By Abdi Latif Dahir
Turkey has opened its largest overseas military base in Somalia, cementing its relationship with the war-torn nation and strengthening its strategic place in the African continent.
The $50 million base was opened on Saturday (Sept. 30) and will train more than 10,000 soldiers. The move is part of an effort to institutionalize and restructure the police and military services, battle the terrorist group al-Shabaab, and help expand the government’s authority into more towns and regions. The new base also takes on an urgent significance as the 2020 withdrawal deadline for the 22,000 African Union multinational force gets closer.
By setting shop in Somalia, Turkey has become the latest country to set up a military facility in the horn of Africa nation. The United States runs clandestine operations from a base in the Lower Shabelle region, while the United Arab Emirates is expected to build a base in the self-declared region of Somaliland.
Turkey’s deepening engagement in Somalia has helped make discernible changes to the war-ravaged country in sectors ranging from health to infrastructure, education, and trade. Turkey has funneled millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Somalia, and especially during the devastating 2011 famine that killed 250,000 people.
In 2011, current president and then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Somalia was the first high-profile visit by a non-African head of state in almost two decades. Erdogan went on to build Turkey’s largest embassy in the world in Mogadishu. Turkey also built schools, mosques, and hospitals—including the largest medical complex in the country.
Turkey also augmented its investments, building and managing the Mogadishu port and international airport, and increasing bilateral trade to 72.3 million in 2015. Somalia also became one of Turkish Airlines’ most profitable destinations worldwide.
The military base in Somalia is also a reminder that despite Turkey’s growing regional and national problems, Africa remains central to its global expansion strategy. Since 2005, Africa has remained a policy priority for Ankara, with engagements taking place in the fields of diplomacy, trade, investment, aid, education, and security. Since 2009, Turkey has increased its diplomatic missions in Africa from 12 to 39. In 2011, Turkish Airlines flew to 14 African cities; by the end of 2017, it will operate 52 routes from Istanbul across Africa.
As David Shinn of Chatham House wrote, this increased alignment is “driven by the region’s growing economic importance to Ankara; its interest in diversifying away from the Middle East; and the apparent desire for influence among sub-Saharan Africa’s large Muslim population.”
But the congeniality with Turkey has sometimes come at a cost for African nations. Following the attempted coup in July 2016, Turkey asked several African governments to close down schools aligned with Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled religious leader who was accused of orchestrating the failed coup. Countries like Somalia, which heavily depend on Turkish aid, closed the schools—refusing to heed the appeals of teachers, students, and workers who benefited from the school network.