For Somalia’s survival, peace, and well-being, its people must follow Turkey’s example and put aside their differences in times of crisis.
The devastating 20-year civil war and the aftermath of terror had left the buildings of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, perforated with bullets. Resulting from bullets that had missed their intended targets, whether from guns aimed from one brother to another or from Somalis targeting an invading power. The Presidential Palace, which I was in charge of protecting, had also met with the wrath of those bullets. On a hot Mogadishu day in early 2009, I stood beneath a sky so perfect and pure with my gaze fixed on the Presidential Palace, which was on the brink of collapse. The stark contrast of that day transports me not only to the worst days of the civil war, but also to the foundation of my dreams of saving my country from hunger and misery, and of eradicating the shadows cast by weapons.
At that moment, a familiar voice, the voice of a friend, drew my attention away from the building. He said, “Jaamac!” in his powerful voice, which carried so much knowledge, experience, and influence; “Those bullet-riddled walls of the Presidential Palace are not ordinary walls; they represent the shattered heart of your homeland.” That was the truth. It was not the palace walls that were crumbling, but my homeland. The factors that had caused a tremendous amount of destruction and trauma had to be left in the past; they would only be told in stories as a preventative measure for our children. The only thing that mattered was to find a way to heal the wounds of my people and my homeland.
Can Istanbul’s light enlighten Somalia?
My friend, just like me, had dreams for Somalia and our people. However, he was concerned not only about Somalia but also about the Islamic world and the dire situation in which the Islamic community found itself. According to him, a dark cloud had descended on the Islamic community, with the only light shining through the darkness coming from Istanbul. The thrill of the World Economic Forum in Davos was still fresh in his heart. It was once again demonstrated at the Davos Forum when the leader of a proud nation that has stood against persecution throughout history firmly stated his position. His actions gave a sense of relief to my friend as well as the Islamic world. I did not find it strange that Istanbul, once the capital of the caliphate during the Ottoman period, was mentioned as if it were the capital of Turkey, and that those who protected it now were referred to as saviors. It was that very day that my friend took the excitement he had developed, growing up with the stories his grandfathers had told of the Ottoman-Somali relations, and instilled in me the desire to visit Turkey one day. The desire was strengthened with his remark, “The Turkish Muslims, who in the past stood up to the Portuguese by sending their warships to the east coast of Africa solely to enable Muslims to go on the Hajj pilgrimage, will do everything in their power to help Somalia get back on its feet.”
A new opportunity for Turkish-Somali friendship
In those days, I would accompany our President on various international trips to various countries to gain support from the international community. In the final months of2009, Somalia received an invitation to the Organization of Islamic Conference’s Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation (OIC/COMCEC), which I attended with a number of other Somalian delegates. This attendance took me on a journey from which I would never return. It was at the end of the Forum that I requested and received permission from our President to stay in Turkey to complete my education. Simultaneously, I began working as a diplomat at the Somalian Embassy in Ankara and finished a Turkish language course, which paved my way into post-secondary education at the Faculty of Political Science, also referred to as “Mekteb-i Mulkiye”. Halfway through my education, I received the disheartening news that my friend, who had inspired me to go to Turkey and develop a close relationship with it, had been murdered by the militant group Al-Shabaab. They took away a friend, but they could never take away the values and ideas he instilled in me.
By the beginning of 2011, Somalia was experiencing the worst famine and drought in 60 years, and the civil war and terror, which had completely crippled the state’s capacity, had resulted in humanitarian tragedies. During this calamitous period, the world chose to remain silent, as it had done since the beginning of the civil war. As a young diplomat stationed in Turkey at the time, I saw this as an opportunity and wondered, “Wouldn’t the light of Istanbul illuminate Somalia?” I couldn’t get this thought out of my head. I told myself over and over that the leader of a nation that had always stood up to persecution and tyranny would not remain silent in the face of hunger, misery, and murder.
The day that changed the fate of Somalis: August 19, 2011
Every question I had, including how Istanbul shone its light on other countries, was answered on August 19, 2011, when the aircraft ANA, emblazoned with the crescent and star of the Republic of Turkey, carrying Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his delegation, broke through the skies of Mogadishu. It was the first time in 20 years that a country’s prime minister risked his life and the lives of his delegation to visit my country, which the rest of the world ignored.
Those days, I, as a diplomat, had informed the Foreign Ministry of Turkey, which had assured me that they would do everything possible to help. Assistance from Turkish government programs had already been initiated prior to Erdogan’s arrival in our country. They kept their word, doing whatever they could to help with the famine and drought in Somalia through the foundations of the Turkish Red Crescent, the Turkish Diyanet Foundation (TDV), and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). Serdar Cam, Turkey’s current Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism, who was the head of TIKA at the time, and I were aboard the first cargo plane carrying desperately-needed resources from Turkey to Somalia. I was returning to my homeland, while Cam was flying into a foreign zone without knowledge of the conditions that awaited him. Looking back, I see a significant difference between the trip we took and the trip President Erdogan took; our flight carried humanitarian aid, whereas President Erdogan’s flight carried hope. For the first time in 20 years, a single flight brought rays of hope to a bereaved nation drowning in tears. “Those who go to bed with a full stomach while their neighbors go hungry are not of us,” Erdogan declared to the world, inviting all Muslims to share their iftar meals with Somalis. The visit to Somalia heightened global media awareness of the humanitarian crisis. I was ecstatic and filled with pride because I had played a role in organizing the official visit and was now witnessing the joy and happiness with which Somalis around the world greeted Turkey’s leader.
Turkey’s conscience-based Somali policy
Western politicians and writers, who treated Somalia as if it were non-existent, took the easy path of dismissing the risky voyage taken by Erdogan and his team as stemming from a neo-Ottomanist policy. As a student who studied Turkish and Ottoman history in the narrow corridors of Mekteb-i Mulkiye, a diplomat who had the opportunity to observe Turkey’s current politics on the back channels of Ankara, and a Somali who witnessed the full course of Turkey’s humanitarian policies regarding Somalia, I can categorically state that President Erdogan’s visit was the result of a policy shaped solely by conscience. Erdogan followed through on all promises and commitments after demonstrating through his actions that he would not remain silent in the face of the crisis. Ending the crisis and contributing to Somalia’s regeneration and construction became a process in which all Turkish institutions participated. The Turkish people also took part, sparing anything they could from their own sustenance to help the Somalian people, demonstrating their helpful nature at every opportunity. From elderly women donating their gold, which was frequently in the form of a gold bangle that they had saved for the purchase of a shroud to be used in their funerals, to children donating their piggy bank savings. From civil society to municipalities and state institutions, Turks helped the state get back on its feet, and Somalia became one of Turkey’s top priorities. The number of people applying for a Somalia visa at the embassy in Ankara, which is normally a quiet place, formed long lines, which was astonishing. Our friends at the embassy, who were few in number, were required to work around the clock to meet the requests.
Erdogan’s visit ten years ago today was not only a source of hope for Somalia but also a reaffirming factor in the Turkish-Somali brotherhood that exists today. Turkey distinguished itself from other states by endeavoring to rebuild Somalia’s state capacity, which had collapsed during the civil war while adhering to the Turkish model of “mutual friendship and affection, not exploitation.” It would be difficult to find individuals who have not been touched by Turkey’s helping hands, from the most remote rural areas to the heart of Somalia’s cities. The Turkish aid model, with its targeted individual assistance, is the primary reason for Somalis’ love for Turkey. Instead of giving fish to Somalis in need and making them dependent on foreign aid, Turkey is now working to employ more sustainable methods, such as teaching Somalis how to fish, through the Turkish Red Crescent, Turkish Diyanet Foundation (TDV), TIKA, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, and many non-governmental organizations whose names I cannot list individually here. On the other hand, substantial contributions have been made to rebuild Somalia’s state institutions, particularly the Somali National Army, in order to keep the Somalian state on its feet.
Turkey as a stabilizing factor in East Africa
Turkey’s heartfelt assistance to Somalia is critical not only for Somalia’s stability but also for the stability and prosperity of the Horn of Africa. In this context, efforts to rebuild state functions that have been shattered by civil war and terrorism are critical to ensuring the Horn’s stability and security. Furthermore, state reconstruction, particularly the National Army, provides tremendous leverage in ridding the Horn of Africa of terrorism and instability. Another significant contribution made by Turkey to the state’s reconstruction was the construction of transportation and communication infrastructures, as well as valuable contributions in both training and strengthening security services. As a result of the Somali state rising to its feet with Turkish assistance and becoming a primary actor in the fight against terrorism, Somalia now has the potential to put an end to terrorism and instability in Eastern Africa.
Even though Turkey wholeheartedly provides friendly and brotherly assistance, Somalia still encounters difficulties in ensuring stability and security. The first of these problems is a lack of national awareness, as well as difficulties in establishing sovereignty. Parallel to the construction of state functions, the promotion of national consciousness in Somalia is of critical importance, with the assistance of valuable partners such as Turkey. This promotion will reinforce the effectiveness of the central authority and sovereignty within the borders of the country. This is a top priority for Somalia as a whole. Turkey’s humanitarian approach to the Somali state initiated the process of statehood. Now, the development of national consciousness will unite the people under the Somali state, and the establishment of full sovereignty is essential to resolving crises in Somalia.
Building national awareness is key to stability and peace in Somalia
As we saw in the bloody coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Turkish people know how to put aside their differences and band together, becoming one nation and using that as a weapon to eliminate the perpetrators whenever there is a threat to the entire nation. For Somalia’s survival, peace, and well-being, its people must follow Turkey’s example and put aside their differences in times of crisis in order to unite around a national consciousness based on shared values. This consciousness will lead to the Somali state’s complete independence, as well as the elimination of both unilateral and self-interested foreign interventions and instability. Throughout much of Somalia’s history, the emergence of tribal understandings of simple interests has been one of the most significant obstacles to the country’s survival and stability. Today, it should be emphasized once more that a national consciousness based on the understanding that differences create wealth rather than conflict is the golden key to bringing stability and prosperity to Somalia and our people. Somalis, tired of conflict and crises, have the strength and spirit to achieve the required consciousness.
Ten years ago, following Erdogan’s initial step, the entire Turkish community successfully came together for Somalia, a society that was geographically distant. We, Somalis throughout the world, must put aside our differences and work together for a state that is peaceful, prosperous, and tranquil. I firmly believe that with the help of brothers like Turkey, who invest in Somalia’s prosperity and stability, we can foster an integrative and unifying spirit that will establish a prosperous Somalia.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.