One of the marks of a true friend is that they stand by you in your darkest days. Well when it comes to dark days Somalia has certainly had more than its fair share. If it has not been natural disasters such as drought and famine it has been the nefarious activities of mankind. Suffering has been seared into the Somali psyche to such a degree that self reliance has become integral to survival. Yet for all the inner resilience, steely determination and spirit of independence of the Somali people there have been a few nations who have proved their worth as friends and chief of these has been Turkey. In truth we should not be at all surprised, for Somalia and Turkey have certain similarities. For a start Islam provides a golden thread, a fact that is especially relevant at this time of Ramadan. The fraternal spirit has been the subject of countless references in speeches, and clearly is central. It is one of the reasons why so many Somalis feel at ease studying in Turkey, and they are indeed studying there in increasing numbers. Historic links going back to the Ottoman period also continue to loom large in the memory, with the relationship largely viewed as a positive one.
Viewed from Mogadishu Turkey is seen as so much more than benevolent, it is seen as being in the vanguard when it comes to those nations helping rebuild Somalia. Here is a country not only generous in its words, but even more so with its deeds. Turkey’s zakat has touched the hearts of the vast majority of Somalis and helped forge a bond of trust that no other country can match. Where others have been generous with warm words, Turkey has more than matched its words with deeds. Schools, hospitals, infrastructure projects and even markets have all benefitted thanks to Turkey’s munificence and foresight. Turkey has undoubtedly played the long game and yet has already won hearts and minds. The scholarships and training it has offered is helping with capacity building, and the regular flights from Turkey to Somalia have proved an important psychological and physical link with the wider world. After the US and the UK, Turkey is third largest donor of aid, but in Somali eyes is viewed as the number one in the spirit in which it appears to be given. The well of affection that Somalis have towards Turkey is extraordinarily deep, something that is as remarkable as it can be occasionally disconcerting. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has approval ratings in Somalia that most world leaders can only dream of. Such is the esteem with which Turkey is held by Somalis that there is a very real danger that any real objectivity is being lost. Turkophilia is all well and good, but blind admiration is neither good for Turkey nor for Somalia.
Turkey has proved to be remarkable friend to Somalia, yet should not be beyond censure or reproach. Aid is always problematic, replete as it often is with expectations and assumptions. Whether Turkey’s generosity is based on unalloyed altruism, I am not in a position to say. What I do know is that for Somalia it has been a game changer, free as it has been from the conditions or political overtones that often appears to taint Western generosity. That said, for all Turkey’s undoubted kindness Somalis would do well to be circumspect when it comes to the Turkish manifestation of democracy, freedom of speech and the press.
As Somalia finds its equilibrium again, it will need friends such as Turkey to help it get up to speed, especially in regards to innovation and manufacturing. The Turks have a wealth of expertise in respect of energy production and infrastructure projects, and could be well placed to develop the Somali fruit sector and possibly help revive cotton production in Balad and adjacent areas. In the areas of literacy* and health there is much that Somalia can learn from Turkey. It is equally important that Somalia be in a position where it can teach its Turkish friends a thing or two, for by so doing it will earn the lasting respect that it deserves.
Mark T. Jones
Experienced Advisor on Leadership, Organisational Development & African Affairs