A decade has passed since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan landed in Mogadishu at the height of one of Somalia’s worst famines, announcing grandiose projects like the launch of Turkish Airlines flights to the Somali capital, the remodeling of a hospital, and the opening of the biggest embassy in Africa, all designed to show that Turkey’s mission goes well beyond aid and that Ankara is an alternative to Somalia’s traditional donors. Erdoğan's historic visit earned him high praise throughout Somalia. Although his trip appeared to be a heartfelt humanitarian mission, in reality it was part of a long-term, strategically planned effort. Erdoğan had been scouting out Somalia as early as 2007, when he met the former President of the Transitional Federal Government Abdullahi Yusuf and asked him to provide a list of what Somalia needs. His efforts were fruitless, however, until President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed came to power in 2008. Sharif visited Turkey three times between 2009 and 2011, reluctantly signing a military pact with Turkey, which asked to help Somalia with security.
If Turkey had come to Somalia before 2011, it would have been seen as a foreign occupying force, just like the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), but in 2011, amid the devastation of one of the worst famines in the country’s history, Turkey’s self-proclaimed humanitarian mission was perceived differently. Erdoğan's historic visit to Somalia was well-orchestrated and well-timed: It came during the holy month of Ramadan, nine days before the Eid festival, after 250,000 Somalis had starved to death, and during an election year, at a time when Somalia’s donors were scrambling to address a major humanitarian crisis.
Ever since Erdoğan declared 2005 “the Year of Africa,” he has pursued every Muslim-majority African country that is widowed by conflict, locked out by the IMF, starved by man-made climate change, and neglected by the West; a fragile Somalia checks all the boxes.
A decade on, Somalis are starting to realize that Turkey has evolved from friend to foe, trade partner to trade protectionist, state builder to outright spoiler. Turkey is an opportunist just like any other country and has its own agenda focused on geoeconomics and geopolitics. Instead of facilitating Somalia’s development, Turkey has used state-sponsored corporations to exploit its assets, all as part of a development trap cloaked in the guise of religion.
The Turkish development trap
Post-2011, Turkey's humanitarian mission gradually shifted from an emphasis on soft power to a more assertive, politicized state-building effort involving de facto and de jure exploitation of Somalia’s federal government development projects and monopolization of the economy in Mogadishu’s Benadir region. Turkish private companies Albayrak Group and Favori LLC were given lucrative no-bid contracts to run Mogadishu’s port and airport and protected by Ankara. As was documented in a 2016 U.N. monitoring report, these companies have allegedly been engaged in criminal practices ranging from bribery of government ministers to money laundering.
Predatory practices and trade barriers
In 2010, Somalia exported $1.36 million worth of goods to Turkey and imported $4.8 million, which was a manageable trade deficit. After Albayrak Group took over the management of Mogadishu Port, however, Turkish exports to Somalia increased exponentially, growing to $37.5 million in 2011 and reaching $256 million in 2019, even as Somalia’s exports to Turkey rose to just $6.7 million over the same period. By comparison, in 2019 Somalia exported $18 million and $195 million to China and the UAE respectively. Although Somalia has a port revenue-sharing agreement with Albayrak, which receives 45%, this has resulted in one-sided expansion of trade, with Turkish traders importing nearly 50 times as much to Somalia as Somali traders exported to Turkey in 2020.
In 2015, Somalia’s Financial Government Committee (FGC) published a detailed report reviewing public procurement and concessions; among the concessions reviewed in the report were the contracts for Albayrak Group and Favori LLC, which manage two of the largest domestic revenue generators for the Somalia government. The committee found several flaws in the Albayrak concession that resulted in uncompetitive port service costs, reduced revenues, labor disputes, and a lack of clarity on revenue sharing despite a general agreement laying out a 45-55% split. The FGC recommended that “the federal government seek an amicable renegotiation of the contract’s more troubling clauses.”
Albayrak Group concession
Since Albayrak Group was awarded a non-tendered, 20-year concession to manage Mogadishu Port, it has been embroiled in scandals over allegations of everything from predatory practices like wage theft from employees and attempts to cover up rape to bribing government ministers and artificially inflating port management and operating expenses (thereby reducing government revenues while boosting company profits). Based on existing data before Albayrak took over the port, the monthly revenue was $6 million, and it subsequently increased to $10 million to $12 million per month; however, in 2014 Albayrak Group only reported $2.7 million per month in revenue. This reduced the government’s revenue share from 55% to 16% while increasing the company’s from 45% to 84%. Something similar happened in Guinea when Alpha Condé, the now-deposed president and a friend of Erdoğan, awarded Albayrak a 25-year lease for the port of Conarky and 82% of duties in what was widely perceived to be a sweetheart deal.
Favori LLC concession
As with Albayrak’s Mogadishu Port contract, the FGC has also called for amendments to the concession of Favori LLC, a subsidiary of Turkey’s Kozuva Group that manages Mogadishu airport under a 15-year deal signed on June 30, 2013. According to an aviation expert who examined the concession, Favori violated its contractual obligations by collecting illegal fees that should have been passed on to the Somali Civil Aviation and Meteorology Authority (SCAMA). Separate from the general revenue sharing, these allegedly include but are not limited to fees for landing, air navigation, parking, passenger safety, freight, and fuel.
According to interviews with local aviation experts and former employees, Favori has also failed to reconstruct the airport’s main runway, hampered development of local human resources by allocating key positions to non-Somalis, and neglected airport maintenance and safety, as required under its contract. Issues that should have been addressed in 2013 are only now being discussed. In addition, the company illegally built a hotel and shopping mall inside the airport property in a place that was supposed to be a parking lot for airport customers. It's not clear if the revenue generated from the Decale Hotel, which is a Somalia government asset, is supplemental revenue for the government or for Favori LLC.
Furthermore, according to a 2016 U.N. report, Favori LLC has inflated its expenses to maximize its profits, reporting monthly revenue of $1.16 million and expenses of more than $500,000 in 2016, compared to revenue of an estimated $8 million per month before it took over management of the airport. This reduced the government’s share of revenue from 45% to just 6%. Favori LLC even went so far as to claim asset depreciation as an expense, despite the fact that the assets in question are the Somalia government’s and not part of the contract. Rather than canceling the Favori LLC contract, the Somalia government re-negotiated terms with the company in May 2019, amid secrecy.
Favori LLC has faced repeated allegations of labor and human rights abuses against its employees, but the government has not taken action against the company. Favori LLC has allegedly bribed Somalia government officials with business class air tickets and free holidays stays in Turkey and seems to enjoy unlimited impunity. The Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU) has published a damming report documenting Favori LLC’s serious labor abuses that it says violate both Somalia’s constitution and International Labor Organization articles. FESTU filed a specific instance with the Turkish National Contact Point (NCP) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) against Favori LLC in February 2021.
Turkish concession risk and liabilities
From a legal perspective, both the Favori and Albayrak contracts were awarded under an opaque process and were not approved by the Somali parliament. As one legislator noted, “Any deal that is not approved by the parliament remains null and void.” This puts the Somalia government at risk of liability in both cases.
Though the government finally inked a 14-year concession to streamline revenue sharing and port development with Albayrak Group in October 2020, this largely reinforced the company’s original concession obligations. In addition, the revised concession has so many ambiguities that it's not clear if the new 14-year deal is an extension of the previous 20-year lease, if it requires Albayrak Group co-management as part of technical knowledge transfer, or if the Albayrak Group’s exclusive port financing rights provision prohibits using the port of Mogadishu as collateral to access international loans.
According to interviews with former employees, Favori LLC has allegedly repatriated its profits to Turkey in cash without making a transfer through the Somalia Central Bank, as required by Somalia’s finance laws, which would be a violation of the anti-money laundering/combatting the financing of terrorism act that was passed in 2016. This would also violate the Somalia government’s compliance with its debt relief obligations with the World Bank and IMF, including revenue mobilization and accountability requirements to reduce corruption and enhance monetary and financial sector governance.
Qatar-Turkey axis and geopolitical influence
Beyond the economic issues, Turkey’s involvement in Somalia has also entangled the African country in the broader regional geopolitical dispute between Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE on the other for influence in the Horn of Africa. While this rivalry seems to be easing at present, as Turkey and Qatar are making efforts to mend relations with Gulf countries and their regional allies, it may flare up again in the future, with consequences for Somalia.
Turkey and Qatar are brothers in arms with joint ventures ranging from support for the Muslim Brotherhood to financing Islamists and proxy wars in fragile countries all over the Middle East. Their bond grew stronger during the 2017 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, which pushed them into a geopolitical and geoeconomic alliance. The GCC crisis also spilled over into Somalia, when the new government led by Mohammed Abdullahi (known as Farmaajo), whose election was financed by Qatar, confiscated $9 million from an Emirati plane at Mogadishu airport. In retaliation, the UAE cut off support for the Somalia government, including military training, a devastating blow for the newly elected government and for a fragile state still recovering from one of its worst famines.
Though Turkey steered clear of the bickering between the Gulf countries in Somalia at the time, it had earlier pursued a covert plan with Qatar, in 2011 during the post-Arab Spring era, to sway Somalia's foreign policy away from the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and the African Union and align it with Egypt’s then-President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This effort failed as Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military in 2013.
Since 2009, Qatar and Turkey have pressured Somalia's government to negotiate with al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group based in Somalia. Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has been involved in negotiating the release of an Italian journalist kidnaped by al-Shabab in May 2020 in Somalia. The relationship between Turkish intelligence and al-Shabab was revealed by the Nordic Monitoring Group in 2021, which reported that MIT sent $600,000 to the group. This prompted Turkey's government to block the Nordic Monitoring Group and Somalia media outlets like Hiiraan Online from being accessed in Turkey. Both Qatar and Turkey have gone to great lengths to use their geopolitical influence to shape Somalia's foreign policy.
Turkey has also repeatedly tried to serve as an arbiter in Somalia-Somaliland talks, sending its ambassador Elgon Beker from Mogadishu to Somaliland in 2019. The ambassador’s efforts were dead on arrival. Somaliland does not see Turkey as an impartial and fair arbiter, but rather as a dishonest broker since Ankara believes in the preservation of Somalia’s territorial integrity based on the illegal union of 1960 between the two. Moreover, Somaliland is extremely wary of Turkey's military base in Mogadishu, as the Somaliland government believes Farmaajo, who openly denied the Hargeisa genocide committed by former Somali dictator Siad Barre in his post-graduate thesis and has already waged an economic war against Somaliland, could use military forces trained by Turkey to invade Somaliland in an effort to bring about forceful reunification.
Turkey and militarization
To capitalize on Somalia’s geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean, Turkey signed multiple military pacts with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in 2009 and 2010 and continued to sign new agreements with Somalia's federal government in 2012 and 2015. These pacts covered areas ranging from military training to defense industry cooperation and are aimed at gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean.
The Turkish government invested $50 million to build the largest overseas Turkish military base with the goal of training 10,000 members of the Somali National Army (SNA), although Turkey officially refers to it as the largest embassy in the world. The Turkish “embassy” in Mogadishu, which is perhaps the only diplomatic compound where military training and exercises are held, sits on a vast, 400-hectare swath of prime beach-front real estate worth an estimated $1.5 billion based on local property prices. It is almost twice the size of the U.S. military base in Djibouti. But Turkey did not pay for the land and there is no sign that the military pact contained any stipulation for lease payment to the Somali people. In comparison, France not only provides military protection to Djibouti in exchange for hosting its military base, but it also pays annual rent of $70 million and offers budgetary support.
Training and indoctrination
Since its opening, the Turkish embassy in Somalia has graduated five battalions of SNA troops, 2,500 in total. As part of its training, the Somali troops are treated to a heavy dose of Turkish indoctrination that includes singing the Turkish national anthem with a background video showing Turkish army propaganda commemorating the Ottoman Empire.
The Somali Ministry of Defense does not exercise any oversight, is not part of the training, and is oblivious to what the troops are learning. Worse still, it does not seem to understand the challenges of integrating the Turkish-trained units with the larger SNA. There are further concerns over the role played by SADAT, a notorious Turkish private military contractor, which has been confirmed to be involved in training Somali troops. Founded by an Erdoğan ally, SADAT has been heavily involved in conflicts in Syria and Libya and has been accused of providing training and weapons to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
(Dis)integration with the SNA
Turkey is equipping the SNA units it trains with Turkish-made weapons such as the MPT-76 and other HK G3 variants made by MKEK with 7.62×51 NATO ammunition. This creates a dangerous incompatibility that prevents these units from being integrated into the larger SNA. In addition, there are also signs of a disconnect from command and control that may stem from Turkish-provided communications equipment, according to members of the SNA. By contrast, the U.S. and the U.K., which have trained and equipped effective units, opt to retrofit Kalashnikovs and other weapons widely available in Somalia to outfit the units they train, instead of the M4s or Enfields used by their armies. Turkey is thereby creating a market for its weapons manufacturers such as MKEK at the expense of building a cohesive army that is capable of carrying out joint operations between various branches and units.
Politicization of the SNA
On Feb. 19, 2021, the Turkish-trained Somali special forces known as Gorgor (“Eagle”) used live ammunition on unarmed civilians peacefully protesting the extension of Farmaajo’s term in office as president, which had expired on Feb. 8 2021. On April 27, the Turkish-trained Haramcad (“Cheetah”) special police unit was implicated in the illegal arrest of journalists and an attack on a former Somali president. Despite repeated pleas by the Somali Opposition Council to the Turkish government to avoid sending weapons and military hardware during Somalia’s election dispute, Turkey continued to supply weapons to a president intent on staying in power at all costs.
This was a turning point that changed how many Somalis perceived Turkey, especially the residents of Mogadishu. Having welcomed Turkey with open arms in 2011 as a peacemaker and state builder, they were now shocked by its indifference to their plight, as Turkey openly took Farmaajo’s side and the troops it trained turned their guns on local residents instead of fighting al-Shabab. The U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SMEG) has repeatedly warned Turkey for violating the U.N. arms embargo by equipping Somali police forces without notifying and getting approval from SMEG.
Erdoğan’s “neo-Ottoman” threat to Somalia
Erdoğan’s visit to Somalia in 2011 and the provision of assistance by multiple Turkish aid agencies at the height of the famine made Turkey a godsend in the eyes of many Somalis, who were yearning for an alternative to the failed Western-backed Somalia government. These overtures served as a litmus test of Erdoğan's soft power, putting Turkey on the map as a humanitarian actor and an emerging donor.
In reality, however, the Turkish model has been a form of humanitarian enterprise diplomacy aimed at winning destitute Somali hearts and the backing of corrupt political elites who benefit from aid dependency on the West. However, the branding of Turkish aid has had a damaging impact on public perception, creating high expectations that the Turkish government would invest in state-building and provide protection. This perception is predictable when political elites have oversold expectations of the Turkish government and its economic strength. These elites are not happy with the EU and U.S.; even though they provide the majority of Somalia’s budget support and developmental aid, this comes with rules, regulations, and bureaucratic accountability, while the Turkish government has a different approach that meets their long-standing principal demand of “what’s in it for me.”
Erdoğan has said he believes Turkey’s involvement in Somalia was a good omen for the African country, writing in a piece published in Foreign Policy in October 2011, “In Turkish culture, it is believed that something good will come out of all bad experiences.” A decade later the only thing Somalia has gained from the Turkish model is costly bad experience stemming from imported autocracy, democratic backsliding, and a development trap.
Turkish state-sponsored private companies Albayrak and Favori resemble the Italian colonial enterprise Benadir Company, and over the past 10 years they have benefitted from illegal long-term concessions and political impunity that has cost Somalia’s government and investors as much as $5 billion in lost revenue due to trade barriers and exploitation of state resources, according to estimates from the author confirmed by former government finance officials. Turkey's bilateral trade relationship with Somalia has put its economy in a stranglehold, turning Somalia’s assets into dead capital that has weakened the government and private sector’s financial footing and ability to attract foreign direct investment, limiting its sovereignty, and creating an addiction to Turkey’s artificial aid and its development trap.
Turkey has used Somalia to incubate its private sector companies and build a portfolio and track record it can pitch to other African or low-income countries with the deceptive marketing that “if it works in Somalia, it can work in your country too.” An African country that cannot access stringent World Bank loans or Chinese soft loans could easily be tempted to accept such an offer and risk falling into a development trap. This is especially true for countries with authoritarian regimes, fragile states, and weak government institutions, like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Rather than reforming and strengthening Somalia’s weak government institutions to reduce corruption, the Turkish government chose to corrupt Somalia government ministries to reap the benefits of lucrative concessions in an effort to maintain its prestige at home and polish its credentials as an international actor abroad, all at the expense of Mogadishu’s taxpayers.
If future Somalia leaders do not hedge against Erdoğan’s irredentism and neo-Ottoman expansionism by taking a page from Tunisia, which imposed a 27% tariff on Turkish goods to reduce the trade deficit, in the next 10 years Turkey may expand its hold on the economy and take over Somalia’s agricultural sector as well, just like the Italian colonialists did when they realized that the Benadir coastal ports and towns depend on a hinterland (Shabelle River belt) supply chain.
Turkey is using its military base in Somalia to expand its influence and gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa, all without paying a cent in rent, and it has become clear that the government’s goal is not to protect Somalia from the scourge of al-Shabab or provide any meaningful security assistance.
Perhaps Erdoğan has no interest in seeing a secure and peaceful Somalia and the units that Turkey is training, whose record in combat against al-Shabab is dismal compared to the other units like the Danab (“Lightning Brigade”), may instead be a backstop to ensure that any future occupant of Villa Somalia does not go against Ankara’s interests. If so, Erdoğan could be providing the kindling for future conflicts in Somalia.
Erdoğan has exploited Somalia's fragility to pursue his ambition of making Turkey an international power and furthering his “neo-Ottoman” aspirations. Erdoğan's new empire is a thinly veiled feudal system that depends on militarism and economic exploitation for its survival. It is a threat to Somalia’s stability and prosperity, and if replicated elsewhere, it could destabilize other countries too.
Guled Ahmed is a non-resident scholar at MEI, a renewable energy and water infrastructure expert, and an entrepreneur. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by STUART PRICE/AU-UN IST PHOTO/AFP via Getty Images