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Turkey takes lead in rebuilding Somalia

Turkish workers have flooded Somalia - a country many have long considered too dangerous to work in -  to rebuild it and burnish Ankara's image as a regional player and powerful force in the Islamic world.

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Over the past decade Turkey’s trade ties with foreign countries have burgeoned, particularly with poorer Islamic nations where Turkish construction and manufacturing firms have found a ready market. Turkey’s exports to Africa have increased from $2.1 billion in 2003 to $10.3 billion last year.

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Alongside this, Ankara has involved itself in the politics of other countries in its region, styling itself as a peacemaker.

“Turkey wants to legitimize its role on the world stage and make out that it is not interested in just trade and economics, but humanitarian issues too,” says Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Turkey’s Zirve University.

Turkey’s interest in Somalia is also driven in part by domestic politics, says Mr. Bacik.

Being prominently involved in peace-building efforts in an impoverished Muslim country both endears the AKP to its conservative base, and further adds to voters’ sense of Turkey’s growing greatness in the world.

“In Turkish public imagination, Somalia has been symbolic of poverty in Africa for a long time. People are aware of Somalia,” says Bacik.

Last August during the holy month of Ramadan – a time when Muslims traditionally demonstrate their faith with charity – Erdogan placed a strong emphasis on Somalia, saying it was "incomprehensible" for Turks to ignore the country’s plight.

By twinning religion and charity, he was putting pressure on the country’s main secular opposition party, says Bacik. “The prime minister is using this very effectively in domestic politics.”

Doubts

But how effective Turkey’s involvement in Somalia will be remains in doubt.

“Turkey’s role can be helpful but it’s not going to be decisive,” says Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist and Somalia expert at Davidson University in North Carolina. “The prospects for peace and stability in Somalia are being driven by much bigger factors than individual countries playing facilitating roles.”

Bacik believes Ankara is not yet attuned to the local politics of the country. “Turkey is very much reading the region according to its own perception of Africa, rather than the reality," he says. "There is no awareness of the local conflicts within the country.” 

As a newcomer, it has the advantage of having few enemies and so can operate with relative safety, says Mr. Menkhaus.

Despite the mood of optimism in Istanbul, the prospects of peace and stability in Somalia remains uncertain.

“They have the political grace to go in there right now and not be targeted by anyone… but that won’t last long,” he warns.

There have already been signs of possible trouble ahead. Al Shabab has denounced Ankara as a stooge of the West, and detonated a car bomb yards from its Mogadishu embassy in November last year.

Al Shabab, after losing territory to African Union forces, have mounted a guerrilla and bombing campaign, last week attacking the Somali president’s convoy in a part of Mogadishu thought to have been cleared of Shabab's forces.

“It’s not going to be an easy ride,” says Menkhaus. “We have to be very realistic about our expectations.”

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