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Will Turkey Help Somalia Scratch its 21-Year Itch?

From the upcoming Istanbul Conference on Somalia to ground-up nation-building, Turkey provides a new and welcome approach to Somalia.
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A refugee camp run by a Turkish NGO in Somalia. Photograph by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation/Turkey.

Istanbul, Turkey:

Just over two decades have passed since the collapse of the Somali state – 21 years to be exact. According to Lee Cassanelli, Professor of African history at the University of Pennsylvania, this exact number matters in Somali politics, though perhaps in a subconscious way.

In a presentation at the Somali Studies International Conference in 2007 in the US state of Ohio, Cassanelli argued that every 21 years, Somalia has a collective experience or an “itch” for significant change. These cycles extend from Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan’s anti-colonial movement which arguably started in 1899 and came to an end 21 years later in 1920. Later, in 1948, the Somali Youth League was founded; the democratic government born out of that movement was then overthrown by a military coup in 1969. That military government lasted from 1969 until the end of 1990. The fratricide and division era that started in 1991 has continued, albeit faintly, for 21 years, which brings us to 2012.

The Istanbul Conference

Political astronomy or astrology aside, expectation surrounding the upcoming Istanbul Conference is high; Somalia cannot afford another year of systematic self-destruction. Furthermore, this will be the first conference in which Somalis from every social and political sector gather to discuss, negotiate, and jointly develop a blueprint for ending the current political stalemate.

The Istanbul Conference’s goal is to provide a level playing field and an opportunity to negotiate fairly and transparently without foreign dictates. This could be one last hope for Somalia’s sons and daughters to prove to themselves and the rest of the world that their hopes and dreams for a better future have not withered, that their vision for unity and coexistence has not died, and that their capacity to craft and implement a strategy for the common interest of their own nation has not been crippled.

This will hopefully be facilitated by Turkey's decision to take a hands-off approach to hosting the event, an approach entirely different to that taken in other major conferences held for Somalia in which debates have been micro-managed by foreign interest groups.

Turkey in Somalia

In a short time, Turkey’s involvement in Somalia has made a tremendous effect on the ground. Crucial to Turkey's success has been is its recognition that what is important is not just how much money is raised and poured in, but how strategically those dollars are invested. Their reliance on hands-on service delivery and decision to steer away from Nairobi-based institutions has proven a success. Theirs is a model worthy of emulation.

Contrary to the United States, which has spent far more on Somalia than Turkey, Turkey’s approach has been to go beyond handouts. Turkey has (unilaterally) taken a nation-building approach. It decided to rebuild infrastructure, provide financial infusion into local economies, improve housing and healthcare, empower households with monthly stipends, produce jobs for locals, and build capacity for sustainable growth by providing scholarships.

On the political front, Turkey has also demonstrated a keen understanding that the old paradigm in dealing with Somalia’s problems does not work. Turkey understands that the rule of law can only be re-established by a legitimate government with competent national security forces, judicial system and other institutions. It understands that a comprehensive approach to solving the most contentious issues dividing the nation is necessary, and that the solution will not come out of foreign dictates. Rather, it must be derived from thoroughly negotiated resolutions and be born out of a legitimate, transparent and organic process.

Turkey came to the scene with certain level of credibility, extending from its historical relationship with Somalia and was free of political baggage. It came with strong will and commitment that extends from its highest political office to ordinary Turkish citizens.

The international community – specifically the United Nations, United States, European Union, and African Union – should support Turkey in its commitment to engage and help Somalia help itself out of its current condition. The alternative is the maintenance of the status quo and anarchy of the past 21 years, and growing threats with the potential to extend beyond the Horn.

The first gesture of that support could be the conversion of the African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM into a UN peacekeeping force that includes Turkey and a few other Muslim nations. This would also help defuse al-Shabaab’s propaganda. which claims AMISOM is non-Muslim military force with sinister anti-Islamic motives.

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