ankara would be the first to lend a hand.

On Thursday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister said in a statement the visit ten years ago had set a historic motion and became a “source of inspiration for the whole world and raised Somalia’s hopes.”

It is true that Turkey re-established ties only ten years ago. These two countries have been relating for the last three centuries, mostly through trade and also politically and culturally during the Ottoman Empire. So it is possible that Turkey knew something about Somalia that others didn’t. Somalia, a resource-wealthy country simply needed a boost to turn its people into a productive lot.

Since then, Turkish officials say they have pumped into Somalia about $1 billion in terms of security support, humanitarian aid, and other socio-economic programs. Yet given the scale of problems the country had been in, it may be understandable that even Turkish support has not yet brought back all of Somalia’s mojo.

So where should the relations head from now? We think ten years has served enough lessons. The Turkish people have largely stayed out of Somalia’s politics, as opposed to many other partners of Mogadishu. But this does not mean they have no political desires in engaging with Somalia.

Ten years ago, Erdogan visited a camp for the displaced accompanied by then-President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. The country was just transitioning to a federal government. Erdogan’s gesture of holding the arm of a malnourished infant became a front-page depiction of the situation in Mogadishu. It surely helped move donations towards the crisis then.

Today, Somalia still faces old problems: Insecurity, drought, poor infrastructure, and generally collapsed institutions. The next ten years of Somalia-Turkey relations must seek to rebuild institutions. It is not entirely true that Turkey is apolitical in Somalia. Somalia political leaders may be likable in Ankara or distasted, something that can affect how deep Turkey engages with Somalis. There is evidence even from the last three Presidents that their level of engagement has differed, probably because all these leaders have different views about Turkey.

By building permanent institutions like the military, government agencies, and other structures, Tukey can help stabilize Somalia regardless of who is in power. Somalia at the moment doesn’t just need humanitarian aid, it needs a systematic skills transfer to aid its nascent industries or sectors. Turkey with its developed technology and human resources can be handy.

That is useful for Somalia in the long run because Mogadishu isn’t the only ‘friend’ of Turkey in Africa. In fact, Turkey’s Africa Policy Initiative that began in 1998 has amassed lots of influence across the continent. Turkey has raised its number of embassies in Africa from 12 to 44 in 20 years and has seen more African countries open embassies in Turkey to 36. An Observer member of the African Union since 2005, Turkey says it is banking on “historical experience, social, political and cultural accumulation…and resources” to enhance ties with the continent.

And Ankara says it is doing that based on establishing political, humanitarian, economic, and cultural relations on bilateral, regional, continental, and global levels. By doing that, they will need peaceful, stable, and secure countries to engage with. It is only useful for Somalia that such ties focus on establishing government organizations that can outlast individual political ambitions.


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