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Turkey at the London Conference on Somalia

By Firdevs Robinson.

On 23rd February 2012, a major conference in London thrust Somalia back into the international spotlight.

For the past 21 years, Somalia has been one of the world's worst failed states with chronic famine, violence and piracy. The country has been without a functioning government for decades. Since 2006, parts of the country have been controlled by the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab, which pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2010. The European Union-backed military force, known as ANISOM, managed to push Al Shabab out of Mogadishu in recent months, considerably weakening the radical group but the al-Qaida sponsored al-Shabab militia still controls vast areas of Somalia. The largely ineffective Transitional Federal Government's mandate is coming to an end in August 2012 and the next six-months are seen as a critical period for Somalia. In fact, recovering from the regional crisis of various kinds, the whole of Horn of Africa will be facing a challenging year.

Mr. Cameron described the war-torn Somalia as a "complex jigsaw puzzle." It is indeed a difficult and unpredictable country with many parallels with Afghanistan.

Western intelligence experts now fear that Somalia is becoming a recruiting ground for radical militants in much the same way Afghanistan was. Somalia is now ranked by MI5 as one of the top three countries in the world, alongside Yemen and Pakistan, which pose a potential security threat to Britain.

In a report published in early February 2012, The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) said that Britons are thought to make up about 25 per cent of the 200 or so foreign fighters fielded by the al-Shabaab group in Somalia and they are said to be currently engaging in a war on neighbouring Kenya and its tourist trade. The Colorado-based One Earth Future Foundation put the cost of the piracy off the coast of Somalia to the world economy at almost $7bn in 2011.

So, the international community could no longer ignore this festering situation in Somalia. As David Cameron put it, "Pirates are disrupting vital trade routes and kidnapping tourists; young minds are being poisoned by radicalism, breeding terrorism that is threatening not just Somalia but the whole world."

Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the one-day London Conference on Somalia, bringing together fifty-five delegations from the international community. It was attended by US. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon and the foreign ministers of the Middle East and Europe as well as Somali leaders.

They reached agreements in seven key areas – on security, piracy, terrorism, humanitarian assistance, local stability, a reinvigorated political process and on international coordination. It was decided that there will be a follow up conference in Istanbul in June to continue discussions on all these issues.One of the significant outcomes of the London conference was to propel Turkey onto the international stage as a key player in Somalia.

The international community may have a renewed interest in getting involved in Somalia but Turkey has been present and visible in the country for quite some time. It also has had a distinctively different approach to Somalia's problems.

Turkish sources made it known that the British Prime Minister David Cameron had offered his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan the chance to co-host the International Conference on Somalia. Prime Minister Erdogan could not attend the meeting due to health problems.

Last August, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife visited the country together with a high-profile delegation of Turkish officials, businessmen and celebrities. Turkey opened an embassy in Mogadishu in November 2011. There are twelve Turkish humanitarian organisations functioning in the country and Turkish Airlines has announced the start of regular flights to capital Mogadishu from 6 March 2012. There are several Turkish schools in Somalia, run by the Gulen movement, an influential religious community with a vast network of international education programmes. Recently, Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV) brought a group of 400 Somalis to Ankara, mostly for Islamic education but some for nursing and vocational training. Foreign Minister Davutoglu gave the total number of Somali students in Turkey as 800 and he announced that up to 2000 Somali students will be given an opportunity to be educated in Turkey. "Soon, there will be a new generation of Somalis trained in Turkey," he said.

In his London conference speech, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu called for sustainable development and economic growth. He made some specific suggestions such as developing a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) model for regional reconstruction as in Afghanistan. He also underlined the need for rebuilding the national transport infrastructure to support law enforcement, trade and communication. Mr Davutoglu confirmed that Turkey has already allocated $300 million aid to Somalia.

At the conference, Mr. Davutoglu highlighted Turkish efforts to provide medical assistance, educational programmes and diplomatic presence in the country. He called others to follow Turkey's example by opening embassies in Mogadishu.

Briefing Turkish media after the London meeting, Ahmet Davutoglu, was reported as saying that Turkey's presence has been "on epic proportions" in Somalia during the past five months, because it had kept all its promises towards Somalia since last year's Istanbul conference.

Turkey's increasingly independent, ambitious, self-confident assertiveness on the world stage is welcome by some but viewed with suspicion by others.

Yet, almost every Somali I spoke to during the conference was full of praise for Turkey. Turkey's emphasis on being on the ground and encouraging sustainable development and economic growth seems to be supported by many Somalis.

Abdirashid Duale, an influential businessman told the Reuters news agency that Turkey was ahead of the pack in exploring ways to engage economically."I think the Turks have changed the development environment, they've changed the landscape. They want to invest," he said.

The Somali Relief and Development Forum representing Somali NGOs involved in humanitarian activities in Somalia and neighboring countries complained after the conference that their problems are not only political, they're humanitarian and social. The international community had to prioritize the humanitarian situation in Somalia over the war on counter terrorism, piracy and governmental strategies.

In its report published on the eve of the conference, The International Crisis Group called for enhancing the role of Turkey and other Muslim nations in the stabilisation effort, in order to build Somali confidence in the process.

At the press conference following the meeting I asked Prime Minister Cameron what kind of role Turkey would be playing in these international efforts? Mr. Cameron was generous in his praise. He said the Turks had played a vitally important role in Somalia in the delivery of humanitarian aid, in supporting the refugee camps. He thought Prime Minister Erdogan had personally played a very important role.

Whilst Turkey's bold steps in Somalia are praised publicly, there are reservations voiced in private. Until recently, Turkey had chosen to act unilaterally in Somalia. Its close relations with the partially representative Transitional Federal Government have raised eyebrows. Some of the Turkish aid organisations most active in Somalia, such as the Foundation for Human Rights, Freedoms and Humanitarian relief (IHH) have a controversial reputation. The Turkish charity IHH was one of the key organisers of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship that was raided by Israeli troops while en-route to Gaza in May 2010.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made it clear that they will not negotiate with the Islamist militant group Al Shabab. Others are more open-minded about possible engagement. But Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told journalists in London that; "all the conflicting parties in Somalia respect Turkey- that is the reason they give importance to Turkey's presence in the mediation process."

However, militant Islamist group Al -Shabab was just as hostile to Turkey as they were to the rest of the international community. They called the London conference an attempt to re- colonise Somalia and claimed that Turkish aid was sent to poison the people.

Al Shabab objects to Turkey's high- profile presence in Somalia based on radical Islamists arguments. According to Somalia Report, a privately funded, non-partisan website, Turkey's efforts in Somalia are greatly appreciated but what Somalis need in their hour of need are not mosques and imams, but doctors and engineers.