international observers are often fascinated with the Somalian people’s close relations with Turkey and their appreciation for the support. Indeed, as a recovering state that has experienced one of the most traumatic civil wars in modern history, Somali has been and continues to be assisted by many partner nations and agencies in different ways alongside Turkey. Of course, for this, the Somali people and government are grateful, but the question remains, what makes Turkish assistance so much more appealing to the Somali people?
Somali will never forget President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first visit with his family and a plane full of cabinet ministers, humanitarian professionals and business leaders at the height of the 2011 famine. By simply setting foot in a supposed international no-go zone, President Erdoğan re-injected hope and optimism in the Somali people. Erdoğan ultimately dismissed the hopelessness attached to Somalia by the international community by making clear that African country did not need containment like an international pariah state, but instead it needed support to be able to stand up once again and contribute to its own stability and progress. Now, many foreign dignitaries regularly visit Somalia, but the year 2011 was a game changer for Somalia and the way the world viewed it simply because of President Erdoğan’s visit.
Following the 2011 visit, President Erdoğan has went many more times to Somalia and each time the Turkish government’s efforts in Somalia have become more visible. Where most international support to Somalia is through multilateral channels, Turkish financial and development assistance has always been direct and driven by public need and national priorities. Among these are the infrastructure that Mogadishu and other cities rely on including roads, hospitals and the management of the port and airport for service delivery and revenue generation to finance public expenditure. In addition, Turkish schools and professionals are living and working alongside the Somali population and strengthening people to people relations that are crucial for confidence building and changing the still dominant negative narrative on Somalia.
The best example of Turkey leading the way in direct response to Somali needs is the immediate arrival of Turkish health assistance after the most recent devastating terrorist attacks in Mogadishu a few weeks ago, which killed over 300 people. In addition to sending the first medical plane to provide emergency treatment and then evacuating many of the most injured, Turkish Health Minister Ahmet Demircan also visited the day after to show solidarity and reiterate Turkish commitment to supporting Somalia through this difficult process. At a time when the world stood still in shock, the Turkish government responded without hesitation. This no doubt truly touched the hearts and minds of the Somalians everywhere, so much so that Turkey is now clearly seen as Somalia’s first responder by its people.
The success of the Turkish engagement and partnership in Somalia has been its directness, swiftness and visibility. The Turkish engagement has cut out expensive foreign middlemen and the crippling bureaucracy associated with international multilateral assistance that delays development. Turkish Airlines (THY) is the only international carrier that flies to Mogadishu, Turkish investors are the first on the ground, Turkish hospitals and schools are among the key public service providers Somalis rely on, and Turkey has established a training facility to train the next generation of Somali soldiers where others have been concerned with training units for smaller operations.
As a recovering state, Somalia must be, and already is, grateful to all those partners that support it. In total, these pay more financially than Turkey itself contributes to Somalia through multilateral framework and networks. However, this assistance is hard to quantify as it is mainly statistics and academic and not very visible. The citizens of Somalia, the main beneficiaries of all assistance, do not want just paper reports of progress but real deliverables that improve their daily lives. The Turkish government seems to have understood this well not just in Somalia but also across the whole African continent.
What other partners can learn from the Turkish engagement in Somalia is that it is impossible to support a country like Somalia to develop without trusting its slowly strengthening institutions. Of course, Somali institutions must strengthen and improve further in transparency and service delivery, but they cannot do this if all assistance is channeled through third party agencies that themselves are enormous bureaucratic black holes.
For now and the foreseeable future, Turkey will remain Somalia’s first responder. However, the Somali government must use the good relations with Turkey and its direct diverse support to illustrate to other valuable partners that Somalia has truly turned the corner towards stability, good governance and progress. This Turkey cannot do for Somalia.
* Former senior adviser at the Somali Foreign Ministry. He now serves as the chief policy coordinator in the Federal Ministry of Finance in Somalia