Turkey launches African charm offensive in Mogadishu

By Simon Allison 18 August 2011

Somalia might not be everyone’s first choice for a family holiday, but that’s exactly where Turkey’s PM is taking the wife and kid. The Turkish first family arrive in Mogadishu today, and bring with them R1 billion of food and supplies for famine relief. This is how to take the diplomatic initiative, and it just might represent the beginning of Turkey’s big push into Africa. By SIMON ALLISON.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Turkey’s new aggressive foreign policy is its ability to get things done. Wanting to make a fuss about Israel’s blockade of Gaza, it didn’t wait for the UN Security Council to stir itself into action, but organised the infamous Freedom Flotilla which lured Israel into perhaps its greatest diplomatic blunder. Even Hillary Clinton has told Israel to apologise for storming the ships stocked with humanitarian supplies. And seeing the situation in Syria was getting very ugly very quickly, Turkey immediately made provision for the influx of refugees which it knew were coming, hastily erecting a tent city to house them.

Now, understanding the gravity of the situation in Somalia and realising there’s not nearly enough money being raised to deal with the crisis, Turkey undertook to raise a hefty chunk itself. Having already sent three planes loaded with dozens of tons of food and medical supplies to Somalia, it used its position as  chair of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to summon the 57 member states to an emergency meeting in Istanbul, where it bullied them into handing over cash. So far $150 million has been raised – approximately R1 billion. Never one to miss an opportunity to make a little political capital, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the meeting as an opportunity to highlight the poor response of the rest of the world, particularly the west. “If you ride a luxury car you should be generous enough to people who are struggling with hunger,” he said. “I hope the efforts (of the OIC) will mobilise the sleeping consciences. We hope the Western world, which likes to boast about its per capita income, shows its support for Somalia.”

Erdogan will be showing his support in person. To make sure the money’s used properly, he’s going to oversee distribution of supplies himself. Not from the safety of Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, which is where most NGOs are based, but in Mogadishu itself. And just to show he really means it, he’s taking his wife and daughter with him.

Take a second to picture the impact of his visit in a country that has been largely ignored and abandoned by the world for decades (except when foreign troops come in with tanks and helicopter gunships). In Somalia’s hour of greatest need, while the people are still starving and the bullets are still flying, the one foreign leader who puts in a personal appearance is going to be a hero, and is going to have influence in the country for years to come. Posters of Erdogan have already appeared in downtown Mogadishu. One reads “We are grateful to you [Turkey] for not forgetting us on this day.” And the fact that he’s coming with his wife and daughter sends a resounding message both to Somalis and to the rest of the world that Somalia isn’t as dangerous as we all think it is. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant; it’s the symbolism that counts.

Now let’s put this in perspective. African countries, between them, haven’t managed to raise $50 million. In fact, $50 million is the optimistic target set by aid agency Oxfam for the continent, and one which we’re on course to miss completely. South Africa’s donated around $1 million, and Namibia $500,000. The emergency AU pledging conference, scheduled for the beginning of this month, was postponed until 25 August, despite the urgency of the situation. The only African leader who’s been to Mogadishu was Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who paid a fleeting and secret visit to the capital in June – hardly a morale booster, especially as he was probably only there to visit his troops which are such a large proportion of the AU troops protecting the city.

Turkey’s graceful and well-executed humanitarian intervention isn’t just about the famine in Somalia, of course. There’s a bigger picture, and it involves Turkey’s bid to re-establish itself as the pre-eminent power in the Muslim world, as well as a concerted effort to establish itself in Africa, which it views as a potentially lucrative market for Turkey’s huge manufacturing base. “There is a scramble for Africa now, particularly with China, and Turkey does not want to be left behind,” said Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs analyst who writes for Turkish media.

It seems all the world’s powers are turning their attention to Africa these day, and all stand to gain hugely from their involvement in and with the continent. The only place losing out in the new scramble for Africa is Africa itself, and, judging from our response to the Somali crisis, it’s nobody’s fault but our own. DM

Read more:

  • Muslim Nations hold emergency talks on Somalia on AFP;
  • Turkish PM to visit Famine-hit Somalia on AFP;
  • Africa skimping on Aid on TimesLIVE;
  • Rain prayer in Somalia in Turkish Weekly Journal.




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