Al Qaeda-linked extremist group Al Shabaab attacked a hotel in Somalia’s capital on Wednesday, leaving 16 dead and around 55 injured in the fight that followed.
Wednesday’s attack occurred just days before Turkish President Erdoğan was set to visit Mogadishu, his third visit to the country since 2011: the first non-African leader to visit Somalia in almost twenty years. Erdoğan’s visit on Friday saw the inauguration of Turkey’s largest-ever embassy in the conflict-stricken city of Mogadishu, a looming symbolic testament to Turkish interest in the country.
Somalia has long been subject to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. As well as suffering drought and famine, the country continues to be plagued by endemic instability and violent extremism.
Although there has been no international presence since 1993, Turkey has been involved in development work in Somalia since 2011 as part of its foreign policy focus on humanitarian diplomacy, aid and development.
However, read in tandem with its regional policies in the Middle East, the AKP’s approach to Somalia can also be seen as a strategic move, part of broader efforts to extend Turkey’s global influence throughout the region, naturally targeting some of its old Ottoman stomping grounds.
Turkey in Africa: soft power, hard goals
Erdoğan’s visit was in part to honour Turkey’s recent pledge of $24 million to Somalia as part of ongoing aid and development work since the 2011 famine. Humanitarian work became a central element of foreign policy under the AKP as it sought to establish its presence in global politics.
As of 2012, a year after it began its humanitarian activities in Somalia, Turkey ranked as the world’s fourth largest humanitarian donor. In May this year it hosted the first World Humanitarian Summit.
Using the tactics of the now out-of-favour Gülenist movement, Ahmet Davutoğlu – foreign policy advisor turned Foreign Minister, and then soon-to-be-ex Prime Minister – developed a foreign policy that sought to extend Turkey’s ‘soft power’ in Africa and elsewhere through economic, cultural and humanitarian efforts. These ranged from developing infrastructure to extensive scholarship and aid programs.
Turkey’s involvement in Africa is part of the global interest in the “Africa Rising” narrative of the post-Cold War world. Investment in the continent since Turkey declared 2005 the “Year of Africa” has paid off. If one is to believe this businessman quoted in a 2012 report, “In Africa, the Turkish brand is better than the Chinese and Cheaper than the European.” As it stands, Turkish contractors in Africa are second only to Chinese; arguably a boon to Turkey’s slowing economy.
Embassies on the continent have more than tripled since 2009, and strong African support voted Turkey in as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2009-2010. Furthermore, in 2013, Turkey was declared a Non-Regional Member of the African Development Bank.
Turkey’s foot is clearly well in the global door, and Africa seems to be rooting for it.
But over the past few years Turkey’s soft power approach to foreign policy has taken some knocks. Regional conflict in the Middle East and the increasingly repressive nature of domestic politics under self-styled strongman Erdoğan has triggered a hard turn in Turkey’s regional politics. This is most visible is Turkey’s disastrous increasingly militarised entanglements in the Syrian civil war and the brutal overlaps with the ongoing Kurdish conflict.
In relation to Turkey’s involvement in Somalia however, humanitarian-oriented diplomacy by and large carries on.
Turkey’s helping hand in Somalia
While Turkish involvement has spread to Africa at large, a confluence of business, geopolitical, cultural, religious and historical interests meant Somalia was a “natural candidate” for Turkey’s foreign policy strategies.
The attraction is mutual; since Turkey successfully intervened at the peak of the 2011 famine, it has come to be regarded as something of a saviour in Somalia, so much so that Erdoğan and Istanbul have become two popular names for newborns.
Turkey’s aid to Somalia has comprised of humanitarian relief, a camp for internally displaced people, scholarship programs, health services and facilities, mosques, religious materials, and more.
The main difference between Turkish aid in Somalia and the rest of the world’s is that tangible results have been felt in the handful of years of Turkish involvement, while over two decades and billions of dollars of Western aid yielded limited results at best and exacerbated the conflict at worst.
To Somalis, the distinction between Turkish aid and the long history of Western work is simple. According to an official for the Somali government, “when [the Turks] came, they were very hands on in the field. The Turkish model is different.”
In Turkey’s pursuit of global influence, more effective than the aid itself is the symbolic power of this hands-on approach in Somalia. The country has struggled through decades of conflict and an ongoing battle to establish a legitimate democracy, while violence continues to isolate it from the international community. It becomes easy to see why the presence of Turkish aid workers on the ground in Somalia, as well as visits by dignitaries and the Turkish President himself, is viewed warmly by Somalia.
The effect of Turkish aid work in Somalia is clear. “If someone gives you a hand at your hour of need, your entire psyche changes, it doesn’t matter what other people say” our contact told Independent Turkey by phone.
More critical responses read Turkey as the new kid on the scene, lacking a full understanding of Somalia’s complex politics. Rumours that Turkey’s favouritism towards Mogadishu, which risks fuelling regionalist conflict, have often been used to support such claims. .
Partly, these criticisms can be explained as a lack of coordination. Turkish aid organizations such as the infamous Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) have been operating almost unilaterally in Somalia since 2005. Their established networks and infrastructure mean that overly-centralised government efforts can lag behind, coordinating policy in an often ad hoc manner. The fact that Turkish development agencies TIKA and AFAD work on a demand-driven framework, alongside the president’s power play against Gülenist influence in the region both add to the fray.
What is the Turkish alternative?
Although Al Shabaab has made a point of targeting Turkish operations in Somalia, as Wednesday’s attack shows, this likely has as much to do with Al Shabaab’s mission to take down the Somali state and its Western backers as it is a direct attack on Turkey itself.
Because of the Islamic orientation of the Turkish public and Turkish aid organizations operating within Somalia, its aid is seen to have a “practical edge” according to our contact. Religious kinship and historical ties are evoked by supporters, who see Turkey as best able to deal with the needs of people in Muslim countries.
Given reports from 2011 that Al Shabaab were “grateful” to receive aid from Turkish organisations, meeting with them at a time when they were blocking Western agencies, some questions have been raised about the dynamics between Muslim donors and extreme Islamist organisations.
Despite any initial presumed exceptions due to Islamic identity however, Turkish workers in Somalia quickly became a prime target for Al Shabaab. There have been consecutive attacks preceding Erdoğan’s last two visits, with devastating consequences.
A Somali government source told Independent Turkey that assaults like the 2013 attack on the Turkish embassy “made things very clear to the Turks; they couldn’t rely on their identity as Turks, as Muslims” to give them immunity from local politics.
But Turkey’s continued commitment despite such attacks is affirming; “They take risks, they don’t give up on Somalia.” The committed, locally-sensitive work of Turkish aid shows that “Small amounts from one bilateral supporter can be helpful to make things that are tangible and visible. This is a big thing for Somalis.”
Erdoğan was explicit in a recent statement about Turkey as an alternative to “the traditional hierarchy between the exploiter and exploited” that has long determined African countries’ relations with the West and, in recent years, China.
He goes so far as to say that what Turkey and African states such as Somalia share is their isolation from the West in times of conflict. In this Erdoğan aligns Turkey with African experiences by connecting the effects of the Somali conflict and Al Shabaab to Turkey’s experiences at the edge of the Syrian conflict. This further works to present Turkey as an African ally.
The way Turkey has used the Syrian refugee crisis to its own political ends through the EU deal, combined with its perseverance in geopolitically crucial Somalia shows a canny grasp on the role such crises have in shifting global power dynamics.
With a sensitive use of both hard and soft tactics, these shifts would ideally leave enough space for Turkey to muscle its way further into a position of global influence.
The strategic combination of hard and soft power in Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa respectively means Turkey can appeal to the West’s need for a strong and moderate Muslim presence in the Middle East – a role that functions in the Islamist conflicts of the strategic Horn of Africa as well. This, while capitalising on the Western power vacuum in Somalia to push for greater influence in the continent, a vacuum very much in need of filling given the dire needs of Somalis and international neglect.