By Mohamed Yarrow
I had always thought of writing on the many changes happening in Somalia that are defining its post-conflict era. Minutes before I started penning down this piece, I asked my friend, Mogadishu-born elite, what are the top five things that come to his mind about Somalia today? “Insecurity, piracy, un-utilized resources, Turkey and…” I stopped him at this point before he named the fifth. Now I have to write, I decided. Turkey. Turkey. Turkey. Turkey and Somalia. Hold this point. We will come back to it.
Known to many, Somalia has faced many ordeals since its civil wars broke out in 1991. Deaths, destruction and displacements characterize the living of the country. With no strong government for over two decades, I believe you can picture the state of institutions and service delivery: near non-existence. The country lost its position in the world of nations and was shelved in the category of failed states. With unending but rather ever form-changing cycle of violence, the country was for a long time left to destroy itself, with the international community maintaining little contact with it.
For the regional countries, Somalia was/is the plague to be avoided at all cost: its people pernicious, its association lethal. Their telescoping only uses security lenses, and what is seen in the Horn of Africa country is the mutation of security threats. Period. Nothing beyond that. This rendered Somalia in complete isolation. Very troubled within, detached from outside and lonely. It was left at the mercy of fate.
Entered Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey on 19th August 2011, when he landed in Mogadishu airport to extend a helping hand to millions of Somalis at the height of a devastating famine. His message was clear: Sorry, you have been forgotten and neglected by the world. Forgive us. Turkey is with you from this minute. In the time, what mattered most to the Somalis and their barely functional Transitional Federal Government was who would feed, treat and shelter the famine victims.
Immediately, Turkey’s humanitarian interventions begun with a thunder force reaching many affected families in a short time. Unlike the Western donors, theirs was no red tape operation. Conventional aid terms such as assessments, coordination meetings, reporting were missing in the Ottoman dictionary. It was ‘See it’, ‘Give it’ intervention. Absolute quick fix in a humanitarian crisis of that magnitude. From then, the Turks never looked back. Wrestled down the famine catastrophe, the Turkish government moved on to roll up flagship development and sustainable projects in Mogadishu and some towns in Puntland touching on water, health, education, infrastructure and military. Mogadishu was the only target town in South Central zone for the Turks due to its accessibility and its strategic importance to the country.
This period coincided when the country was downing its shell of transitional governance. In September 2012, it was the Federal Government of Somalia; a status that was enough to awaken the patriotism senses of the peace-loving citizens. And here was big brother- Turkey-ready to end Somalia’s hard solitary past since 1991. No better way the Turks would have demonstrated their resolve than becoming the first European country to open an embassy in Somalia after the fall of the central government. The two countries signed and effected numerous bilateral agreements in a short span of time. Direct commercial flights linking Mogadishu to Istanbul were established, mainly through Turkish Airlines, greatly facilitating the movement of the many diaspora community and the astute Somali entrepreneurs.
Sophisticated learning and teaching infrastructure was set up in various low to high level institutions giving the needed impetus to an education sector already experiencing a renaissance, albeit slow. Scholarship opportunities were availed to several Somali youth and airlifted to major Turkish cities to quench their knowledge thirst. These developments were amazing to many residents. The health sector also witnessed a spat of rejuvenation. Well equipped Turkish hospitals offering free and some subsidized quality services and medicines strategically dotted Mogadishu city to the reprieve of many people. Public hospitals were and are either constructed afresh or rehabilitated and equipped. Additionally, water wells were dug and government buildings renovated.
Infrastructure development is the corner of the Turkish work and influence in Somalia. Turkish engineers are all over Mogadishu’s streets working on them after 23 years of destruction. Amidst all the insecurity, roads are tarmacked even at night! This is an unbelievable dedication and commitment to do what is right and good for Somalia. The main Mogadishu Airport is also getting a fair share of the development, and remains under the management of a Turkish company. The need to clean the capital city has not even escaped the eyes of the Turks, and as result they collect garbage and clean the streets for free. This has surprised many locals. Apart from the physical development, Turkey remains the biggest donor to the Federal Government of Somalia, and reliable sources report that its grant donation is estimated to be $ 4.5 per month.A Turkish Company rehabilitating one of Mogadishu’s streets (Pic: Osman Abdi)
Several Turkish nationals have lost their lives after being attacked by Al-Shabaab fighters. However, this does not seem to deter their mission of helping Somalia. So strong is the connection between the Somalis and the Turks that news on attacks against Turkish bases and nationals send instant shudders in the veins of the locals. It is one of the most disturbing news as you can gauge from the public reaction. Government officials repeatedly vow to protect their “brothers” at whatever cost. Many Somalis openly refer the Turks as “bothers”, and the “bothers”, are coming to swamp the city as dozens of new families arrive day by day. And the more they come, the greater the reception and hospitality they are accorded by their local siblings. The arriving brothers integrate well into the host community and live with them. They are not confined in separate settlements. Even in the city shanties, you will find them.
This fast growing connection and relationship is best explained by the intermarriages that have started to show up! Yes, I mean intermarriages. Marriages between Somalis and Turks. Colourful wedding ceremonies between Turkish men and Somali girls have occasionally made top headlines in the local media. There is a common joke in Mogadishu where, a Turkish national was asked by a Somali journalist when the Turks will leave the country. His simple reply was, “When you and I become the same”. By this he meant, when the two races resemble each other due to generations of intermarriages! This is the reality. Have you wondered with the Turks’ quick infiltration into the conservative Somali community? No, you should not. Somalia badly needed a true friend, connection and company. Its people disturbed by the crude neglect of the international community- particularly the regional neighbours and the Arab world.
Despite its internal turmoil, Somalia was craving to free itself from the isolation and have its comfort breeze of the international system. Tired of continuous negative interferences by insincere foreign actors, that further destabilized it, Somalia needed clean hands with no hidden agenda to trust it with its internal affairs. Who else had better come the right time than Turkey? Who else was available and trustable other than Turkey? No one. Undeniably, the reliable and unconditional support from the people of Turkey, have greatly endeared them to the Somali population. In one of our discourse about the contribution of Turkey to the recovery and reconstruction of Somalia, a driver-colleague of mine summed it in his words, “Turkey has lifted us from somewhere. Before, we just lay in a place. It made us what we are today. Now we are something. I cannot gather the best words to describe its brotherly support. I can only thank it million times”.
However, some people argue that Turkey’s presence in Somalia is premised on strategic reasons and a shift of its foreign policy towards Africa. According to them, Turkey is out to consolidate its status as a regional power and like many other emerging powers, it is eager to tap into the virgin resource and business opportunities in Africa, and Somalia is one of its prime targets. They argue that Turkey’s strategic move is informed by the realization of the fact that European structures are faltering as the continent struggles through a deep economic crisis marked by weak growth prospects and a grim demographic outlook. Others reason that Turkey’s failed bid to join the European Union has fuelled its policy shift towards Africa.
After all, if it is about strategic interest, where were the other regional African and Gulf neighbours when the Turks were flying over 7000 KMs to Somalia? Does it mean the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the likes have seen nothing strategic with Somalia and hence found no reason for forging a strong relationship. Or are they contented with their petro-dollars? What about the regional African neighbours? Granted that Kenya is not a strong economy as Turkey, but again it is the economic powerhouse of East and Central African region. Has Kenya found no single logic in having close ties with Somalia, even after taking the credit for the facilitation of the Eldoret and Mbagathi Peace Processes: ties that would have had mutual benefits to both countries?
The Al-Shabaab menace cannot be the excuse for Kenya since this development was very recent. Had there been close ties with the two countries, what would have prevented Kenya from helping Somalia in managing the air and sea ports in the accessible and relatively calm towns like Mogadishu, Hargeisa, Kismayu, Garowe and Bosaso? Kenyan investors would have gained much in the ports’ investments. Perhaps we should not ponder on this short-sightedness of Kenya and its lack of strategic vision, because it is only March 2014 that its leaders have started debating whether to have a mission in Somalia! This is laughable, considering that many European countries have opened their embassies in Mogadishu years back. The British Ambassador has a trailer house and an office right in Mogadishu Airport.
Investors from Britain and Norway have already dived into oil exploration business. The same laid back approach can be said of Kenya when its leaders are now considering factoring in the national budget, a special kitty to aid the Kenyan entrepreneurs in Sudan. Although this is a good gesture, it came late after Kenyan traders have invaded Sudan long time before the planned assistance. With this analysis, I can bet with my life that Kenya is not also aware of the business opportunities lying in countries like Angola, Mozambique and Zambia for its entrepreneurs and how Kenyans are trying to exploit this on their own.
As for the Turks, whatever, their long term intention, the fact remains that they are now the darling of Somalia and worn the hearts of the Somalis. They are here alone to nurse the sick Somalia in the ICU room, and somehow take care of its children. This sickness might take a much longer time, but the Ottoman brothers are showing signs that they would not abandon their patient and are prepared to be on the bed side till recovery. For sure, one day one time, Somalia will resuscitate from its war-induced coma and regain its conscious. By then who will it see first: its children and the nurse! It would be an era of re-constructing and re-building the nation. It would be a time when Somalia would need friends to help not stabilize it, but help it exploit and manage its vast and massive resources. It would be a time when no remains of the colonial Italy and Britain would be visible in its land. At this time, would Somalia mind the presence and help of its messianic nurse? I doubt. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Mohamed Yarrow Ali works with Centre for Peace and Democracy (CPD)