Turkey in Africa: Lessons from Somalia

The Republic of Turkey’s projection of hard and soft power in Africa has been positively received inside and outside Africa, in general. Turkey’s engagement with Somalia, viewed by many as the epitome of a failed state, is particularly noteworthy for its successes. Yet the drivers of Turkey as a rising power in Africa and its choice of Somalia, in particular, remain ephemeral and ill-defined. So too are answers to questions such as why Turkey’s engagement with Africa is novel, and what can Turkey do to capitalize on its recent successes?

Based on my research, and using Somalia as test case to gauge Turkey’s level of involvement in Africa and its potential for further success, I argue that Turkey’s unilateral, highly-coordinated approach – utilizing the hard and soft power tools at its disposal – can be replicated elsewhere on the continent. This is possible because African views of Turkey, in general, are either nascent or positive, particularly given the example of Turkey’s role in Somalia. This is in contrast to views of China and the US in Africa. Furthermore, many African leaders are currently looking at alternative political and economic partners. Should Turkey adopt the same unilateral, highly-coordinated approach to taking risks as it has in Somalia and, to a lesser extent in locations as diverse as Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia, Turkey may become not only a rising power in Africa but an essential power. The implications of this – for both Turkey and Africa – are far-reaching. Turkey’s position could shift from being primarily humanitarian and economic and more political, offering a third option as a robust diplomatic partner to Africa’s states. This scenario would see cooperation with Turkey in financial, security and diplomatic developments both internal and external to their states and Africa, thus bypassing other more established partners whose engagement often comes with negative fiscal or political burdens.


The results of Turkey’s efforts in Somalia are striking. But the keys to Turkey’s success in a failed state where so many other established powers have failed have remained unclear. I argued in a recent paper (Cannon, 2016) that Turkey’s achievements are a result of the following factors.

Timing: Turkey became involved in Somalia in late 2011 when the threat of terrorism had ebbed, particularly in Mogadishu. Additionally, a famine returned Somalia to international headlines, and the election of a new federal government – the first in over two decades – occurred just prior to Turkey’s entry. The importance of timing cannot be ignored when assessing Turkey’s rising power status and positive role in Somalia.

Capacity for risk: Some studies involving Turkey’s role have posited that Somalia was ripe for the plucking. The opposite was true, Somalia was awash in international and regional actors, making Turkey’s success all the more stunning. It is a testament to the disjointed, competing, and ultimately ineffective nature of the work done by hundreds of stakeholders in Somalia over the past quarter of a century that Turkey has found fertile ground for its development projects, business interests, educational endeavors, and military agreements. This required a significant appetite for risk with the realization that risky ventures offer significant dividends if managed correctly. I hypothesized that the economic rationale for risk among Turkish businesses is high, given experience in hot spots such as Iraq and Libya, and thus contributed to sensible, businesslike actions in Somalia.

Soft power: Turkey’s pragmatism in Somalia leads it to simultaneously pursue self-interested goals such as the prestige befitting a rising power as well as furthering its business interests. But it also has led Turkey to deploy an array of soft power approaches, from educational opportunities to diplomatic fraternity to humanitarian actions. Indeed, Turkish policy in Somalia represents a unique model and a break with the traditional mold of conducting foreign policy in Africa by East/West partners such as China and the US.

Lack of baggage: Turkey’s Ottoman past and Muslim identity have been raised as major variables driving Turkey’s engagement with Somalia and East Africa. Yet these assertions ignore one of Turkey’s key strengths in sub-Saharan Africa as a rising power: its distinct lack of politico-historical baggage – particularly the absence of a colonial and imperial past or playing a part of Cold War machinations on the continent. Additionally, on the economic front, Turkey eschews something many Africans resent: free market capitalist baggage aimed at securing the best agreement regardless of cost. This has paved the way for Turkey to snap up lucrative contracts initially given to the Chinese in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda, for example. It has also been a benefit in Somalia in terms of infrastructure contracts such as the Port of Mogadishu and the airport.

Turkey’s approach:  A recurring theme bandied about by think tanks and scholars in relation to Turkey’s presence in Somalia is the need for coordination of its efforts with other international and regional actors. According to this logic, coordination and cooperation are the only means of ensuring Turkey’s overall and continued success in Somalia and, indeed, in Africa. My research in Somalia leads me to the opposite conclusion. That is, Turkey’s success in Somalia is a direct result of its unilateral and coordinated actions as directed by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA). Indeed, it is precisely because the international community is at cross purposes in Somalia that so much money has been wasted on policies that counteract one another. The multiplicity of actors lacking a coherent vision or the veneer of coordination has arguably done more damage to Somalia than anything else.

Given the current climate of corruption, the competing goals of regional and international players, and the inability of the government to broadcast its power beyond portions of Mogadishu, it is politically and economically savvy for Turkey to act in a unilateral, highly coordinated fashion and carve out its own sphere of influence in Somalia and the wider region. By exploiting the status quo in Somalia, Turkey has helped itself as well as Somalia in some visible cases. This is not to say that Turkey should not continue to work on the diplomatic and humanitarian fronts with other states and non-governmental actors to alleviate hunger or broker solutions to conflicts where possible. However, in practice, Turkey should continue to take risks and operate independently, doing what is good for Turkey and, correspondingly, tailoring their policies to address the needs and desires of African leaders and their polities as based on mutually-constitutive engagement as well as reactive and proactive measures taken by Africans.

Rather than sandwiching Turkey’s policies and actions within larger, more international development or structural adjustment goals that so often founder because of corruption and the competing (if unspoken) interests of other actors, Turkey should substantively engage Africa and African polities based on mutual interests. In other words, by not tying its Somalia actions and policies to say AMISOM and UN goals, US security goals, EU goals or GCC goals, Turkey has been able to not only achieve major successes on the diplomatic and international fronts but has done so because it has acted nimbly, with great coordination from Ankara, and without the constraints that come with unhelpful alliances and lip service.

Turkey’s unilateral, highly-coordinated approach in Somalia is not only welcome but likely holds one of the keys to Turkey’s current and future success on the continent. I argue that lessons learned in Somalia potentially hold true for much of Africa, particularly eastern and southern, Anglophone Africa. Yet, Turkey has been criticized for some of the ways it prosecutes business in Somalia, to include allegations of corruption and bribery. However, I argue that Turkey’s positive actions in Somalia would be constrained and likely ineffective should it opt to keep its hands entirely clean. First of all, this is Somalia, a failed state with little financial or institutional acumen. Second, little positive can be learned from the many regional and international actors dithering in Somalia for decades, filtering money through unreliable NGOs, international organizations or civil society groups, all the while fueling corruption with few tangible results.

I argue that Turkey’s actions are different because it has actually attempted to assuage rather than solve Somalia’s long-standing problems outright. That is, its largesse and assistance do not come with the strings attached that characterize other efforts that seek to restructure Somalia from top-down or bottom-up. Requirements for political reform or the holding of focus groups on creating accountability mechanisms ring hollow when the actors pushing such efforts are themselves fueling corruption and running distributive cartels (UN, 2014, 2015). Turkey’s tangible presence as seen in the building of hospitals, roads and management of the port and airport (with direct flights to Istanbul) are evidence of its long-term commitment to Somalia. Turkey is now viewed as an honest powerbroker in the Horn of Africa. Turkey and Turkish businesses are generally regarded favorably. Furthermore, Turkey is close enough geographically to be considered a friendly power by Somalis, but far enough away to remain aloof in a way that the Arab states, Ethiopians, and Kenyans cannot. These strengths can work in Turkey’s and Africa’s favor given the right leadership, conditions and timing.


Cannon, Brendon J. (2016). Deconstructing Turkey’s Efforts in Somalia. Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 16(14), 98-123. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/bildhaan/vol16/iss1/14

United Nations. (2014, 2015). UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea report. UN Security Council, New York.

Brendon J. Cannon

Brendon J. Cannon is an Assistant Professor of International Security at the Institute of International & Civil Security, Khalifa University of Science & Technology (Abu Dhabi, UAE). His academic background includes a Ph.D. in Political Science (University of Utah, USA) with an emphasis on Comparative Politics & International Relations and an M.A. in Middle East Studies & History (University of Utah, USA). Dr. Cannon was previously a director of a university research institute in Hargeisa, Somaliland, Somalia and lectured in political science at Kisii University in Nairobi, Kenya. His research interests include the foreign policies of rising powers, the international relations and political economy of eastern Africa, the securitization of post-Ottoman identity politics, and Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Dr. Cannon’s articles include Ethiopia, Berbera Port and the Shifting Balance of Power in the Horn of Africa (co-authored with Ash Rossiter 2017); Deconstructing Turkey’s Efforts in Somalia (2016); Turkey in Africa: Lessons in Political Economy (2017); and Security, Structural Factors and Sovereignty: Analyzing Reactions to Kenya’s Closure of the Dadaab Refugee Camp Complex (co-authored with Hirotaka Fujibayashi 2018). His full-length book, Legislating Reality and Politicizing History: Contextualizing Armenian Claims of Genocide (Offenbach am Main: Manzara Verlag: 2016) is now available in English and German, with a second edition forthcoming in early 2019.

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