For a few years now, I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of Turkey’s interest in Somalia. Since 2011, Turkey has been playing a leading role in Somalia’s rebuilding process; along with providing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian relief, they have invested heavily in major infrastructure projects such as the renovation of the Aden Adde airport. The undertaking of such grand initiatives makes it impossible not to notice Turkey’s impact in the country and these efforts have been extremely well received. Turkey, and it’s President Tayyip Erdogan, seem to be immune from our usual skepticism towards outsiders and their activities inside Somalia. Why is this so?
There are a few reasons why Turkey seems to be resistant to criticism. For obvious historical reasons, our colonialism-imperialism radar is better at detecting Western suspects; any attempts at intervening in domestic affairs by the old players will always be met with heavy scrutiny. Due to historical grievances and currently tense relations, there is also skepticism towards the activities and motives of neighbouring African countries in Somalia. Turkey, being neither a Western country nor a fellow African country, is met with considerably less suspicion. The Turkish presence is also more welcome due to the shared religion between the two countries. Furthermore, Turkey’s approach to development and rebuilding has been very different from traditional development organisations and institutions. For example, whereas most development organisations working in Somalia are based in neighbouring countries like Kenya, Turkey has been operating from the capital city of Mogadishu. Erdogan’s visits to Mogadishu alone were notable; he visited the so called “most dangerous city in the world” with his wife without heavy security. The optics of his visits, I must admit, were pretty powerful.
But why is Turkey, and Erdogan specifically, so interested in supporting Somalia? It’s not necessary to delve into IR theories to figure out that Turkey’s aid and investment is probably not for purely altruistic reasons. Turkey, just like every other state, is self-interested and sees the current potential in investing in Somalia as well as in expanding its sphere of influence. That being said, it doesn’t (yet) seem to be an exploitative relationship; whatever profit and influence Turkey is gaining from this relationship is helping facilitate the revitalization of the country at the same time.
As hard as I’ve been trying, I have yet to find strong enough reasons to be distrustful of the increasingly active role Turkey has been playing in Somalia. So what is it that’s bothering me? Perhaps it’s a matter of pride; without diminishing the positive impact Turkey has had in Somalia, it makes me feel somewhat defeated to see us so dependent on an outsider/outsiders. Maybe these recent developments will help bring us to a place of self-reliance? Or perhaps it’s Erdogan himself. The Turkish leader has been receiving praise and admiration from all corners of Somali society despite his problematic positions within his own country.
My tendency to view this increasing role in Somalia as imperialism with a friendly, culturally similar cover might be wrong, so, as long as the relationship between the two countries remains an equal and mutually beneficial one, I will hold off any potential condemnations.