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The quintessential soft power? On Turkey’s foray into Somalia

turkey somalia soft power

Turkey's "Arab Spring" forays into Middle Eastern diplomacy, have drawn much attention on the international stage. Its launch into Africa, however, has gone little noticed by a world more focused on China's involvement in the sub-Saharan region.

June 3, 2012 5:42 by

“Prestige 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 neighbourhood,” said Fadi Hakura of the London-based Chatham House think-tank.


While the risks are high – mightier foreign powers have tried and failed to mend Somalia – so too are the potential trade rewards.


Erdogan’s government is closely linked to Turkey’s powerful business interests, especially the “Anatolian Tiger” small companies in the country’s conservative heartland that thirst for new markets.


In the shadow of Mogadishu’s former polytechnic college, a skeleton of a building still scarred by mortar rounds, Bilal Celik watches local labourers manually sieve sand, smash giant concrete slabs and grapple with iron bars.


Celik is reluctant to call himself a construction boss. Instead, he says he has set up a not-for-profit group which has secured six school renovation projects worth $30 million.


“Soon we will bring in masters of electrics, water systems, tiling. After twenty years of civil conflict, there is now very little skilled labour in Mogadishu,” Celik said.


By September, Celik said, the four-storey building will be transformed into a vocational training school, fitted out with IT and science labs. Everything will be shipped in from Turkey.


Turkey’s exports to Africa leapt to $10.3 billion last year from $2.1 billion in 2003, with iron and steel, mineral fuels and machinery among the most exported items, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Economy.


“So business and diplomacy go hand in hand,” Chatham House’s Hakura said.




Privately, some western aid officials question what deals Turkish aid and reconstruction groups might be cutting to operate with such apparent speed and ease in Somalia.


There are concerns among the Nairobi-based aid community that Turkish funding ends up lining the pockets of power-brokers, business tycoons and warlords.


Torn between frustration and envy, one aid worker in Nairobi said Turkey had “cut all the corners we cannot cut”, but that its achievements were making others look like “fools”.


Inside Mogadishu’s corridors of power, Turkey is flavour of the month.


At his heavily fortified residence, where armoured plates cover the windows, Somalia’s Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said Turkey had “changed the landscape in Somalia”.


“They are the sponsor we have been looking for the last 20 years. They are the Holy Grail for Somalia,” said Ali, who returned from the United States in 2010, initially taking up a ministerial job in the fractured and graft-prone government.


Ali is fiercely critical of the United Nations, which he accuses of dealing with Somalia at arm’s length and squandering aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.


“The truth is they (Turkey) are there to help us succeed. No more, no less. If anyone else has issues with it, I don’t care, that’s their problem,” Ali said.


If Ambassador Torun has a weakness, diplomats in Nairobi say, it is that he is politically naive in Somalia, a country where the political kingpins and clan warlords have masterfully duped international actors for twenty years for their own gains.


Turkey’s mounting sway comes at a time when Somalia’s political leaders are up against an August deadline to usher in a new parliament and president and adopt a new constitution that redefines the relationship between Mogadishu and the regions.


At stake, then, in a country where politics is driven by feuding clans battling to safeguard their interests is a handle on power and the resulting financial spoils. The worry among some diplomats is that Turkey will pick a favourite.


Horn of Africa analysts point to President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed’s efforts to hitch his star to Turkey.


“The Turks haven’t got their heads around the politics yet,” said one Nairobi-based diplomat.


Traditional donors are frustrated about what they call foot-dragging over the political reforms.


While some including the European Union have threatened to punish perceived spoilers, Turkey has been less critical.


Some Somalia-watching diplomats feel the Turks could use their newly-won influence in Mogadishu to be tougher against the trouble-makers and speak up more strongly to achieve a successful end to the transition.


Ambassador Torun dismisses suggestions that extending the interim government’s mandate would suit Turkish interests. “Whoever they select, we will work with them,” he said.


The best way to persuade Somali citizens to buy into the political process and end the cycle of violence, he said, was to offer an alternative to aid and the war economy.


“(Somalis) can’t support it if you only talk in five-star hotels and then put up roadmaps. It doesn’t work,” said Torun.


“People should see something is going on. Then they get hope and support the process.”

By Richard Lough


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