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Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Defuse tensions in key Somali region
Briefing 92 / Africa

Assessing Turkey’s Role in Somalia

As a new Somali government is established, Turkey’s engagement in the war-ravaged country must be thoughtful and carefully coordinated so as not to lead to yet another failed international intervention.

I. Overview

Turkey is the newest country to intervene in Somalia and its involvement has produced some positive results. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s courageous visit to Mogadishu in August 2011 at the height of the famine and his decision to open an embassy gave fresh impetus to efforts to establish lasting peace. Widespread Somali gratitude for Turkish humanitarian endeavours and the country’s status as a Muslim and democratic state established Turkey as a welcome partner. Ankara has signalled it is in for the long haul. However, it must tread prudently, eschew unilateralism and learn lessons to avoid another failed international intervention. Over twenty years, many states and entities have tried to bring relief and secure peace in Somalia, often leaving behind a situation messier than that which they found. Ankara must appreciate it alone cannot solve the country’s many challenges, but must secure the support and cooperation of both the Somali people and international community. Trying to go solo could backfire, hamper ongoing efforts and lose the immense good-will it has accumulated.

Turkey’s presence on the ground is relatively small, but because of its timely famine relief and the apparent strength of its commitment, as well as Somalis’ gratitude, its contribution is seen as colossal. In addition to its embassy, there are about a dozen governmental and non-gov­ern­men­tal organisations (NGOs) with a limited presence on the ground working in Mogadishu. But Somalis’ dream of a quick and comprehensive recovery has created great expectations in the regions that are not receiving Turkish assistance, particularly because of their highly visible activities in Mogadishu. Yet, besides generous diplomatic and political support, its means are modest and its material support to Somalia will probably remain limited. If the Somali people’s high expectations are not moderated and if Ankara is unable to expand its relief and development aid to peaceful regions outside Mogadishu, the Turkey-Somalia partnership could be strained or quickly transformed into a relationship beset by resentment.

Vocal Somali criticism of the two conferences (civil society and government) held in Istanbul from late May to early June 2012 should serve as an important reminder about the volatility of and multiple fault lines in Somali politics. Somalia’s main political actors backpedalled on clear political understandings they had with Ankara (such as the traditional elders’ planned trip to Istanbul to participate in the civil society gathering) and openly criticised and confronted their host on seemingly benign issues. Turkey overcame these unexpected impediments because of diplomatic insights gained from its on-the-ground presence and support from international partners. It should use its new experience to build consensus and improve external coordination if its intervention is to be effective.

As a new Somali government is established, Turkey is expected to, and can, play an important role in helping stabilise and develop the war-ravaged country. In order to play a major and sustained role in Somalia, Ankara should:

  • lay out a public, clear and realistic long-term strategy for its Somalia policy, backed by secure funding and an increase in the number of specialists in both Mogadishu and Ankara dedicated to its efforts in Somalia, and in particular build up its knowledge of Somalia and coordinate with other countries and international agencies active in the country;
  • remain impartial in internal politics and avoid being manipulated by Somali politicians long experienced in outwitting foreign newcomers;
  • expand targeted assistance to peaceful regions outside of Mogadishu;
  • prioritise institution building and knowledge transfer, including investing in the return of educated diaspora Somalis;
  • help with political party development, constitutional reform and the creation of accountable institutions;
  • take a more active role in UN peacebuilding efforts;
  • manage Somali expectations of how much assistance it can provide;
  • establish a standardised and transparent bidding process for contracts and subcontracts to avoid empowering predatory businesspeople;
  • offer mediation expertise and financial assistance to peace and reconciliation efforts;
  • stop being indifferent to the endemic Somali corruption and tie diplomatic and development assistance to upholding the rule of law and establishing accountable and effective institutions;
  • provide more support to AMISOM and integrate security assistance within existing international mechanisms, rather than embarking on a parallel and duplicate process;
  • help Somalia create a professional, decentralised police force, which, rather than external forces such as AMISOM, will be responsible for the consolidation of peace and security;
  • coordinate with other countries and international agencies to prevent overlap and ensure aid is provided strategically;
  • ensure Turkish businesspeople operating in Somalia neither exploit vulnerable Somalis nor are exploited by Somali elite; and
  • support the Joint Financial Management Board agreed to at the London and Istanbul conferences to ensure that government revenue and international assistance is used appropriately and efficiently.

This briefing outlines Turkey’s ongoing operations and achievements so far. As Somalia enters a new and uncertain post-transition phase, Ankara may likely face obstacles and will run into the country’s complicated political and security environment in delivering on numerous expectations as its honeymoon with Somalis ends. To avoid this, the briefing suggests practical steps to make the Turkish-Somalia cooperation sustainable and mutually beneficial.

Nairobi/Istanbul/Brussels, 8 October 2012

Op-Ed / Africa

Defuse tensions in key Somali region

Originally published in Daily Nation

Only a border post and a few hundred metres of dirt road stand between Mandera in northernmost Kenya and the town of Beled Hawo, in Somalia’s Gedo region, where clashes erupted on March 2 between forces loyal to the Somali federal government and those answering to the Jubaland administration. It claimed six civilian lives and displaced 56,000 people.

This latest violence in Gedo, which was preceded by other skirmishes in February, is yet another manifestation of the centre-periphery tensions that have plagued Somali politics for more than a decade.

It was the worst incident yet in an ongoing dispute between Mogadishu and Jubaland triggered by an August 2019 regional vote that saw Ahmed Mohamed Islam “Madobe” win a second term as Jubaland president. The federal government argues the election was flawed.

Kenya and Ethiopia, both lying a stone’s throw from Beled Hawo, are not passive observers: Nairobi supports Madobe while Addis Ababa backs the federal government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”. Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, who are in Jubaland as part of the African Union mission (Amisom) fighting Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency, have thus far not been drawn in.

Layer of Complexity

Still, the two regional powerhouses’ involvement adds another layer of complexity to the Gedo tensions and could set off a wider regional crisis.

The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.

The infighting undermines the main goal of their presence in Somalia: tackling Al-Shabaab’s long-running insurgency that threatens regional security.

Kenya, in particular, has an interest in fostering stability in Gedo given how instability in Jubaland spills over into northern Kenya. As Crisis Group details in a recent briefing, Nairobi and Addis Ababa should act quickly to resolve the dispute.

Kenya has long seen Jubaland as a buffer protecting it from increased incursions from Al-Shabaab.

The Gedo violence and rift between Nairobi and Addis Ababa harm both Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interests.

Porous Buffer

In reality, that buffer has proven porous; for years militants have mounted attacks and put down roots in northern Kenya. Still, Madobe remains Nairobi’s partner of choice, especially as relations with Mogadishu nosedived following renewed disagreement in 2019 over the maritime border.

For Ethiopia, however, Farmajo is an ally. Since Abiy Ahmed assumed Ethiopia’s premiership in April 2018, Addis Ababa has moved from supporting Jubaland to tightening relations with the Somali government, believing that a stronger central administration can better help stabilise the country.

Both Nairobi and Addis Ababa are keen to avoid direct fighting between their forces.

Still, their discord came uncomfortably close to blows on 22 August 2019, the day of the Jubaland election, when a plane carrying Ethiopian forces attempted to land at the airport in Kismayo, the Jubaland capital, but was prevented from doing so by Jubaland and Kenyan troops.

The unambiguous beneficiary is Al-Shabaab. With forces from both sides pinned down facing each other and unlikely to commit to counter-insurgency efforts for fear of weakening their positions, the militants are finding more space to operate. Gedo residents already report an increased Al Shabaab presence and an uptick in attacks.

Pro-Jubaland Forces in Mandera

The standoff is especially detrimental to Nairobi’s “buffer” strategy, which suffers from the fact that attention is distracted from fighting Al-Shabaab. The conflict spills over in other ways too; Mandera governor Ali Roba openly complains that the presence of pro-Jubaland forces in his county is destabilising.

As for Amisom, its effectiveness is further eroded by the tensions between Ethiopia and Kenya, two of its largest troop contributors.

Ending the tensions in the Gedo region entails solving rifts at several levels. For now, the priority is for Kenya and Ethiopia to reconcile, thus opening space to address local dynamics.

After Beled Hawo, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia rightly scheduled a tripartite summit on 16 March. The meeting between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Abiy Ahmed and Farmajo was, however, postponed indefinitely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They should resurrect it.

Nairobi and Addis Ababa should urge Madobe and Farmajo to embrace dialogue and make difficult compromises. Mogadishu might, for example, recognise Madobe’s full term in office in return for Madobe pledging to cooperate with Farmajo.

Otherwise, the political infighting will continue playing into Al-Shabaab’s hands, helping it to entrench itself on Kenya’s doorstep.