Turkey's Big Play in Africa Starts with Somalia

Published December 4th, 2017 - 02:27 GMT
Turkey's Erdogan opens a new Turkish Embassy in Somalia, AFP/File
Turkey's Erdogan opens a new Turkish Embassy in Somalia, AFP/File

 

  • Somalia has an unlikely economic and political partner
  • Turkey has invested countless millions into developing the country's economy and military
  • Somalia needs a strong backer in its war on terror
  • Turkey is looking to ensure access to Somalia's ports and the ability to project influence throughout Africa

 

By Ty Joplin

 

In the project to modernize itself and combat terror, Somalia has an unlikely ally: Turkey.

Although the countries have little to do with each other on the surface, Turkey has invested countless millions into developing Somalia with the hopes to open a gateway into Africa.

Most recently, Turkey opened its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city.

And now that African Union’s coalition troops, who were sent into to fight the extremist group Al Shabaab, have begun their withdrawal from Somalia, the Somalia-Turkey partnership will become more critical than ever to ensuring Somalia’s future.

While Somalia gets an influx of money and military backing, Turkey secures access to African markets and crucial naval ports on Somalia’s coast.

Somalia is not traditionally thought of as a stable place in which to invest. Near-constant war and famine have kept the country on the brink of disaster for decades.

A civil war tore the country apart in the early-to-mid 1990s, and the extremist group Al Shabaab has posed a consistent threat to national security. Its versatile but persistent tactics have allowed it to temporarily capture Mogadishu in the past and control much of Somalia’s south.

In this chaos, Turkey has sensed and seized on the opportunity to establish a close relationship with the embattled country.

 

 

Mogadishu’s airport was modernized thanks to Turkish investments, its naval ports in Mogadishu are managed by Turkish firms, commercial flights in and out of the country are cornered by Turkish Airlines. Now, Somalia's military will be able to be trained and schooled by Turkish officers.

Turkey has also built schools, roads, hospitals and provided scholarships to Somali students to study in Turkey.

In only six years, Turkey has moved up to Somalia’s fifth-biggest source of imports when it was only the 20th in 2011.

Turkish officials claim their close partnership with Somalia spawns from a humanitarian desire to help the ailing country: "Ankara aims to help Somalia rebuild its public institutions that have been ruined since 1991. Turkey will train Somali soldiers here so that the Somali army can recuperate,” Olgan Bekar, Turkey’s ambassador to Somalia told TRT World--one of Turkey’s state-owned news outlets.

When Turkey’s President Erdogan visited Somalia, Somalia’s Former President Hasan Sheikh Mohamud told TIKA News that “Turkey has come to Somalia at a time when Somalia was in need. H.E Erdoğan’s visit to Somalia was absolutely a game-changing activity in Somalian developments.”

And while Somalia has undoubtedly benefited from Turkey’s aid, it comes from a geopolitical and economic gambit to cement Turkish influence and access in Africa.

According to the intelligence firm Stratfor, “the Turkey-Somalia relationship is closely tied to the economic interests of Turkish corporations that seek to develop and manage infrastructure in Somalia.”

This is likely heightened by Erdogan seeking to achieve his economic ambitions as part of his Vision 2023, which aims to increase Turkey’s international trading and needs new markets to which Turkey can import and export goods.

Somalia’s ports in Mogadishu and Kismayo lie along major shipping routes from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

More broadly, “as Erdogan clamps down on his domestic opposition and girds for potentially renewed hostilities with Kurdish separatists, the support of countries like Somalia, which are also contending with their own secessionist movements, will be valuable.” argues Paul Pryce.

 

 

Although it is not immediately clear what Somalia can offer Turkey as a political ally, it’s more certain Turkey will need to maintain its heavy commitments to Somalia for it to pay off.

Al Shabaab has wreaked havoc throughout much of Somalia, and the only reliable force against the group has not been Somalia’s official army but the African Union’s coalition troops (AMISOM).

Now that AMISOM is beginning its withdrawal from Somalia, a power vacuum risks being opened if it is not sealed by Somalia’s domestic army. 

Turkey opening its largest overseas military base helps to stabilize the security situation, as it can train thousands of soldiers and officers, ensuring some level of domestic and competent fighting force against Al Shabaab. A Turkish official also told Reuters that the training camp will help Turkey expand its weapon sales into “new markets.”

The UAE, for its part, has been involved in training Somalia’s troops as well.

Pryce also points out the Turkey’s political elites “are in dire need of allies,” and have established a partnership with Somalia as a way of securing votes for its positions in the United Nations General Assembly.

So far, Turkey’s massive project to build and help stabilize Somalia has gone under the radar, and attention instead has focused on China’s investments in Africa and Russian involvement in the Middle East.

While Turkey’s ambitions in Somalia are smaller in scale, it could help boost Turkey’s economy while stabilizing what has historically been one of the most unstable countries in the world. 


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