Over the past five years, state-owned Turkish Airlines has expanded to connect 40 destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa to Istanbul, with thousands of people from Banjul to N’Djamena travelling daily to Europe’s largest city. While the world focuses on the United States’ and China’s growing activity and investment on the continent, Turkey has discreetly and heavily invested in the militaries, development, and trade agreements of numerous African countries. Ankara’s 2005 “Opening to Africa” policy has now led to 20 billion USD in total bilateral trade, new military campaigns and the construction of Turkish owned universities and hospitals continent-wide. Since 2015, President Erdogan has personally made official visits to 13 of the 41 African countries Turkey maintains a diplomatic mission in. While Turkey holds strong relationships with many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region notorious for its complex and fragile relationships with western and formerly colonial powers, Somalia in particular seems to be a focal point for Erdogan’s envisioned future of the “Opening to Africa” policy.
Turkish and Somali relations date back to the Middle Ages, starting with military and trade partnerships between the Ottoman Empire and the Adal Sultanate. In 1969, unified by their Sunni Muslim majority, the two countries were founding members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). More recently, Turkey moved their non-resident diplomatic mission from Addis Ababa back to its original embassy in Mogadishu in 2011 after local security in the capital improved after the Somali Civil War. Today, the Turkish embassy compound in Mogadishu is one of the largest foreign diplomatic missions of Turkey. Turkish and Somali partnerships sparked during the Civil War, where many, including the United States and the European Union, refrained from military and humanitarian aid out of fear of interception by Al-Shabaab militants despite widespread starvation and conflict reaching critical levels. In the United States, NGOs were prohibited to provide humanitarian aid by the Patriot Act. However, in the peak of the crisis in 2011, Turkey intervened and has since provided Somalia a total exceeding one billion USD in direct humanitarian aid. Turkey’s approach to unilateral development aid and partnerships with Somalia takes on a different approach compared to the United Nations’ multilateral and less coordinated humanitarian approach, arguably indicating that Turkey is encouraging sustainable development rather than short-term and basic humanitarian aid. Dubbed a ‘hybrid approach’, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency has streamlined both efforts for sociopolitical stability of local government and people as well as efforts to stimulate economic activity and commerce partnerships. By providing a platform for development, Turkey not only helps Somalia recover from the injuries of Civil War, but also creates an economic foundation to secure Somalia’s future. This developmental aid is especially prominent in infrastructure, education and trade agreements.
Turkey has heavily invested in Somalia’s infrastructure, most notably renovating and reopening Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport, for which Turkish Airlines is now the sole long-haul carrier. In addition, one of Mogadishu’s largest and most technologically advanced hospitals, named Erdogan Hospital, is just one of many Turkish-owned hospitals in the country. While one-third of the doctors in the hospital are Turkish nationals, the hospital recruits and trains 36 Somalis annually in an effort to increase the number of trained Somali medical personnel, a far more sustainable approach than the UN procedure of sending their foreign reserve of doctors and medical professionals to a country on a temporary basis. Education investment has additionally been a focus for Turkey, with the country providing thousands of scholarships to Somali university students, alongside efforts to construct new primary and secondary schools in Mogadishu. Turkey’s investment in infrastructure in the war-torn country paves the way to reopen and construct new business enterprises, especially in the case of the Port of Mogadishu. A prime location for shipping due to the city’s proximity to the Strait of Aden, the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, Mogadishu’s port used to be one of the busiest in East Africa until it sustained significant damage due to conflict and a lack of maintenance during the Civil War. In 2015, Al-Bayrak, a private Turkish construction and holdings company, brokered an agreement to manage the Port of Mogadishu, completing an 80 million USD renovation after the Somali Parliament agreed to share 45% of port profits to the company. While Al-Bayrak is a private firm, critiques have been levelled against the Port’s sovereignty, alleging that many of Somalia’s primary human and economic resources, from healthcare to ports, have been placed under Turkish management. Nevertheless, the results of the new port management have been economically productive, with the port now generating profit for the first time since the civil war: 2.7 million USD annually.
Most of Turkey’s interest in the country lies in urban areas, specifically the capital. While skeptics criticize a lack of rural development and poverty relief, Turkey’s focus on urban agglomerations for Somali development may hold more long-term benefits for the country than the short-term benefits of poverty relief that agencies like the United Nations provide. Studies illustrate that urban development in Africa holds more potential for positive structural change and encourages internal rural-urban migration by providing more opportunities to escape the poverty-inducing cycle of agrarian dependency. In addition, many of Somalia’s remaining terrorist activity and ethnic conflicts are rooted in rural regions, meaning that Turkish development agendas may prove futile there. Therefore, Turkey’s focus on infrastructure and economic development of urban agglomerations provides a haven for restructuring Somali’s economy and social order. While other multilateral approaches, like those of the UN, hold better short term relief for rural populations and those most in need, Turkey’s unilateral management of urban development has better long-term solutions to reopening employment bases, creating new industries and revitalising the Somali economy. Since 2013, Somalia’s GDP has jumped from 6.4 billion USD to 7.4 billion USD, a remarkable incline, some of which may be attributed to Turkish development aid in the form of economic stimulation.
While Somalia seems to be benefitting from Turkish development aid, the relationship is fundamentally mutualistic, with Turkey benefitting from new trade agreements for much needed natural resources as well as from opening Somali markets to Turkish commodities. Somalia is one of the largest importers of Turkish goods and services such as raw construction materials, medical equipment, domestic appliances, education development and engineering consulting. However, what is unique to Turkey’s economic approach to Africa, and Somalia in particular, is that their interest lies in trade of commodities rather than cheap extraction of natural resources like minerals, oil, and timber. By focusing more on trade rather than unsustainable and often unprofitable (for African countries) natural resource markets, new commodities markets are opened and developed, aiding in economic diversification and the construction of new industries. In the past, many countries, mostly European, only invested in the continent for the purpose of natural resource extraction by brokering trade agreements that provided the best deal at the cheapest price, to the dismay of many African countries. Turkey’s new approach places the European nation in a new light. In addition, Turkey has benefitted from establishing one of the largest military installments on the continent in Somalia. Costing 50 million USD, the base holds thousands of Turkish troops and plans on training 10,000 Somali infantry. Turkey’s geopolitical interests lie in the strategic location of Somalia, with its proximity to key shipping routes along the Indian Ocean, a focal point for routes that continue on to the Suez Canal, a passage used by 17,000 vessels per year. The strategic placement of the base provides Turkey with a strong foothold close to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have sour relations with Ankara. This expansion of Turkey’s military presence in the Gulf region adds on to Turkey’s Tariq bin Ziyad Air Force Base in Doha, Qatar. This may indicate that Turkey’s own decision to aid Mogadishu may have been to also effectively encircle Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Turkey now having military bases on either side of the region.
Turkey, and more specifically, Erdogan, also benefits from the bolstering of the nation’s image as an altruistic state, especially compared to other countries of the region, like Saudi Arabia, who have failed to aid neighboring countries like Somalia. The United Nations, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, have applauded Turkey for their efforts in the historically volatile country, further providing Ankara with political and diplomatic capital. Turkish activity in Somalia presents Turkey as a global power reaching beyond its surrounding neighborhood, joining the ranks of countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. For Turkey, Somalia is an untapped market for business enterprise, humanitarian and developmental aid, and government-aided political restructuring. Turkey’s investment in Somalia has paid off and solidified Turkey’s position in Africa, a region previously seen to be outside of its sphere of geopolitical influence, especially in light of conflicts with countries like Egypt. Turkey’s activity as an emerging global political power by means of sociopolitical and economic interaction in the international market solidifies internal cohesion and economic development. In addition, Erdogan’s own legitimacy may also benefit by challenging internal political opposition, especially the growing opposition from Kurdish separatists, as by aiding a country like Somalia, which is dealing with its own secessionist parties such as the autonomous region of Somaliland, Erdogan undermines many of the messages Kurdish separatists vocalise.
The relationship between Ankara and Mogadishu has proved to be an ideal and mutually beneficial one. Somalia has benefited from political restructuring, infrastructural development, reconstruction of healthcare and educational systems, and revitalising of economic activity and industry. Turkey has benefitted from securing an image of a major political power on the international stage, creating new and valuable trade agreements, establishing a crucial military and political presence in the Horn of Africa region, and increasing its general sphere of global influence. However, Turkey’s, and more specifically, Erdogan’s, own intentions for Somalia may not be as altruistic as they appear, especially in light of their increasing military presence in the Persian Gulf region. Looking forward, while Somalia continues to struggle with endemic humanitarian and socioeconomic crises, continued development aid from Turkey may promise a new future for a country in extreme distress for so long. One must question the long term impacts in the future of Somali dependency on Turkish aid and markets and the potential issues of entanglement as Turkey holds larger and larger stakes in the country.