Turkey's win-win approach is paying off in the Horn of Africa

Turkey helps Somalia in various areas and in return it gains influence in a strategic part of the world crucial to global shipping

Somalia is a shining example of how two countries can help each other out. It lacks institutions and needs support to build infrastructure in all fields, and Turkey is happy to help.
Somalia is a shining example of how two countries can help each other out. It lacks institutions and needs support to build infrastructure in all fields, and Turkey is happy to help.

Turkey's win-win approach is paying off in the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is well known as one of the world's most strategically important and volatile regions, and recent international agreements reached this year have further underscored its importance.

A memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, signed in January, and an agreement reached around the same time by Turkey and Somalia has stirred up international politics in the region, becoming emblematic of a complex state of affairs on the ground.

Much of the difficulty relates to geography in general and access to the sea in particular. The safety of navigation and ocean access are major elements in diplomatic relations around the Horn of Africa and are of major global strategic importance.

Bab-el-Mandeb is the southern entry/exit point of the shortest sea route from Europe to Asia, which accounts for around 12% of world trade. However, it has been disrupted by piracy and the Houthis’ targeting of cargo ships carrying consumer goods and energy supplies.

Ethiopia has been landlocked since 1993 when Eritrea seceded following the civil war. It is now the most populous nation in the world with no direct access to the sea.

Ethiopia's inability to control at least a small part of the 800-kilometre coastline that fell out of its jurisdiction has pushed the current prime minister to engage in a diplomatic effort to repair the impact of his predecessor's decision.

While Ethiopia reached a deal with Djibouti to use its port, it is not the same as having its own coastline and port.

To get permanent access to the sea, Ethiopia signed an agreement with Somaliland in January 2024. In return, Addis Ababa promised to recognise the former British colony as a nation. This would make Ethiopia the first country to do so since Somaliland’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1991.

However, the deal proved controversial at home and in the wider region. Somaliland’s defence minister resigned in protest, and the African Union voiced concern that it would raise tensions.

Egypt fears the new deal between Somaliland and Ethiopia will further destabilise maritime trade in the Red Sea.

Read more: Why Ethiopia's Red Sea ambitions unnerve Egypt

Somalia concerns

A third neighbouring nation—Somalia, one of the main countries in the region, with a 3,300 km long coastline and rich onshore and offshore resources—was particularly unhappy.

It has struggled to make the most of its economic potential, hit with famine and drought, and is the 11th poorest nation in the world.

Somalia objects to any potential new source of geopolitical tension after the al-Shabaab organisation—an al-Qaeda affiliate—led the country into chaos and destruction in the 1990s.

At the same time, it has boosted relations with an emerging influence in the region: Turkey. This adds an additional layer of complexity to regional tensions.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud is getting help from Ankara as he prioritised wiping out al-Shabaab. He has scored some successes, but the terror organisation still retains much of its capabilities.

The group has territorial control in parts of central and southern Somalia and has been carrying out terrorist attacks across the country, especially in and around the capital, Mogadishu.

Somalia has received assistance from several countries, including the UAE, the US, and Turkey, and has signed agreements with them to improve its army's operational capabilities.

The army will have even more responsibilities when the African Union Transition Mission withdraws by the end of 2024.

Turkey's success in Africa is largely attributed to its win-win-based approach, as opposed to how colonial powers exploited the continent over the course of history.

Turkey's success in Africa is largely attributed to its win-win-based approach, as opposed to how colonial powers exploited the continent.

Growing role

Turkish leaders carried out top-level official visits when other world leaders stayed away. On its part, Somalia welcomes Turkey's active role in boosting economic development, and relations between the countries are very warm.

Somalia lacks an institutional system and needs support to build infrastructure in all fields, something which Turkey says it is happy to provide.

Turkish companies operate Mogadishu International Airport and Port, and Turkish Airlines, which is the airline flying to the highest number of destinations in Africa, connects Mogadishu with the rest of the world.

Turkey is also active in defence matters.

Under the Military Training and Cooperation Agreement signed in 2012, the "Turkish Task Force Somalia Command" has been operating from its military training base in Mogadishu and has contributed to increasing the fighting capacity of the Somali army.

The "Defence and Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement" signed between Turkey and Somalia in February 2024 is intended to enhance bilateral cooperation.

Although its terms have not been made public, the agreement's title suggests a comprehensive approach, amalgamating defence and economic components with the objective of development and state-building in Somalia.

President Mohamud has stated that the 10-year agreement covers combating terrorism, external threats, piracy and illegal fishing, as well as coastal protection and development of marine resources.

Somalia has no navy but is keen to build one, according to the president. Until such time, Turkey will assist Somalia in protecting its maritime rights.

The agreement ratification process has already been completed in Somalia. It has yet to start in Turkey. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Somali counterpart met at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in early March.

A few days later, the ministers of energy from the two nations signed a memorandum of understanding to develop bilateral cooperation and carry out joint activities in the field of oil and natural gas in Somalia's onshore and offshore blocks.

These developments are certainly followed closely by other stakeholders, whether with conflicting or overlapping interests.

The region has historically attracted colonial powers and foreign countries. During the 19th century, in what is known as the Scramble for Africa, European powers divided and colonised the continent.

As African countries began gaining their independence in the 1960s, they also claimed back what was taken from them, which often met with counterclaims from others, leading to conflicts and wars.

The Somali-Somaliland and Ethiopia-Eritrea conflicts are just two examples of how the legacy of colonialism continues to affect the politics of so much of this strategically complex and vital part of the continent.

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