Understanding Turkish involvement in Somalia

Somalia's states, regions and districts

Somalia’s states, regions and districts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by Ronan Farrell (1) Monday, 16 July 2012 08:18

By and large, efforts by the international community towards helping Somalia solve its many problems have not been successful. The political vacuum, largely evident ever since the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, has enabled armed groups to flourish, and has meant that security and personal safety concerns dissuaded many foreign nationals from travelling to and working there. As a result, few countries have a diplomatic presence in Mogadishu, while visiting diplomats have been largely confined to brief stopovers at K50 Airport on the outskirts of the capital. The humanitarian community, for the most part, has had to co-ordinate their activities from neighbouring Kenya, largely relying on local contractors to oversee distributions in many areas of the south and east of the country. Whilst a sizeable contingent of the United Nations (UN)-consented African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi have been operating there since 2007, their presence was, until recently, limited to areas in and around the presidential palace.

The lack of any permanent diplomatic or humanitarian presence has been seen by many local people as an indication that the West, and the international community generally, shows little regard for their plight in the face of so much economic and social hardship. And when foreign governments have turned their attention to Somalia, their actions are often viewed as short sighted and motivated purely by national self-interest. A brief look at past and current involvements in the country by the United States (US), Ethiopia and Kenya all provide numerous examples of such self-interest, and has added to the perception of distrust felt by some Somalis towards the international community.

Following the drought and the subsequent humanitarian crisis that affected parts of the country in 2010, one country which appears (publicly at least), to have taken a more proactive role in establishing closer diplomatic relations with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is Turkey. For the most part, this role has been welcomed both within Somalia and from most other members of the international community. Turkey has committed itself to helping Somalia develop by investing in a variety of infrastructure projects and businesses, has sent aid volunteers to drought stricken areas of the country and granted university scholarships to Somali medical students to study in Turkey. But despite these endeavors, a degree of scepticism exists both from within and outside Somalia as to what Turkey’s real intensions might be and why it has chosen to take the lead at this moment. This brief will detail Turkey’s role in Somalia through its recent actions and explain some of the underlying reasons for this new found interest in Somalia.

Turkey’s active role in Somalia

In May 2010, the Turkish Government, together with the UN hosted a three-day event in Istanbul, which was attended by influential members of the Somali business community to discuss ways in which sector policies could be established and sector-specific capacity building could be developed. Exactly two years later, in May 2012, another conference was held in Istanbul to discuss how best to deal with the end of the transition phase of the UN-backed interim Government, whose mandate would end in August 2012 in accordance with the Kampala Accord. Turkey’s role in hosting both events was acknowledged in a statement issued by the TFG and during interviews with some senior clan elders back in Somalia.

But the hosting of both events has not been the only involvement that Turkey has recently had with the war-torn state. Following the severe drought, which hit the central region of Mudug at the end of 2010, Turkish aid workers, from both domestic and international humanitarian organisations, maintained a visible presence in the country throughout the relief efforts that followed. Then, in August 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, together with his family and some members of the cabinet arrived in Mogadishu for a short visit, where he met President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and toured parts of the city.

The visit was significant and not just because Prime Minister Erdogan was the most high-profile visitor to the country in the last 19 years. It emerged during the visit that Ankara would establish a permanent diplomatic residence in the capital and that Turkey had pledged to contribute US$ 250 million for famine relief. In addition, Turkey committed itself to providing a number of free scholarships for Somali medical students, rebuilding the main airport road, restoring a hospital, building schools and new water wells, as well as for training and equipping the Government’s security forces. Turkish Airways has become one of the very few airlines that now have regular (twice a week) flights to Mogadishu. In addition, over 500 Turkish aid volunteers have been sent to the country to provide humanitarian assistance since that visit.

Political reasons

So what are the political reasons prompting Erdogan and the ruling AK Party to take an active role in the affairs of Somalia? Turkish media coverage of the Somali famine in late 2010 bolstered domestic support for relief efforts. With the Turkish economy having grown by 7-10% over the last number of years, charitable organisations were able to benefit from millions of dollars in donations from both the public and private sectors. From a political perspective, the perception of state building in another Sunni Muslim nation will appeal to many of the more conservative elements in the country on whom Erdogan and the AK Party rely on for support.(2)

At the international level, Turkey’s interest in Somalia appears to be part of a strategy that combines a genuine desire to improve its international image, with a plan to move forward its own national interest. For many years, Turkey has been striving to solidify its international standing and influence in the Middle East and beyond. It has managed to distinguish its foreign policy from that of the US and Europe, by fully engaging those states on the periphery. According to Mathew Gullo from the Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey, its successful policies have been achieved by “relying on its cultural and religious heritage as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and its recent emergence as a regional power, whilst maintaining Erdogan’s own view of Turkey being a responsible (altruist) power.”(3)

Turkey’s growing confidence and assertiveness within the international community has recently become more overt. Relations with some of its historic allies including Israel and Syria have dramatically changed for the worse and Turkey is competing with Iran for influence in several countries. From a geostrategic perspective, it is vital for Iran that it keeps open its main shipping lane, which crosses the Arabian Sea and goes by the Gulf of Aden. Hence trying to establish good relations with Somalia would be in its interest. Yet given that Somalia and Turkey are both Sunni states, the TFG is unlikely to favour relations with Iran over Turkey in the longer term. A number of countries in the region (Ethiopia and Eritrea) have also accused Iran of arming local rebel groups in order to create and incite divisions within their states.(4) Consequently with the US also keen to limit the influence of Iran in the Middle East and elsewhere, Turkey’s active foreign policy initiatives in the region, may well provide for the US, the ideal counterbalance to Iran without appearing to interfere.

Hailed by some as a model state in the Middle East due to its ability to reconcile Islamic values with democratic principles, Turkey’s important geostrategic position as a gateway between Europe and Asia has meant that it has found favour with a wide variety of governments including the US, Europe, Russia, and China and facilitated its membership of many different international organisations including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). From a geo-political perspective, Turkey relied heavily on a number of African votes when it won a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2009.(5) Ankara is hoping to repeat the feat in 2015 and its willingness to take the initiative in Somalia would, therefore, appear to make good strategic and political sense. Aid Fadi Hakura, an analyst for the UK-based think tank Chatham House, had said that “[p]restige maximisation is a key part of Turkey’s foreign policy. It is trying to portray itself as an indispensable power beyond the confines of its immediate neighborhood.”(6) Polls taken in June 2012 indicate a majority of support from Turks towards its foreign policy. With elections due in 2014, the AK Party will hope to continue to reap the benefits of such policies with recent opinion polls showing a growing majority of support over the leading secularist opposition parties.

Economic incentives

Over the last decade, Turkey’s external trade ties have developed enormously. Turkish construction and manufacturing firms have found plentiful opportunities to expand, especially in several of the poorer Islamic countries. Turkey’s exports to Africa in 2003 alone were estimated to be worth US$ 2.3 billion. By 2011, this figure had increased to US$ 10.3 billion,(7) with the main exported items being iron, steel and natural minerals. Official statistics also indicate that Turkey’s trade volume with sub-Saharan Africa increased tenfold from US$ 742 million in 2000 to almost US$ 7.5 billion in 2011.

In the longer term, Turkey has indicated that it sees its interest in Somalia in trade. Despite a weak Government and a virtual non-existent regulatory system, Somalia earned almost half its gross export earnings from livestock, with fish, bananas and charcoal sent to some neighbouring countries. Should some degree of stability return to Somalia, as it may well do given the international community’s support for the TFG and the military threats facing al-Shabaab, numerous economic opportunities may emerge which could be of great benefit for companies in the private sector. Somalia has, for many years, thought to be holding reserves of oil, natural gas, iron ore and uranium. China’s ability to outspend other nations in its quest for raw materials as well as the relatively high barriers to entry in many of the established markets in the Middle East and Central Asia have meant that many companies are being forced to look for viable opportunities. That Somalia lies in relatively close proximity to Turkey would naturally appeal to its energy companies.

Attitudes towards Turkey’s endeavours

By and large, Somali attitudes towards Turkey’s proactive role have been met with a positive response. Following a meeting with members of the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), President Ahmed stated that “Turkey has helped our voice be heard in the international arena… and we expect our partnership to continue.”(8) A number of national newspapers in Turkey have reported that privately, at least, UN officials admire the ability of Turkish charities and Government employees to work in areas of the Somalia capital seen by most westerners as too risky.

However, critics, of which there are several from both within and outside Somalia, label Turkey’s recent endeavours as naïve, and question Turkey’s real intensions. For one thing, despite some military successes by AMISOM and loyal Government forces in pressuring al-Shabaab to withdraw from Mogadishu in August 2011 and the strongholds of Baidoa (February 2012) and Afgoye (May 2012), the Islamist group has demonstrated on many occasions that it can hit Government and civilian targets fairly much at will. And despite claims by Turkish diplomats that they have been making some progress towards creating dialogue between the TFG and more moderate factions of al-Shabaab, the very idea that Turkey would deal with, and indeed support the TFG, means that its nationals are now subject to the same risks as those by other foreign nationals. Indeed, al-Shabaab has denounced Turkey’s involvement as a ‘cover for western’ invaders.(9) In October 2011, a suicide truck bomber killed 72 people outside of the Ministry of Education. Many of those who died in the attack were students applying for Turkish scholarships. Two months later, a car bomb exploded close to Turkey’s newly reopened embassy but caused no Turkish casualties.

At the political level, although Turkey has taken a novel approach towards building strong relations with the TFG, some analysts have expressed concern as to whether Turkish Government representatives will be able to learn quickly enough so as not to be deceived by the TFG, whom they say have become expert at playing international actors off each other. How effective Turkey’s involvement in Somalia will be over the medium to longer term remains in doubt. And according to the Somalia expert and political scientist at Davidson University in North Carolina, Ken Menkhaus, “Turkey’s role can be helpful but it is not going to be decisive. The prospects for peace and stability in Somalia are being driven by much bigger factors than individual countries playing facilitating roles.”(10)


Judging by the reactions of Somali residents and politicians who have been interviewed in the media, Turkey’s approach in Somalia appears to be quite well appreciated. Its aid workers have maintained a visible presence in both Mogadishu and in drought-affected parts of the country and their work will have benefited a great many people. Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit in August 2011 certainly gave the TFG a great deal of confidence and would have reinforced the view that the TFG was the only viable political entity that had the support of the west. Subsequent visits by other foreign diplomats, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, would support that position.

Given that President Sharif Ahmed and the Speaker of the House, Sharif Hassan, would appear to have put their main differences aside until after the elections in August 2012 at least, and that al-Shabaab have suffered a number of military setbacks, there now appears to be a degree of optimism about where Somalia is heading. Turkey’s foreign policy in Somalia, which has mainly centred around humanitarian relief, with a limited support for development projects has arguably boosted its perceived credentials in the Middle East, the West and in Africa as an emerging regional power. And whilst the political and security gains in Somalia could be reversed at any moment, Turkey stands to benefit politically as well as economically over the medium to longer term should stability and security improve in Somalia.


(1) Contact Ronan Farrell through Consultancy Africa Intelligence Africa’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( conflict.terrorism@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) Christie-Miller, A., ‘Turkey takes lead in building Somalia’, The Christian Science Monitor, 5 June 2012,
(3) Gullo, M., ‘Turkey’s Somalia Adventure: The quest for soft power and regional recognition’, Research Turkey: Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey, June 2012,
(4) Bozkurt, A., ‘Turkey challenges Iran in Somalia’, Today’s Zaman, January 2012,
(5) Gullo, M., ‘Turkey’s Somalia Adventure: The quest for soft power and regional recognition’, Research Turkey: Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey, June 2012,
(6) Lough, R., ‘Insight – Turkey tries out soft power in Somalia’, Reuters, 3 June 2012,
(7) Christie-Miller, A., ‘Turkey takes lead in rebuilding Somalia’, The Christian Science Monitor, 5 June 2012,
(8) Ala, A., ‘Somalia sees recovery with new Turkish investments’, Today’s Zaman, 8 April 2012,
(9) Lough, R., ‘Insight – Turkey tries out soft power in Somalia’, Reuters, 3 June 2012,
(10) Ibid.

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