Turkey has ambitions in Somalia

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Turkey has been accused by the Somalian opposition of interfering in the country’s electoral process and providing weapons to the armed forces of the president.

It is the second time in less than two months that such an accusation has been made. On March 22, sources with access to the Defence Ministry told MENAFN that Turkey had sent a shipment of weapons and armoured vehicles to Somalia with the purpose of arming Turkish-trained special forces.

The move would be considered provocative, as the special forces have been known to interfere in the country’s elections on the side of Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (referred to as “Farmajo”.)

Opposition candidates expressed their concern about these weapons coming into the country from Turkey in such a sensitive election period, according to a May report on the Garowe news website.

The candidates told Garowe that the sophisticated weapons will be used by the Turkish-trained special forces to control forthcoming elections that have been long postponed as Farmajo had planned to extend his term for an additional two years. The lower house of the Somali parliament rejected that extension on May 2, after Farmajo himself had agreed to the move.

There is no clear indication that Turkey has taken the side of Farmajo in the elections. On the contrary, Turkey’s objectives in Somalia seem to be outside the political process.

What are Turkey’s objectives in the country?

“Somalia has become a major destination for Turkish goods and services, to include construction material, medical equipment, education development and schools, engineering expertise, and household items that range from teapots to clothing, said Brendan Cannon, a professor at the Khalifa University of Science and Technology, in a 2016 research study.

“The Turkish presence is ubiquitous. According to one Somali resident, ‘Turkey has become the McDonald’s of Mogadishu. Their flags are everywhere, just like the yellow arches of McDonald’s are everywhere in America”,” he said.

But exports are not the major reason for Turkey’s presence in Somalia, Cannon said. The two countries share a common Sunni Muslim religion and culture.

“Turkey is involved in Somalia for two main reasons: political capital in the form of international prestige, and capital. This decision was coordinated closely with Turkish businesses, NGOs, and governmental ministries,” he said. “In short, Turkey chose Somalia as a stage on which to burnish its foreign policy credentials and obtain the soft power status felt by the leadership in Ankara that adequately reflects Turkey’s emerging power status.”

Somalia is an exceptional success for Turkish foreign policy.

“Turkey has only been involved in Somalia since 2011, yet it can point to a string of successes, physical edifices, and an arguably outsized presence in the country,” , the Brookings Institution said in a May 2019 report. “Turkey’s overall efforts in Somalia and its projection of “soft power” in the forms of money, trade, in-kind donations, infrastructure rehabilitation, and development projects have met a positive reception inside and outside Somalia.

“It all started when Erdoğan first visited Mogadishu in 2011 amid a devastating famine, the first non-African leader to visit the war-torn capital in two decades.

“What began as a principally humanitarian initiative grew into a more comprehensive policy: Ankara surged aid funding, initiated development projects, opened schools, and assumed a leading role in shaping the state-building agenda, including opening a sizable military facility to train Somali government soldiers,” Brookings said. “Today, Turkish firms operate Mogadishu’s air and sea ports, its markets are flush with Turkish-manufactured goods, and Turkish Airways flies direct to the capital city—the first major international carrier to do so.”

Ankara’s approach in Somalia, underwritten by Erdoğan’s appeal to Islamic solidarity and a more visible presence on the ground than traditional donors, has been widely lauded by Somalis, according to Brookings.

While officials in Ankara report that Somalis have come to appreciate the soft power value of Turkey’s investments, its presence is not universally appreciated.

According to Cannon, Turkey tries to present itself as an essential power beyond its immediate neighbourhood. In Somalia it has been largely successful in this endeavor. But most of its influence, according to Brookings, is in the Somali capital Mogadishu, and there have been indications of resentment for Turkey’s role from areas outside the capital.

The Somali opposition is convinced that Turkey intends to play a full-scale military role in the upcoming elections. The elections are essentially a clash between different clans that has already manifested with violence in April.

Should Ankara choose to get involved in an armed conflict in Somalia, it risks losing the high sentiment with which its presence in the country has been rewarded in the past.