World Policy Journal is proud to share our revived weekly podcast, World Policy On Air, featuring former Newsweek On Air host David Alpern and Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer's latest commentary on global "Winners & Losers." Click here to subscribe on iTunes!
(Subscribe to World Policy Journal here)
From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"
By Julia Harte
ISTANBUL—Late one August night in 2011, Rifat Sarıcaoglu, the head of Turkey’s association of private universities, received a call from the office of the prime minister. Sarıcaoglu had three hours to gather as many university scholarship pledges for Somali students as possible. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was about to fly to Mogadishu, making the first visit to Somalia by a non-African head of state since the country’s last effective government was ousted in 1991, and Erdogan wanted to present a momentous gift.
On August 19, 2011, two planes landed in Mogadishu, bearing Erdogan and his wife along with a delegation of Turkish politicians, businessmen, journalists, singers, even a reality television star. This visit touched off a new era in Somalia, and a new posture for Turkey as an emerging player across Africa. In the past two decades, Somalia had come to be seen as a nightmarish realm, beset by constant civil war and infested by pirates, warlords, and the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab Islamist group. When the worst drought in 60 years hit the Horn of Africa in mid-2011, Somalia suffered a massive famine that left 12 million people in danger of starvation.
But over the next year, more than 1,200 Somali students arrived in Turkey on full scholarship. While this represents a huge investment in Somali students—nearly $70 million—it is just a fraction of the lavish aid that Turkey has been ladling on the war- and famine-stricken nation since Erdogan’s late-night call to Sarıcaoglu. Erdogan’s visit was not spontaneous—it came only a few weeks after al-Shabab relinquished control over Mogadishu. By that time, representatives of the Turkish humanitarian organization Kızılay (Red Crescent) had already been in the capital city for several months, decontaminating water supplies, clearing mountains of trash, building new schools and health clinics, and establishing the city’s most effective permanent settlement for Somalis displaced by civil conflict and famine.
“These are the only displaced people in all of Somalia who don’t need to worry how they’ll eat or sleep or worry that they’ll be raped during the day,” says Kilian Kleinschmidt, the UN’s deputy humanitarian coordinator in Somalia. In a few months, he adds, the Turks accomplished more than any other nation or aid group in 21 years. The Turkish embassy is now the first stop for any newcomers seeking advice about Somalia. Donations to Somalia from Turkey’s private sector amounted to more than $365 million in 2011, while Turkey’s government donated $49 million—more than any European country besides the United Kingdom. Thanks to this intense campaign, Turkey is much loved by Somalia’s government and civil society. The Somali ambassador to Turkey, Nur Sheikh Hamud Mursal, describes the donor nation as “a savior sent by God to Somalia.” The Somali cabinet has voted Erdogan “Man of the Somali People,” and streets and babies have been named after Erdogan, Istanbul, and Turkey.
Somalia has proven the ideal platform for Turkey to test market compassion as foreign policy, while at the same time quietly amassing an ever larger sphere of influence. Over the past year, Turkey’s leaders have done their best to paint Turkey’s global profile as a benevolent but powerful mediator in international crises. This April, President Abdullah Gül told an audience of officers at Istanbul’s military academy that Turkey’s new defense doctrine should be “virtuous power … a power concept with every step tested in terms of human dignity and happiness.” With violent chaos erupting just over the border in Syria, talk of war between nearby Israel and Iran, and an increasingly tense relationship with European Union countries over Cyprus, the Armenian genocide, and Turkey’s human rights record, Turkey is trying to project a friendly face to the world.
More unusual for Turkey is what it hopes to attain through virtuous power—a scope of international relevance and influence that the republic has never before achieved. In early 2012, returning from a Friends of Syria meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters that Turkey “should be in the center of the table where the new global order is formed.” Turkey’s aid campaign in Somalia is already paying off in the international acclaim it has won and the investment opportunities it has opened for Turkish businesses. With its unrivaled on-the-ground rebuilding effort and generous scholarship program, Turkey is using Somalia as the first great display of “virtuous power.”
From a longer perspective, Somalia may prove to be Turkey’s backdoor into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Turkey’s work in Somalia has earned it a reputation in Africa as a generous and effective rehabilitator of broken countries. The more Turkey accomplishes in Somalia, the greater its political capital will be throughout the region, improving its investment prospects and political alliances with countries from Mozambique to Gambia. This will be especially true in majority-Muslim nations, where the importance of Sunni Islam in everyday life gives Turkish investors and envoys an advantage over their non-Muslim counterparts, given their familiarity with Islamic finance, social mores, and shared holidays.
The success of Turkey’s virtuous power doctrine in Somalia shows “the potency of its soft power,” says Abukar Arman, Somalia’s special envoy to the United States. Turkey has established a strategic system for reaping long-lasting influence in a country while avoiding the neo-colonialist label that has marked many other foreign powers active in sub-Saharan Africa. By tackling infrastructure problems that larger donors failed to fix, engaging directly with Somalis in their own country, moving Turkish citizens into the country, and bringing Somali youth back to Turkey for education, Turkey has helped stabilize Somali society and revitalize its economy. Simultaneously, Turkey has positioned itself as the country’s main foreign ally and trading partner. This same strategy could be applied in many more sub-Saharan African countries.
Other powers could replicate these tactics. Although its religious affinity with Muslim Africa and its fresh, unblemished record in the region have given Turkey a leg up, even countries with more experience in Africa could borrow these tactics to raise their political capital and economic prospects throughout the region. So far, major foreign players such as China and the United States have bought influence in sub-Saharan Africa mainly through impersonal investment projects, conditional loans, and aid donations from afar. Taking a page from Turkey’s virtuous power doctrine and engaging more personally with the African people would diminish these countries’ reputations for callous profiteering and improve market conditions in African nations where they want to do business. Before they follow the trail Turkey has blazed though, Turkey will have to prove that virtuous power gets tangible results.
BIGGER PLANS AFOOT
In Somalia, a basket case with no obvious savior in sight, Turkey saw an opportunity to put its new foreign policy doctrine into practice. By raising money for Somalia, Turkey imitated the mega-sized humanitarian campaigns of much wealthier nations, complete with flashy concerts and celebrity appeals. Its relief effort on the ground outshone others, helping to position Turkey as a regional leader.
Somalia appears to be at the forefront of a broader Turkish effort to penetrate Africa’s emerging markets and gain favor among its governments. Turkey’s effort to build friendships with African countries can be traced back several years, to when Turkey was trying to win a 2009-2010 seat on the UN Security Council. For the first time since 1961, with the votes of all but two African countries, Turkey obtained the spot. In 2012, Turkey announced its candidacy for a 2015-2016 Security Council seat, and Uganda’s president has already declared his support.
In the last year, Turkey’s Africa outreach program gained momentum: It opened seven new embassies on the continent, including one in Mogadishu, established three months after Erdogan’s visit. Its new embassies in Zambia, Mozambique, Mauritania, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Gambia, and Niger preceded a $300 million rise in Turkish exports to those markets last year. By the end of 2012, Turkey aims to have 33 embassies in Africa, up from 22 at the beginning of 2011. Turkish Airlines is opening new flights to African countries at nearly the same pace. In March 2011, a massive Turkish delegation of businessmen and politicians led by President Gül visited Ghana and Gabon to forge trade ties with the resource-rich countries. In the past three years, Gül has also visited Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Cameroon, and Nigeria. By contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama has paid a single 20-hour visit to an African nation, Ghana, during his entire first four-year term.
When rebels toppled Muammar Gaddafi, the continent lost one of the biggest donors of aid to poor African countries and the largest single contributor to the African Union’s budget. With a growing charity outlay—Turkey’s foreign aid topped $1 billion in 2011—the Turkish central leadership is well positioned to fill, at least partly, the vacuum left with Gaddafi’s demise. Turkey’s trade volume with sub-Saharan African countries reached $7.5 billion in 2011, a 72 percent increase from the year before and a tenfold increase since 2000.
This isn’t the first time Turkey has tried to win over a neighboring region with aid, scholarships, and soft diplomacy. In the 1990s, Turkey tried a similar outreach program in Central Asian countries, offering scholarships and sending aid and development workers. Far fewer scholarships were ultimately awarded, and Turkey’s outreach in the region collapsed in the face of opposition by local elites and Russia, according to Ioannis Michaletos, an associate at the Institute for Defense and Security Analysis in Athens. But now that Turkey is wealthier, with a stronger higher education system to back up scholarship offers, its campaign to win the hearts and minds of sub-Saharan Africa has the potential for success. “It is not just a show of goodwill, but rather a carefully planned path that leads to the increase of diplomatic capability,” Michaletos says.
Turkey is aiming to double its trade volume with all African countries, currently at $16 billion, in a “few years,” according to President Gül. China dominates African markets, mainly with construction and merchandise trade deals, though it has been widely criticized for importing labor rather than creating local jobs and for carrying out projects under unhealthy environmental conditions. Turkey is advancing a more intimate model for foreign investment in Africa than the sometimes alienating method favored by the Chinese. If China adapted Turkey’s more interpersonal approach to its business deals with African countries—hiring more locals to build its giant construction projects, for instance, or initiating more cultural exchange between locals and Chinese nationals based in Africa—it might also attain a modicum of the credibility that Turkey has already won. By forging human connections with Somalis grounded in cultural, educational, and religious ties, Turkey is vying to surpass China in regional influence despite its far lower trade volume.
CORNERING THE MARKET
Business prospects are still high on Turkey’s agenda. Stabilizing markets where it hopes to trade has been “the paramount concern driving Turkish foreign policy in recent years,” says Abdullah Bozkurt, a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Today’s Zaman who has closely followed Turkey’s involvement in Somalia. Although it may be some time before Somalia becomes a significant trading partner, it does have some resources that make it an attractive opportunity in the long term. Surveys suggest that the northeastern Puntland province alone could contain 10 billion barrels of oil. Turkey currently imports nearly 600,000 barrels per day. In addition to extensive hydrocarbon reserves, Somalia has geostrategic importance, with the longest seaboard in Africa and its position at the center of major trading routes. Although frequently discounted as a hopelessly chaotic state, Somalia’s human resources and business senses are strong, according to Mary Harper, the BBC’s Africa editor. “The financial services, the telecommunications sectors—there’s so much money,” she says. At the same time, there’s also huge demand for raw materials and skilled labor to rebuild the country. If Turkey remains Somalia’s favorite foreign power over the years, Harper adds, “it stands to benefit massively from these opportunities.”
In the year since al-Shabaab was driven from Mogadishu by African Union army troops, the number of terror attacks in the capital has dropped significantly, raising hopes that it is becoming a safer destination for foreign investment. In May, Mogadishu even hosted a TEDx conference, a global speaker series that claimed, “the Somali diaspora is returning home and starting businesses.” New projects—restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools—are just beginning to get underway, says the UN’s Kleinschmidt, and Turkey is perfectly positioned to grab shares in them before other foreign powers. In part, Turkish products have become the default staples in the country simply because of the large quantities that Turkey has donated. Even UN workers drink Turkish milk.
Turkish businessmen have two advantages in Somalia’s market—being Muslim and being open to taking risks—allowing them to blend in well in Somalia, according to Kleinschmidt. This will give them an edge in bidding for the massive reconstruction projects that will open up to foreign firms in coming years.
“Somalis do not want Western companies in their markets now. They think, ‘Our problems started because of America and other countries.’ They want to continue without America and the other countries,” says Bilal Çelik, a Turkish businessman who founded a non-profit development group in Mogadishu. Çelik now chairs the Turkish-Somali Businessmen’s Association, Somalia’s first with another country, which he helped create in April 2012. The association brought 15 Somali business representatives to the Turkey-World Trade Bridge summit in Istanbul in June.
In 2012, Çelik anticipates a business volume of $50 million for the association’s member companies, with almost all the profits flowing in Turkey’s direction. Of course that’s a tiny slice of Turkey’s overall exports to Africa, which rose to $10.3 billion last year from $2.1 billion in 2003, but Çelik sees the potential for exports to Somalia rising sharply now that security is being fully restored. Most of the business this year, he says, will be related to construction materials, textiles, and automobile spare parts, while over the long term, Turkish investors have expressed interest in joint ventures with Somali restaurants, hospitals, and hotels.
Oddly, for the chairman of a business association, Çelik denies that Turkey is focused on profits in Somalia, insisting that the Turkish government’s first priority has been and remains the revival of the Somali people. This is hardly altruistic. The development of a strong consumer sector and middle class will produce demands that Turkish enterprises can then satisfy.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
Turkey has meticulously cultivated its Somali support base in ways that go beyond normal humanitarian aid. In addition to schools and hospitals, Turkish aid agencies have built new mosques, vowed to restore Somalia’s biggest mosque, and planned imam “exchanges” between the two countries. The Turkish Religious Foundation (TDV), which works closely with Turkey’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs, was responsible for arranging half of the 1,200 scholarships for Somali students. Unlike the others, however, TDV scholarships are specifically for religious studies. Some 55 men and 10 women will study Islam at public universities in Turkey, while the remaining 550 scholarships will send students to Quranic courses and imam-hatip high schools, designed to turn out future imams and Islamic scholars.
Some Somali commentators are apprehensive about this focus on religion. Mohamed Mubarak, a 27-year-old student in Kampala and an op-ed contributor to the Somalia Report, views it as a soft power effort—a plan to train a legion of imams to serve as a moderate, pro-Turkey force in Somali mosques. This is the main motive behind bringing so many Somalis on scholarships to Turkey, he believes. But he isn’t convinced that these tactics are a good investment for Somalia. “However prayers may spiritually enhance us, let’s face it, they won’t build roads,” he says.
In recent years, plenty of madrasas have already been established in Somalia by foreign powers, especially Gulf states. Even the most devastated areas have access to some form of religious education. But that just makes Turkey’s efforts to spread its form of moderate Islam an even more important strategic move, according to Mehmet Arda, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University. “Turkey is saying, ‘If it’s going to be an Islamic state, better that it be an Islamic state according to our version of Islam than someone else’s,’” Arda states.
While Turkey might still be involved in Somalia if it were not an Islamic country, Arda believes some civil society groups might not be as engaged. “It’s normal for religious people to want other people to be religious in the same way. They just want people to be good Muslims, as they are.” The uptick in Turkish-African trade in recent years attests to the value of shoring up diplomatic or economic relationships with religious and cultural outreach—an object lesson with wide applications. But Turkey also has an advantage in this regard. Many Turkish groups active in Africa are affiliated with the Gülen network. This worldwide movement is inspired by the moderate Islamic teachings of Turkish Imam Fethullah Gülen, whose writings read like a virtuous power doctrine of their own, emphasizing altruism, tolerance, and education. Gülen left Turkey for the United States in 2000 after the leaking of a video urging his followers to “move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power.” Originally charged with trying to undermine the secularity of the Turkish state, Gülen has been acquitted but remains in Pennsylvania.
Lacking any formal structure or membership, the exact size of the Gülen movement is difficult to appraise, but it is believed to have more than 10 million followers in Turkey alone. Gülen is linked to more than 1,000 schools around the world as well as Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish media, think tanks, and universities.
Starting in the late 1990s, schools operated by adherents of Gülen’s teachings began to spring up across sub-Saharan Africa. For the Gülen movement, the region has been a “priority area” for the past decade, according to Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey analyst and senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Silk Road Studies program.
In many cases, Gülen-inspired schools were the first institutions to “break the ground” by establishing a Turkish presence in African nations, says Arda. Now the number of Gülen-affiliated Turks in Somalia is growing rapidly. But their focus is not on missionary work. Rather, the presence of Gülen-oriented schools across the continent has eased the entry of Gülen-affiliated Turkish businessmen and development workers, especially in parts of Africa where other countries fear to tread. The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists and the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency are two institutions whose members are likely to “have an affinity with the Gülen movement,” says Arda—though, he stresses, ties are often informal.
Gülen affiliates, says Jenkins, have been the driving force behind many of the new relationships between Turkey and sub-Saharan African nations over the past two years. Since its founding, the Turkish Republic “hasn’t really had any diplomatic or political relations with black Africa besides these,” he says. By connecting Turkish businessmen, aid workers, and developers with their like-minded countrymen across the continent, the Gülen network is facilitating the spread and scope of Turkey’s virtuous reputation.
“Our schools are a bridge between countries—bridges of education, bridges of culture, bridges of economy,” says Çelik, who worked in Gülen-inspired schools in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan before coming to Somalia in 2011. There’s nothing inherently sinister about the Gülen network’s operations in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Arda. It is simply the Turkish way of breaking ground in a region where they don’t have the longstanding presence and automatic influence of bigger, wealthier countries.
Turkey’s growing influence in Somalia has not gone unnoticed by other countries. According to Mubarak, Turkey’s actions have motivated Iran to enter Mogadishu, distributing basic supplies as well as its own version of Islam. Mubarak has observed Islamic missionary activity occurring at two major Iranian camps in Mogadishu. Around the same time that the Turkish Kızılay workers arrived, Qatar also sent in workers. Since the summer of 2011, many other Arab aid agencies that weren’t previously active in Somalia have come to Mogadishu, according to Mubarak. Turkey’s most valuable contribution to Somalia, he says, may ultimately be the aid it provokes other countries to offer.
In behind-the-scenes meetings at the London Conference on Somalia in February, 2012, a top official for Africa from the British Foreign Office commented on the fact that there was a Turkish flag on every street corner in Mogadishu, according to Harper. “I think they were a bit worried that Turkey was stealing the diplomatic limelight,” she says. “The fact that Turkey went right into Mogadishu, put people on the ground, and they weren’t all shot dead or kidnapped within five seconds was like a slap in the face to the rest of the world.” The success of Turkey’s humanitarian effort demonstrated that the situation in Mogadishu was not as bad as most international estimates. All that had been keeping other foreign humanitarian missions out of the city until that point was cowardice or ignorance—or both.
British officials at the London conference seemed particularly concerned that Turkey and Qatar would encourage the rise of political Islam in Somalia, says Harper. Their alarm was based on both nations’ willingness to negotiate directly with al-Shabab without any preconditions. Britain’s foreign office doesn’t discount the contributions that Turkey has made. Rather, they want to re-take the initiative in Somalia—with the support of Turkey, Qatar, and other influential Islamic states.
Just three weeks before the London conference, British Foreign Secretary William Hague paid a surprise visit to Mogadishu, where he repeatedly expressed his country’s desire to rebuild Somalia. This eagerness appears to be fueled, at least in part, by Britain’s interest in the little-explored Puntland oil reserves, which were the subject of talks between officials from the two countries in early 2012.
Sending money and aid workers to Somalia has already generated huge political goodwill for Turkey and forged relationships between Turkish investors and Somalia’s incipient business class. But there’s another major component to the Turkish campaign in Somalia that could be instructive for other countries vying for influence in the region—those 1,200 scholarships for Somali students to study in Turkey.
For both countries, the scale of the scholarship program is unprecedented. The Turkish state has never before extended this many scholarships to a single country, according to Sarıcaoglu. It is also the most scholarships that Somalis have received in a single year from any single nation. Many Somalis now have so much faith in the generosity of the Turkish government that students have written directly to Prime Minister Erdogan to request scholarships. One such letter, from an eager 20-year-old, Abdi-Aziz Ibrahim Yusuf from Bossaso, Puntland, includes a plea for a scholarship and a pledge. “I am hopeful and keen to name my first son Tayyip or Erdogan,” his letter continues. “I want our next generation to learn the brotherly history between us.”
Like most Somalis, Khadra Muhammed, 20, a computer engineering student from Hargeisa, learned about the scholarships from announcements on public radio. She was in the crowd of more than 10,000 students who traveled to testing centers in Mogadishu to be quizzed on English, world affairs, mathematics, and their socioeconomic status. On October 4, 2011, as thousands of these students gathered at the Somali Ministry of Education to learn their results, a bomb planted by al-Shabab exploded outside, killing some 70 scholarship recipients and seriously wounding many others.
Mohamed Hassan Mirre, a 20-year-old business and economics student from Mogadishu, now studying at Bilgi University, was one of the scholarship recipients standing in the street when the explosion occurred. “I saw many people die in the street. I knew some of the students who were killed,” he quietly recalls. He’s one of nine students studying at Bilgi, a prestigious private university in Istanbul. In late 2011, they embarked on a year of English prep instruction and weekend Turkish lessons, clad in puffy new jackets to ward off the Istanbul winter, whose temperatures they had never before experienced.
Abdirrahman Ahmed, an 18-year-old electrical engineering student, and Ali Dahir, a 20-year-old international relations student, say they would not have been able to pursue their chosen fields of study in Somalia, because none of the country’s 20 universities offer those subjects. Established in 1996, Mogadishu University is the country’s oldest and best. But all the universities in Somalia are private, and the cost of tuition is prohibitively high for most Somali families, including Ahmed’s. With their scholarships, Ahmed and Dahir can get bachelor’s degrees from Bilgi University in five years.
“I want to return to my country, because there are not so many electrical engineers, and we need more engineers to rebuild the country,” says Ahmed. For his part, Dahir hopes to become a member of the Somali government when he returns. In the meantime, he wants “to learn the culture of a developed nation.” Arriving in Istanbul, Dahir says he was amazed at how organized everything was, from identity checks at the airport to the variety of shops in the streets.
The primary objective of the scholarships, says Sarıcaoglu, is for the students to eventually return to Somalia to help lead and rebuild their nation. That doesn’t always jibe with the students’ goals. Mirre, who witnessed his friends die in the October explosion, wants to live in Turkey after he graduates. “You can find everything here,” he says eagerly. “Everything is available in Istanbul. I will take any job after I graduate, anything related to business.” Most scholarship recipients, however, will likely return home upon graduating—a requirement of the scholarships in some cases and a stated expectation in others.
Turkey’s decision to educate this new population of Somali movers and shakers has received little international attention but has become a brilliant way to shore up soft power among Somalia’s own population. Somalis such as Mirre, Muhammed, Ahmed, and Dahir will be the future top CEOs, engineers, and diplomats of their country. For the cost of $70 million, they have been imbued with lifelong gratitude and admiration for Turkey.
Many developed countries have extended generous scholarships to African nations in recent years—the percentage of sub-Saharan African students studying abroad is three times the world average, according to UNESCO. But with its scholarship program, Turkey aims to establish a true, long-lasting influence in the recipient country. In the United States, China, Arab nations, and other major scholarship-giving countries, African students often choose not to move home after their degree. This brain drain incurs a very real cost to the students’ native countries. Some $4 billion is spent each year on the salaries of some 100,000 expatriates who “help make up the loss of professionals in sub-Saharan Africa,” according to a 2009 study.
By obligating its 1,200 Somali guest students to return to Somalia after they graduate, Turkey is ensuring that both countries fully benefit from the students’ educations. After all, the graduates must be in Somalia before they can become the country’s future diplomats and top executives—the elite network with whom Turkey will forge political alliances and trade deals. The students’ return will also hasten the spread of Turkish loyalism across Somalia. Since Turkish businessmen, teachers, and diplomats already number among the inhabitants of Somalia, Somali students who return home after graduating will be able to maintain their connections to Turkey—speaking the language, discussing Turkish affairs—long after they have finished studying there.
Turkey’s infrastructure rebuilding effort is also integral to the success of its scholarship program. The scholarship students will be more eager to return home if Somali society is stable and ready to take advantage of their talents after they graduate. Combined, these initiatives are fostering a network of educated Somalis that will maximize Turkey’s future influence in the country. Other scholarship-giving countries could also encourage foreign graduates to repatriate by building stronger institutions in students’ homelands and offering them cultural continuity when they return. With a higher rate of graduate returns and more involvement in students’ home countries, scholarships could become more potent tools for donor powers to carve out influence abroad.
Most Turks are proud of their country’s increasingly benevolent reputation. But some question why their government is spending tens of millions to educate Somalis when many Turks can’t afford to attend their own first-rate universities like Bilgi. One student, who requested anonymity, compared his $150 monthly government scholarship at Istanbul’s Marmara University to the full-ride scholarships of the Somalis. “They should focus on Turkey, on improving education for Turks,” he says.
Furthermore, Turkey has its own desperate humanitarian crises. The city of Van, located in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, was slammed by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in October 2011 that forced most of its half million residents to relocate. Yet more than a year after the disaster, over 65,000 were still homeless, housed in container camps around the city, struggling to find jobs and food. “The conditions in the southeast are better than Somalia, but still pretty appalling in many areas,” says Jenkins. “There are so many things that need to be done in Turkey. It’s extraordinary, really, that it’s spending so much money on others.”
Not surprisingly, Turkish government officials refuse to acknowledge the existence of a state-sponsored scholarship program directed toward Somalia. A Turkish journalist who files an information request eventually receives a letter from the press department of the prime minister’s office, claiming, “there is no special program related to Somalia. The activities you have mentioned are nothing but the realization of aid and contributions that began with Our Respected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Somalia and resulting humanitarian awareness, and are helped by the cooperation of NGOs and related public institutions”—Turkish bureaucratese for “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
THE PARADOX OF VIRTUOUS POWER
Turkish diplomatic and business circles with interests in Somalia adhere closely to party rhetoric on virtuous power. From Çelik’s insistence that higher profits aren’t his goal to the government’s rejection of “political interests” in Somalia, the promotional campaign has been executed as masterfully as the humanitarian one. Certainly, basic philanthropic impulses underlie much of Turkey’s aid to Somalia. But as a comprehensive explanation, it falls flat in the face of how Turkey treats most Somalis within its borders.
“The aid to Somalia has received a lot of media coverage in Turkey,” says Oktay Durukan, a senior coordinator in the Turkish Helsinki Citizens Assembly refugee program. “But it hasn’t occurred to anyone to actually explore the issue of how the Somalis already in Turkey are doing. How much of a safe place is Turkey offering those Somalis who escaped their country?”
Not much, it turns out. When a Somali refugee arrives in Turkey, he is assigned a city by the Turkish branch of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). From there, he must apply for asylum in another country, because Turkey does not offer non-European refugees long term guaranteed stay. At the end of 2011, there were 1,751 Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey, of whom 744 had approached the UNHCR to apply for asylum. Only 73 had been resettled. The remainder are left in legal limbo for years, according to Durukan, unable to move out of their assigned city but officially not allowed to stay.
“If they’re lucky, they’ll find illegal employment, usually under exploitative conditions with substandard salaries. They’ll face discrimination in many places. Usually, 10 or 15 will come together, rent a cheap apartment, and survive together,” says Durukan.
Many asylum seekers find this way of life impossible. They leave their city of residence without permission and try to cross into European countries that will offer them permanent settlement status. Durukan cannot understand why Turkey does not offer them the same benefits: “For a country of Turkey’s size, it’s not too much of a burden to accommodate these numbers.” A new asylum law that could give refugees the opportunity to settle permanently in Turkey is currently in the works, but he doubts there will be any change in the next few years. Turkey’s aid campaign in Somalia has had “zero effect” on the process, he says. This is the reality of virtuous power. Turkey is striving to become the conscientious leader of its region, not to improve the welfare of Somalis whenever and wherever possible.
Still, many Somalis have benefited from Turkey’s new foreign policy efforts. As other countries’ humanitarian missions to Somalia stayed on the sidelines in Nairobi, Turkish Kızılay forces showed aid could be administered effectively from Mogadishu. Turkey is now proving that pure human capital can be a better policy instrument than lending programs, aid donations, business deals, and diplomatic summits. Not all of Turkey’s tactics can be adopted by other foreign powers, of course—few other countries have international education networks as vast or as intimate with local elites as the Gülen movement.
The way Turkey has directly engaged with Somalis, however, is well within the capacity of other foreign powers. Turkey’s virtuous power doctrine treats the afflicted not just as victims and consumers, but as promising students, savvy entrepreneurs, and future leaders. With their track records in Africa, the United States, most European countries, and China would be greeted with far more suspicion if they suddenly embedded as many citizens in a failing African state as Turkey has done in Somalia. But by demonstrating interest in the long-term welfare of African states—with locally staffed development projects instead of aid donations from afar, more crucial infrastructure investments, more scholarship programs, and more opportunities for deep cultural exchange—those larger developed powers could begin earning back the credibility they have lost in Africa.
As Turkey uses its virtuous power doctrine to gain influence and market access in Africa, it will have to walk a fine line. To maintain its trading and political opportunities around the continent, Turkey cannot let itself be perceived as opportunistic. Sub-Saharan Africans are deeply embittered after years of half-hearted foreign aid interventions by the same countries that seek oil or mineral resources within their borders. So far, Turkey has a better reputation in the region than any of the major developed powers that have also been active there. If it can maintain its reputation for honest, well-intentioned interaction with African societies, the economic and political advantages Turkey reaps will show that the virtuous power doctrine is a foreign policy worth emulating. Patience and a little virtue may go a very long way.
Julia Harte is a writer based in Istanbul.
[Photo courtesy of the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team]