Ankara and Mogadishu have long been friends. And a new military training camp might strengthen ties – or cause others to sit up and take notice.
In the upcoming months, Turkey will open its largest overseas military training camp – in Somalia.
“It is not a military base like the one Turkey has in Qatar,” Turkey’s ambassador to Somalia, Olgan Bekar, told TRT World, as he sought to correct media reports that claimed Turkey is constructing a military base in Mogadishu.
“It’s a military training camp.” But does the distinction matter?
What is the purpose of the camp?
The training camp, whose construction began in March 2015, occupies 400 hectares in Mogadishu, the nation’s capital. It houses three military schools, dormitories and depots.
It will have the capacity to train more than 1,500 troops at any one time, by 200 military officers.
The 200 Turkish soldiers will be sent to the camp as trainers and to provide the compound with security.
Turkey already has military attaches in Somalia serving on the diplomatic staff of its embassy, Bekar said.
But these attaches differ from the military officers that Turkey will send Somalia for the camp, he added.
Why set up the camp?
The camp is aimed at training Somali soldiers in the fight against the Al Shabab militant group that ruled most of south-central Somalia until 2011, when African Union troops drove them out of Mogadishu.
The armed group still wants to topple the government.
Its militants carry out gun and bomb attacks to drive out peacekeeping forces made up of soldiers from Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda, Ethiopia and other African countries.
But some of those peacekeepers have also committed abuses against Somalis, staining international involvement in the conflict. To date, Turkey’s reputation in Somalia is intact, but military engagement carries its own risks.
Does Turkey have a colonialist approach?
“Turkey has no colonialist policy in Somalia,” said Bekar.
Training Somali soldiers is Turkey’s first goal – but Turkish authorities have a bigger mission at hand.
“Ankara aims to help Somalia rebuild its public institutions that have been ruined since 1991. Turkey will train Somali soldiers here so that the Somali army can recuperate,” Bekar said.
How long has Turkey been active in Somalia?
Bekar said Turkey became very active in Somalia after 2011, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Mogadishu. The visit was warmly received.
However, Turkey’s presence in the African country precedes that date.
Somalia gained its independence in 1960 and Turkey opened its embassy in 1979. After civil war broke out in Somalia, Turkey shut down its embassy in 1991. Anarchy set in.
Between 1991 and 2011, relations ceased between the two countries.
Why choose Somalia?
Turkey launched an African initiative in 2005 to establish closer ties with its allies in the continent.
In an opinion piece he wrote for Al Jazeera, Erdogan said that Ankara’s foreign policy has a comprehensive focus on Africa because the continent has vast natural resources, entrepreneurial spirit, and a young and vibrant population.
But Turkey’s relationship with Somalia has always been unusual.
Bekar said this was because the nation was forgotten in the international arena, even though it had endured a civil war and a brutal famine.
“Turkey wanted to bring Somalia on the international community’s agenda,” Bekar said.
“After Erdogan’s visit, the nation came back to the agenda. Global actors remembered Somalis. This was why Turkey focused on Somalia.”
“Turkey has come to Somalia at a time when Somalia was in need. Erdogan’s visit to Somalia was absolutely a game-changing activity in Somalia’s development,” Somalia’s former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said in an interview with Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA).
Hundreds of Turkish doctors were sent to Somalia, not only to supply the health services needed, but also to train Somalia health personnel. Many Somali students study nursing in Turkey. (AA)
What else is Turkey’s doing in Somalia?
For many years, TIKA has supplied humanitarian aid to Somalia. Recently, Turkey’s flagship airliner Turkish Airlines supplied 60 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the famine-struck country as part of a social media campaign #TurkishAirlinesHelpSomalia.
“But this is not only about delivering humanitarian aid,” said Bekar.
“Turkey has been delivering humanitarian aid but at the same time it launched many development programmes in Somalia. We help Somalis to build capacity security, health and education sectors. This is what makes Turkey different than the other humanitarian aid supplier countries.”