Turkey may just be able to fix this war-torn east African nation -- if it
doesn't fall into the same traps of would-be saviors who came before it.
BY LAURA HEATON | APRIL 25, 2012
MOGADISHU, Somalia — For the United Nations, the war-torn Somali capital is
one of the ultimate "hardship posts." The U.N.'s few foreign employees based
there are entitled to lucrative hazard stipends in exchange for living in
one of the world's most dangerous cities. But for Turkish aid worker Orhan
Erdogan, it is his family's home base.
Erdogan, a 45-year old veteran of crisis zones such as Darfur, moved from
Istanbul to Mogadishu last August as the aid group he works for, Kimse Yok
Mu, ramped up its efforts in response to the severe famine in the Horn of
Africa. His four teenage children are now in school in neighboring Kenya,
but Erdogan and his wife live together in Mogadishu. "My family lives here
to share the reality with me," Erdogan said. He doesn't downplay the risks.
"Our lives are always in danger; one can expect to die any time in Somalia.
However, the satisfaction of delivering aid to starving people who face
death keeps us working, whatever the security situation is."
Erdogan is far from alone. Turkish Ambassador C. Kani Torun, Ankara's first
Somalia-based envoy since 1991, estimates there are between 150 and 200
Turkish nationals currently based in the country. At least 500 more Turks --
many of them with little experience abroad -- came to volunteer in the
months after the famine was declared, a period that corresponded with the
Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice.
The influx of Turkish aid workers has corresponded with a fresh interest by
the Ankara government in Somali affairs. In 2010, Turkey established itself
as a key international player in Somalia by hosting an international
conference in Istanbul that focused on security and investment in a country
more often thought of for piracy and social chaos. Then last August, Turkish
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a landmark trip to Mogadishu,
traveling with his family and a plane full of ministers and advisors. They
only stayed for the day, but the visit -- the first by a non-African leader
in more than 20 years -- made a lasting impression.
"In Turkish culture, it is believed that something good will come out of all
bad experiences," Erdogan wrote in
0,0&hidecomments=yes> an article for Foreign Policy last October. "In
Somalia, too, this disaster [the 2011 famine] can mark the beginning of a
new process by focusing international humanitarian efforts and global
attention on the plight of the region."
Turkey's leadership in Somalia has left some international players impressed
(the Turks are "ballsy," one Western analyst told me), others skeptical
("cowboys," said a Western aid worker), and most a bit of both. But there's
no question that Turkish aid workers have received a warm welcome among
Somalis, achieving a level of access that their Western counterparts can
only dream of.
"Prime Minister Erdogan smashed that wall that made Mogadishu a no-go zone,"
Mogadishu mayor Mohamed Nur said. "That was the best gift that Somali people
can have in the last 20 years. It completely changed the face of Mogadishu"
and marked the start of a series of visits by foreign ministers from other
countries, he said.
Make no mistake: Mogadishu is still extremely dangerous for foreigners,
especially humanitarian workers that hail from Europe and the United States.
In a grisly incident last December, a disgruntled member of Médecins sans
Frontières' own local team
ks-msf-endures.html> gunned down two of the group's longtime employees in
Mogadishu. A month later, U.S. Navy SEALs
n-somalia-rescued-by-us-navy-seals-in-overnight-raid> staged a nighttime
raid to rescue an American aid worker and her Danish colleague who had been
kidnapped in central Somalia and held for three months.
Kidnapping risks are so high and security so unpredictable that until
recently few foreign aid workers were able to spend any significant time in
Mogadishu, and many areas in the south continue to be considered totally
inaccessible. One Western aid worker employed by a government with a long
history of humanitarian engagement in Somalia said that he has only ever
traveled to the capital once in seven years on the job -- and then only for
Remarkably, there have been no reports of Turkish nationals being killed or
kidnapped in Somalia. As I walked through camps for displaced people in
Mogadishu, children and adults alike shouted out in excitement, "Turkei!
Turkei!" -- the presumed nationality of anyone obviously not Somali. An
ambulance with Turkish lettering drove by, two white faces in the front
seats and no apparent security. Turkish aid workers in the camp wore
bright-colored vests bearing the emblems of their organizations, not body
armor. It's a far cry from the typical U.N. approach of rolling into a camp
in an armored personnel carrier, sporting flak jackets and helmets, and
encircled by a group of well-armed peacekeepers.
How have the Turks managed to avoid the security pitfalls that have befallen
the many outsiders who have come to Somalia -- with cash, solemn pledges to
help restore stability, and notions about governance -- since the government
fell in 1991?
"Because they are welcome here!" said a Somali businessman. "They decided to
stay, even if it's too risky here, [because] they help the people." He said
Somalis see Turks around town, going to mosque, without obviously displaying
the fear characteristic of most foreigners. "Somalis see them coming and
going every day and they are pleased," he said.
Their shared Islamic faith provides an underpinning for strong
Somali-Turkish relations. But it is also the Turks' understated approach to
working in Somalia, and their willingness to provide direct assistance
(even, according to several aid workers, in the form of hard cash), and
Ankara's engagement at the highest levels -- especially with Somalia's
Transitional Federal Government (TFG) -- that has gone far to earn Turkey
favored status in Somalia.
"With the Turkish mentality, as a Muslim, we aren't separating ourselves
from the public," said Serhat Orakci of the Turkish aid group IHH, which
drew international attention in May 2010 when it sponsored the Gaza-bound
flotilla that was violently raided by the Israel Defense Forces. IHH has had
a presence in Somalia for 15 years and boosted its efforts there in response
to last year's famine. "We live near to people, we stay in cheap hotels, we
don't go to luxury restaurants, sometimes we visit their homes and eat with
them," Orakci said.
Asked if this approach is a formal policy of IHH, Orakci laughed, wiping
beads of sweat from his temple. He wore a slightly wrinkled dark suit,
despite the afternoon sun. "This is our lifestyle. In Turkey also we live
like this. It's not something we planned and teach our staff; this is our
The famine was crucial in bolstering popular support in Turkey for
heightened engagement in Somalia, aid workers and diplomats said. "A lot of
Turkish news channels came to Mogadishu and broadcast images of starving
Somalis," Orakci said. Turkish people were moved at a time when they were
fasting and making sacrifices for the holy month of Ramadan -- "it had a big
effect," he added. And with Turkey's economy on the rise, logging 8.5
percent growth in 2011, people increasingly have the means to give. Aid
groups launched large public campaigns that generated tens of millions of
dollars for famine relief.
The combination of this private support and help from the government in
Ankara has had a powerful effect. During his visit, Erdogan announced plans
to reopen Turkey's embassy in Somalia, a pledge he made good on in November.
Turkish money -- nearly $350 million between private donations and
government contributions combined, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry
-- paid for the reconstruction of hospitals and visits by Turkish doctors,
opened schools, sent hundreds of Somali students to Turkey on scholarships,
and rehabilitated the airport, among other projects. Last month, Turkish
Airlines began twice-weekly flights to Mogadishu from Istanbul. Its first
commercial jet landed at the city's international airport to much fanfare
and a welcoming party that included the Somali president.
Measured by dollar amount, Turkey's contributions over the past year are on
par with other international actors long engaged in Somalia. But Turkey is
doing a better job of "marketing their assistance," said E.J. Hogendoorn,
the Horn of Africa director for International Crisis Group. Because the
Turks are seen as having a novel approach and strong relations with TFG
officials, they could have a major influence on the political process.
"The big question will be whether Turkey will learn [the context of Somalia]
quickly enough to not get duped by the TFG," Hogendoorn said, explaining
that Somali leaders have become expert at playing international actors off
of each other to get what they want. "Somali elites have been doing this for
20 years," he said, a nod to the two decades since Somalia's central
government fell and various leaders and factions have vied for power.
Others are less charitable about Turkey's method for distributing
humanitarian aid. Rashid Abdi, an independent Nairobi-based Somalia analyst,
called Turkey's initial approach "uncritical" and "naïve," but he said that
Turkish leaders have demonstrated some willingness to learn from criticisms
-- for one, the importance of engaging Somali leaders outside of the capital
and not "mistaking Mogadishu for Somalia."
But Abdi is critical of Turkish aid groups and government agencies' habit of
casting aside longstanding methods for delivering assistance. "Bypassing the
traditional mechanisms for aid delivery in Somalia did not make them
effective; it just created the conditions for that aid to be captured by
mafia-types in the TFG and elsewhere," Abdi said. "I'm not a great defender
of the Somalia aid industry. But there's no other mechanism [in the country]
that delivers aid better. Solo efforts in Somalia don't work."
While Turkey's approach to aid delivery hasn't yet tarnished its reputation
in Somalia, it is likely to reinforce the view among the political class
that Turkey is yet another outside power that can be easily manipulated.
Somali leaders see Turkey's humanitarian efforts "as a banner of heaven to
wean off of Western aid," Abdi said.
Istanbul will host another international conference on Somalia in June,
which is currently slated to be the last major gathering before the TFG's
mandate expires and -- if the process goes according to plan -- a more
representative government under a new constitution comes to power. (Popular
elections are still a ways off.) Analysts say that Turkey clearly has strong
opinions about Somalia's political process -- this conference may be the
moment Ankara attempts to translate its humanitarian good deeds into
Sitting in the garden of a pleasant but unpretentious guesthouse in a
Nairobi suburb during a rare visit to Kenya, Turkish Ambassador Torun didn't
offer many specifics about Turkish policy toward the transition, but
suggested that Western concern about possible TFG efforts to extend its
mandate were misplaced. He said that his experience working with Somalia's
current leaders contradicts the "rumors" in Nairobi and Western capitals
that the TFG is angling for an extension. "They [TFG leaders] want to
complete this transition period as soon as possible, so I don't see that
they are spoiling the process," Torun said.
Turkey is thought to have close ties with several leading politicians in the
transitional government, in particular with Somali President Sheikh Sharif
Ahmed, whose wife (one of three) is said to reside in Turkey. Regarding
Sharif's role in Somalia's post-transition political landscape, Torun was
diplomatic but unambiguous: Sharif's position will "depend on the
Parliament's decision; however, I think he should have a role."
That's a markedly different opinion from the view held by many observers of
Somali politics. Sharif has been "completely inept," said a Horn of Africa
analyst who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. "It was a big mistake in
2009 to have elected him -- and this is a view echoed by Somalis on the
streets. He has ... squandered every opportunity to fix Somalia. I hope to
God that he retires somewhere quietly."
Torun didn't shy away from discussing the economic opportunities also
driving Turkey's engagement. "The Turkish approach to Africa is a kind of
win-win situation," he said, pointing out that Turkey has opened 31 new
embassies across the continent since 2005. "In some parts of Africa we
already have historical and cultural links, but we want to extend these
links and open up for business."
Turkish private investment in Africa has risen sharply over the past decade.
In 2000, there was "scarcely any" Turkish investment on the continent,
according to the Turkish Ministry of Economy. That began to change in 2003,
and by late 2011, investment exceeded $5 billion. The government's
engagement with Somalia has fueled private sector interest. A representative
of Turkey's largest business alliance, TUSKON, said that Somalia is
increasingly on the radar of Turkish investors, particularly for its
potential in construction, building materials, real estate, mining, and
While these economic considerations are a factor, Torun emphasized that in
Somalia the interest is primarily humanitarian, and he shrugged off critics
of Turkey's go-it-alone approach. "The typical Somalia approach by the
international community, especially Western governments, deals with
politicians -- that's it. Conferences, conferences, endless conferences. And
people don't have any trust, any confidence in this," Torun said. "All the
money we use we bring to Somalia through our government and agencies, and
Somalis use it directly. If they deliver food, they deliver it themselves.
If there is need for medical relief, we bring Turkish doctors."
But it is precisely this emphasis on patronage that analysts say overlooks
the importance of Somali initiative and dangerously reinforces the
expectation of handouts that has left Somalia dependent on aid and trapped
under the thumb of warlords in the first place.
With longer-term projects -- like building hospitals and roads -- the Turks
have established a reputation of professionalism, said a non-Somali analyst.
"But when it comes to emergency assistance, their approach has very much
been charity-based, which is the traditional Muslim way of doing zakat
[giving alms] and is done without much analysis, without much consideration
for the longer term," the analyst said. "You see someone who's hungry, you
give them food. You see a government that's in crisis, you give them cargo."
It's a course long charted by a host of international actors, with little
lasting positive impact. After Somalia's more than 20 years of war, even
skeptics hope Turkey can find that delicate balance between partnership and
tough love. Turkey's new humanitarians could be game changers -- if they can
avoid wearing out their welcome.
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Received on Thu Apr 26 2012 - 09:22:55 EDT