Turkey may just be able to fix this war-torn east African nation -- if it doesn't fall into the same traps of would-be saviors who came before it.
MOGADISHU, Somalia — For the United Nations, the war-torn Somali capital is one of the ultimate "hardship posts." The U.N.'s few foreign employees based there are entitled to lucrative hazard stipends in exchange for living in one of the world's most dangerous cities. But for Turkish aid worker Orhan Erdogan, it is his family's home base.
Erdogan, a 45-year old veteran of crisis zones such as Darfur, moved from Istanbul to Mogadishu last August as the aid group he works for, Kimse Yok Mu, ramped up its efforts in response to the severe famine in the Horn of Africa. His four teenage children are now in school in neighboring Kenya, but Erdogan and his wife live together in Mogadishu. "My family lives here to share the reality with me," Erdogan said. He doesn't downplay the risks. "Our lives are always in danger; one can expect to die any time in Somalia. However, the satisfaction of delivering aid to starving people who face death keeps us working, whatever the security situation is."
Erdogan is far from alone. Turkish Ambassador C. Kani Torun, Ankara's first Somalia-based envoy since 1991, estimates there are between 150 and 200 Turkish nationals currently based in the country. At least 500 more Turks -- many of them with little experience abroad -- came to volunteer in the months after the famine was declared, a period that corresponded with the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice.
The influx of Turkish aid workers has corresponded with a fresh interest by the Ankara government in Somali affairs. In 2010, Turkey established itself as a key international player in Somalia by hosting an international conference in Istanbul that focused on security and investment in a country more often thought of for piracy and social chaos. Then last August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a landmark trip to Mogadishu, traveling with his family and a plane full of ministers and advisors. They only stayed for the day, but the visit -- the first by a non-African leader in more than 20 years -- made a lasting impression.
"In Turkish culture, it is believed that something good will come out of all bad experiences," Erdogan wrote in an article for Foreign Policy last October. "In Somalia, too, this disaster [the 2011 famine] can mark the beginning of a new process by focusing international humanitarian efforts and global attention on the plight of the region."
Turkey's leadership in Somalia has left some international players impressed (the Turks are "ballsy," one Western analyst told me), others skeptical ("cowboys," said a Western aid worker), and most a bit of both. But there's no question that Turkish aid workers have received a warm welcome among Somalis, achieving a level of access that their Western counterparts can only dream of.
"Prime Minister Erdogan smashed that wall that made Mogadishu a no-go zone," Mogadishu mayor Mohamed Nur said. "That was the best gift that Somali people can have in the last 20 years. It completely changed the face of Mogadishu" and marked the start of a series of visits by foreign ministers from other countries, he said.
Make no mistake: Mogadishu is still extremely dangerous for foreigners, especially humanitarian workers that hail from Europe and the United States. In a grisly incident last December, a disgruntled member of Médecins sans Frontières' own local team gunned down two of the group's longtime employees in Mogadishu. A month later, U.S. Navy SEALs staged a nighttime raid to rescue an American aid worker and her Danish colleague who had been kidnapped in central Somalia and held for three months.
Kidnapping risks are so high and security so unpredictable that until recently few foreign aid workers were able to spend any significant time in Mogadishu, and many areas in the south continue to be considered totally inaccessible. One Western aid worker employed by a government with a long history of humanitarian engagement in Somalia said that he has only ever traveled to the capital once in seven years on the job -- and then only for a day.
Remarkably, there have been no reports of Turkish nationals being killed or kidnapped in Somalia. As I walked through camps for displaced people in Mogadishu, children and adults alike shouted out in excitement, "Turkei! Turkei!" -- the presumed nationality of anyone obviously not Somali. An ambulance with Turkish lettering drove by, two white faces in the front seats and no apparent security. Turkish aid workers in the camp wore bright-colored vests bearing the emblems of their organizations, not body armor. It's a far cry from the typical U.N. approach of rolling into a camp in an armored personnel carrier, sporting flak jackets and helmets, and encircled by a group of well-armed peacekeepers.
How have the Turks managed to avoid the security pitfalls that have befallen the many outsiders who have come to Somalia -- with cash, solemn pledges to help restore stability, and notions about governance -- since the government fell in 1991?
"Because they are welcome here!" said a Somali businessman. "They decided to stay, even if it's too risky here, [because] they help the people." He said Somalis see Turks around town, going to mosque, without obviously displaying the fear characteristic of most foreigners. "Somalis see them coming and going every day and they are pleased," he said.
Their shared Islamic faith provides an underpinning for strong Somali-Turkish relations. But it is also the Turks' understated approach to working in Somalia, and their willingness to provide direct assistance (even, according to several aid workers, in the form of hard cash), and Ankara's engagement at the highest levels -- especially with Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) -- that has gone far to earn Turkey favored status in Somalia.
"With the Turkish mentality, as a Muslim, we aren't separating ourselves from the public," said Serhat Orakci of the Turkish aid group IHH, which drew international attention in May 2010 when it sponsored the Gaza-bound flotilla that was violently raided by the Israel Defense Forces. IHH has had a presence in Somalia for 15 years and boosted its efforts there in response to last year's famine. "We live near to people, we stay in cheap hotels, we don't go to luxury restaurants, sometimes we visit their homes and eat with them," Orakci said.
Asked if this approach is a formal policy of IHH, Orakci laughed, wiping beads of sweat from his temple. He wore a slightly wrinkled dark suit, despite the afternoon sun. "This is our lifestyle. In Turkey also we live like this. It's not something we planned and teach our staff; this is our way."
The famine was crucial in bolstering popular support in Turkey for heightened engagement in Somalia, aid workers and diplomats said. "A lot of Turkish news channels came to Mogadishu and broadcast images of starving Somalis," Orakci said. Turkish people were moved at a time when they were fasting and making sacrifices for the holy month of Ramadan -- "it had a big effect," he added. And with Turkey's economy on the rise, logging 8.5 percent growth in 2011, people increasingly have the means to give. Aid groups launched large public campaigns that generated tens of millions of dollars for famine relief.
The combination of this private support and help from the government in Ankara has had a powerful effect. During his visit, Erdogan announced plans to reopen Turkey's embassy in Somalia, a pledge he made good on in November. Turkish money -- nearly $350 million between private donations and government contributions combined, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry -- paid for the reconstruction of hospitals and visits by Turkish doctors, opened schools, sent hundreds of Somali students to Turkey on scholarships, and rehabilitated the airport, among other projects. Last month, Turkish Airlines began twice-weekly flights to Mogadishu from Istanbul. Its first commercial jet landed at the city's international airport to much fanfare and a welcoming party that included the Somali president.
Measured by dollar amount, Turkey's contributions over the past year are on par with other international actors long engaged in Somalia. But Turkey is doing a better job of "marketing their assistance," said E.J. Hogendoorn, the Horn of Africa director for International Crisis Group. Because the Turks are seen as having a novel approach and strong relations with TFG officials, they could have a major influence on the political process.
"The big question will be whether Turkey will learn [the context of Somalia] quickly enough to not get duped by the TFG," Hogendoorn said, explaining that Somali leaders have become expert at playing international actors off of each other to get what they want. "Somali elites have been doing this for 20 years," he said, a nod to the two decades since Somalia's central government fell and various leaders and factions have vied for power.
Others are less charitable about Turkey's method for distributing humanitarian aid. Rashid Abdi, an independent Nairobi-based Somalia analyst, called Turkey's initial approach "uncritical" and "naïve," but he said that Turkish leaders have demonstrated some willingness to learn from criticisms -- for one, the importance of engaging Somali leaders outside of the capital and not "mistaking Mogadishu for Somalia."
But Abdi is critical of Turkish aid groups and government agencies' habit of casting aside longstanding methods for delivering assistance. "Bypassing the traditional mechanisms for aid delivery in Somalia did not make them effective; it just created the conditions for that aid to be captured by mafia-types in the TFG and elsewhere," Abdi said. "I'm not a great defender of the Somalia aid industry. But there's no other mechanism [in the country] that delivers aid better. Solo efforts in Somalia don't work."
While Turkey's approach to aid delivery hasn't yet tarnished its reputation in Somalia, it is likely to reinforce the view among the political class that Turkey is yet another outside power that can be easily manipulated. Somali leaders see Turkey's humanitarian efforts "as a banner of heaven to wean off of Western aid," Abdi said.
Istanbul will host another international conference on Somalia in June, which is currently slated to be the last major gathering before the TFG's mandate expires and -- if the process goes according to plan -- a more representative government under a new constitution comes to power. (Popular elections are still a ways off.) Analysts say that Turkey clearly has strong opinions about Somalia's political process -- this conference may be the moment Ankara attempts to translate its humanitarian good deeds into political leverage.
Sitting in the garden of a pleasant but unpretentious guesthouse in a Nairobi suburb during a rare visit to Kenya, Turkish Ambassador Torun didn't offer many specifics about Turkish policy toward the transition, but suggested that Western concern about possible TFG efforts to extend its mandate were misplaced. He said that his experience working with Somalia's current leaders contradicts the "rumors" in Nairobi and Western capitals that the TFG is angling for an extension. "They [TFG leaders] want to complete this transition period as soon as possible, so I don't see that they are spoiling the process," Torun said.
Turkey is thought to have close ties with several leading politicians in the transitional government, in particular with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, whose wife (one of three) is said to reside in Turkey. Regarding Sharif's role in Somalia's post-transition political landscape, Torun was diplomatic but unambiguous: Sharif's position will "depend on the Parliament's decision; however, I think he should have a role."
That's a markedly different opinion from the view held by many observers of Somali politics. Sharif has been "completely inept," said a Horn of Africa analyst who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. "It was a big mistake in 2009 to have elected him -- and this is a view echoed by Somalis on the streets. He has ... squandered every opportunity to fix Somalia. I hope to God that he retires somewhere quietly."
Torun didn't shy away from discussing the economic opportunities also driving Turkey's engagement. "The Turkish approach to Africa is a kind of win-win situation," he said, pointing out that Turkey has opened 31 new embassies across the continent since 2005. "In some parts of Africa we already have historical and cultural links, but we want to extend these links and open up for business."
Turkish private investment in Africa has risen sharply over the past decade. In 2000, there was "scarcely any" Turkish investment on the continent, according to the Turkish Ministry of Economy. That began to change in 2003, and by late 2011, investment exceeded $5 billion. The government's engagement with Somalia has fueled private sector interest. A representative of Turkey's largest business alliance, TUSKON, said that Somalia is increasingly on the radar of Turkish investors, particularly for its potential in construction, building materials, real estate, mining, and agriculture industries.
While these economic considerations are a factor, Torun emphasized that in Somalia the interest is primarily humanitarian, and he shrugged off critics of Turkey's go-it-alone approach. "The typical Somalia approach by the international community, especially Western governments, deals with politicians -- that's it. Conferences, conferences, endless conferences. And people don't have any trust, any confidence in this," Torun said. "All the money we use we bring to Somalia through our government and agencies, and Somalis use it directly. If they deliver food, they deliver it themselves. If there is need for medical relief, we bring Turkish doctors."
But it is precisely this emphasis on patronage that analysts say overlooks the importance of Somali initiative and dangerously reinforces the expectation of handouts that has left Somalia dependent on aid and trapped under the thumb of warlords in the first place.
With longer-term projects -- like building hospitals and roads -- the Turks have established a reputation of professionalism, said a non-Somali analyst. "But when it comes to emergency assistance, their approach has very much been charity-based, which is the traditional Muslim way of doing zakat [giving alms] and is done without much analysis, without much consideration for the longer term," the analyst said. "You see someone who's hungry, you give them food. You see a government that's in crisis, you give them cargo."
It's a course long charted by a host of international actors, with little lasting positive impact. After Somalia's more than 20 years of war, even skeptics hope Turkey can find that delicate balance between partnership and tough love. Turkey's new humanitarians could be game changers -- if they can avoid wearing out their welcome.
John Moore/Getty Images