Erdogan's African Adventure
Turkey's prime minister Erdogan has traveled to Mogadishu as the first Western head of state in 20years. This reckless gesture illustrates his daring vision: Erdogan's Turkey as a regional broker whose influence extends deep into Asia and Africa. And who, according to this vision, will lose out? Europe.
Very few European (or any, for that matter) heads of state might consider paying a late summer visit to Mogadishu, Somalia. In fact, over the last 20 years, no non-African leader has traveled to the city. Mogadishu is without question the most dangerous place on earth and has enjoyed no stable government since the ousting of the Siad Barre regime in 1991.
And yet last week, posters of a certain prime minister, cast against the backdrop of his nation’s crimson red flag, bedecked the city’s airport, harbor, and countless pockmarked buildings. Chants of “Turkey! Turkey!” rang out as flag-waving Somalis lined up to greet the motorcade of one of the most important leaders of the Muslim, as well as Western, world: Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan.
Currently, many parts of Mogadishu, a city of roughly two million, are totally ungoverned. Al Shabaab, the Islamic insurgents who recently withdrew from a four-year contest with the Transitional Federal Government for control of the city, claim to be regrouping in the countryside. From there they have promised to wage a guerrilla campaign against government and African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu. This means targeted killings, and perhaps also suicide attacks. Compounding this insecurity is the ongoing famine in Somalia, which is threatening nearly half of the country’s population.
Erdogan, who was accompanied by his family and five cabinet ministers, had explained his reasons for traveling to Somalia to party members at a meeting in Ankara several days earlier: “Every day hundreds of our African brothers are dying. Where is the world, the developed countries? Do they extend their hands?”
This visit, according to the prime minister, was therefore part of an ongoing campaign to aid the hungry in Somalia, and bring global attention to the crisis.
During a news conference in Mogadishu with Somali president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Erdogan promised to open an embassy in the city (which would be only its sixth overall), as well as build schools, wells, hospitals and houses. He also pledged to add to the over $110 million in aid relief Turkey had already donated to the country, which is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years. Still, few can help but be impressed by the radical, if perhaps almost reckless, gesture, of actually going to Mogadishu.
In fact, this visit falls in line with the growing ego of a president who has expanded Turkey’s influence abroad over the last eight years almost as much as he has consolidated his own power within the country’s body politic. Turkey’s “Zero Problems with the Neighbors policy,” tirelessly championed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has seen the country reemerge as an impressive, though imperfect, deal-maker in the Balkans, Middle East, North Africa, and to some extent Central Asia. While the Arab Spring has complicated this policy (Turkey does have an immediate problem with its neighbor Syria), there appears to be no indication that a less assertive and open foreign policy will continue to govern Erdogan’s strategy for expanding his country’s position on the global stage.
Domestically, the prime minister is unassailable. After winning his third consecutive election in June, he has now asserted control over the one lever of power always held at arm’s reach from Turkey’s elected leaders – the military. With 10 percent of the country’s senior generals imprisoned on suspicion of seditious plotting against the government – in the so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer conspiracies – and the remainder either obliged to resign or cowed into accepting civilian control over military affairs, Erdogan has made himself the most powerful man in Turkish history since Atatürk.
This gives him incredible influence over the future direction of the country, and the ability to shape it in his own image – one significantly less rigidly secularist and Western than the vision embodied by the republic’s founding father.
This combined to make Mogadishu a tremendous – though still dangerous – opportunity for the prime minister. During the holy month of Ramadan there could be no better gesture of generosity and solidarity with fellow Muslims than to visit the famine-stricken Horn of Africa bearing aid. And so the world watched as a bold, unflinching leader of a prosperous Muslim democracy waded into a warzone to provide stability, relief and leadership. The crowds cheered, Turkish flags waved, and Turkish political and economic interests in the region were well served. “Istanbul,” according to the prime minister, has now even become the most popular name for girls born in Somalia.
There is also little question who came out looking the worse for this visit. Erdogan did not mince words in his remarks at the party meeting in Istanbul, where he reviled those that have “plundered for centuries and made these regions bloody hostages of dictatorial regimes for their own interests….” Frustrating dreams of accession to the European Union now perhaps having finally faded, Turkish prosperity and influence will come, under this reinvigorated leader, independent of the West. This, Erdogan wants to be clear, is Europe’s loss.
Nicholas Siegel is a program officer with the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC.