Somalia, Erdogan's spearhead in East Africa

Turkey's support to the country in the coronavirus crisis is part of a wider relationship; Ankara has positioned itself well in strategic Somali sectors
Somali President Abdullahi Mohamed, 'Farmajo', (left) is received by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) at the Ankara Presidential Complex on 26 April 2017

PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN  -   Somali President Abdullahi Mohamed, 'Farmajo', (left) is received by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) at the Ankara Presidential Complex on 26 April 2017

Fans, test kits, medical supplies, masks, protective suits... All this material was on board a plane from Turkey that landed just over a week ago at an airbase outside Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. This is the second shipment of humanitarian aid that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is sending to the country in the Horn of Africa as part of the current coronavirus crisis. The first arrived in mid-April.

The Turkish President has publicly welcomed this public diplomacy manoeuvre, with which his country is trying to rebuild a somewhat deteriorated image at international level. "Locally manufactured fans in Turkey will give Somalia a new lease of life," the Turkish president said on his official Twitter account. "Our nation's conscience and capabilities are at the service of oppressed peoples and nations in need," Erdogan said in his tweet. 

Turkey's commitment to Somalia is not new. Ankara has been, over the last decade, one of the African country's main strategic partners. In recent years, this territory has been making notable progress in many areas. The refounding of its democratic institutions and the implementation of development projects has been made possible, at least in part, by the assistance provided by Erdogan.

El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asiste a la inauguración de la nueva Embajada de Turquía en Mogadiscio el 3 de junio de 2016
AP/FARAH ABDI - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening of the new Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu on June 3, 2016
Some facts

Since the president officially visited the country in 2011, the Turkish Agency for Cooperation and Coordination, the Turkish Red Crescent and various non-governmental organizations from the Eurasian country have been raising large sums of money that have been invested in international cooperation projects on the ground. According to data provided by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the total volume of humanitarian aid sent to Somalia amounts to one billion dollars. 

The flow of capital between the two countries is not limited to cooperation and development. Turkey is positioned as an important partner of Somalia, with figures that have been increasing in recent years. In 2019, bilateral trade exceeded 200 million dollars for the first time. As for Turkish investment in the Horn of Africa country, it reaches up to $100 million.

: Foto tomada el 3 de junio de 2016 que muestra la entonces recién inaugurada Embajada turca en Mogadiscio
AFP/ MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB - Photo taken on 3 June 2016 showing the then newly opened Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu
Entering key sectors

Beyond what the cold numbers may reflect, there are facts that are representative of the considerable influence Erdogan has gained in Somalia. Most notably, the port and airport in Mogadishu, the capital, are operated by Turkish companies. It is no coincidence, for example, that of the airlines operating at Aden Adde International Airport, the only two not based in East Africa are Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways, according to the directory of the airport itself on its website. It should be remembered that Qatar is one of Ankara's main geopolitical allies, as the conflict in Libya attests.

Terminal del puerto marítimo de Mogadiscio (Somalia)
REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR - Mogadishu seaport terminal, Somalia

In the coming months, it is likely that good relations between Turks and Somalis will be further strengthened. Last January, Somali President Abdullahi Mohamed, alias 'Farmajo', officially invited Turkish companies to join the exploration of its territorial waters for hydrocarbons. The race for Somali oil has already started and Turkey is likely to play hard to get a good slice, as it is already doing precisely in Libya and, by extension, in the whole eastern Mediterranean area.

On a strictly military level, Turkey has been established in the African country since September 2017. On that date, the TURKSOM camp, located near Mogadishu, was inaugurated. This base is the starting point of the intergovernmental mission known as 'African Eagle', by virtue of which both governments try to tackle the armed insurgency of the jihadist group Al-Shabaab, which operates in the south of the country and in the north of Kenya.

Oficiales militares turcos desfilan durante la ceremonia de apertura de la base militar turca en Mogadiscio, Somalia 30 de septiembre de 2017
REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR - Turkish military officers parade during the opening ceremony of the Turkish military base in Mogadishu, Somalia 30 September 2017

In theory, the work of the Turkish soldiers deployed there has been reduced to training soldiers of the Somali Army, a function similar to that carried out by the troops of different European countries -including Spain- at the Koulikoro base in Mali, within the framework of the EUTM Mali.

It is paradoxical that Turkey, which in the Syrian and Libyan wars is fighting side by side with fighters belonging to jihadist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the Syrian National Army, is in charge of training the troops of the Armed Forces of a country where the biggest security challenge lies, precisely, in stopping one of the most active and important groups associated to the Al-Qaeda network in the world.

Soldados del Gobierno somalí
PHOTO/REUTERS - Somali Government soldiers
East Africa as a geopolitical stage

Somalia, in any case, is only one piece of the network of geostrategic alliances that Erdogan is trying to build from its national territory. The East African sub-region is an area that the Turkish president has on his agenda. Having influence over it would allow him to be an important counterweight to some of his geopolitical rivals. 

Egypt is one of them. Currently, Cairo and Ankara have conflicting interests on several fronts. On the issue of prospecting in the Mediterranean, Abdelfatah al-Sisi's government has positioned itself alongside Greece and Cyprus, and has not recognised the validity of the agreements that Erdogan signed with Fayez Sarraj, head of the National Accord Government (GNA) in Tripoli, at the end of 2019.

In the Libyan conflict itself, discrepancies also arise. Al-Sisi has been one of the most important supporters of rebel Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose National Liberation Army (LNA) opposes Sarraj's GNA.

El expresidente de Sudán Omar al-Bashir recibe a Erdogan en el aeropuerto de Jartum, Sudán, el 24 de diciembre de 2017
REUTERS/MOHAMED NURELDIN - Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir meets Erdogan at Khartoum airport, Sudan, on 24 December 2017

In this respect, in addition to Somalia, Sudan could play a very important role. Until the fall of the dictator Omar al-Bashir, Ankara and Khartoum had been very close allies, thanks primarily to the African ruler's goodwill towards the Muslim Brotherhood. However, with the, for the moment, successful political transition and the new government of Abdalla Hamdok, their relations have yet to be defined.

Similarly, Turkey's incursion into East Africa may also mean a challenge to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. The Wahhabi kingdom, for example, is only a few hundred kilometres from the Somali national territory. Like Egypt, both monarchies support Haftar in Libya to avoid the risk of growth of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If Turkey is able to strengthen itself in the short term in countries like Somalia, Sudan or even Ethiopia, facing Egypt on account of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) built on the Nile, it will score a major strategic victory.