Overcoming the Somali Quagmire

By Assad Bhuglah

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Somalia is bounded by the Gulf of Aden to the north, by the Indian Ocean to the east, by Kenya and Ethiopia to the west, and by Djibouti to the northwest. About the middle of the 19th century, the Somali peninsula became a theatre of competition between Great Britain, Italy, and France. On the African continent itself Egypt also was involved, and later Ethiopia, Somalia’s western border was arbitrarily determined by colonial powers and divides the lands traditionally occupied by the Somali people. As a result, Somali communities are also found in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and the border remains a source of dispute.

Decades of civil hostilities have virtually destroyed Somalia’s economy and infrastructure and split the country into areas under the rule of various entities. The Republic of Somalia experienced fragmentation in the 1990s: the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland asserted its independence from Somalia in 1991, and the Puntland State of Somalia declared itself an autonomous region of Somalia in 1998. Neither is internationally recognized. The Somali cabinet and president used to be stuck in Nairobi, holding endless meetings about a nation they could not enter, let alone govern. In their absence, Mogadishu was abandoned to the depredations of warlords, who proceeded to pound its white Italianate boulevards to rubble. Eventually, the terrorists of al-Shabaab – the East African wing of al-Qaida – captured most of southern Somalia and imposed their pitiless rule. In the words of one Somali leader, the country became a "danger to itself, to its neighbours, to the region and to the entire world."

Mired in violent chaos since 1991, Somalia is also suffering the effects of a severe drought that has left parts of the country on the brink of famine. Somalia also confronts the worst outbreak of cholera in five years, with almost 690 deaths so far this year and cases expected to reach 50,000 by the end of June 2017, according to the World Health Organization. In the midst of unending turmoil and civil war, the international community had almost turned its back against Somalia and the Somalians were abandoned to their fate. Foreign countries pulled out their embassies and airlines cancelled their operations to and from Somalia However, Turkey was the rare country, if not the only one which maintained its diplomatic presence in Mogadishu. Turkish Airlines remained as the sole non-African airline regularly connecting Mogadishu to the world.

Subsequently, the African Union also played a major role in bringing peace and stability in Somalia. African soldiers mobilized by the African Union Mission in Somalia – known as AMISOM - turned the tide against al-Shabaab, driving the terrorists out of Mogadishu and liberating thousands of square miles. The official government was able to return to Somalia and begin the painstaking task of rebuilding a state from nothing.

At a time when no foreign dignitaries to visit Somalia, which was plagued by war, anarchy and the risk of starvation among some 3.7 million Somalis, the Turkish leader set the example. As far back in 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, together with his spouse and six government ministers, landed in Mogadishu to give the Somalian people and the world a historic message. At a time when Somalians had almost lost all hope in their future, the president had reassured them that Turkey believes in the future of Somalia and that Somalians will not walk alone. And, just when no world leader dared to visit Mogadishu in two decades and no country committed to help, President Erdoğan led the way. In the intervening years, Turkey has pulled all levers to help bring Somalian development back on track. Turkey has built a vast network of infrastructure including roads, the Mogadishu airport and harbour. The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Hospital provides healthcare at international standards to Somalians.

Since 2011, Somalia has come a long way. Somalia is now proceeding on the path of stability and development. It has instituted a federal state and successfully conducted presidential and parliamentary elections. Governance institutions are being built step by step. The recent London High Level Conference brought together a large coalition in support of Somalia. The U.K. and U.N. have heeded Turkey's long-time call to engage in efforts to assist Somalia's normalization.

After decades of bloodshed and anarchy, this is a remarkable story of recovery. But a huge amount remains to be done. As a country that has long been helping Somalia to heal its wounds and develop, Turkey's activities are not limited to delivering basic humanitarian needs, but also putting forward development and infrastructure projects and investments in the areas of education and health to accommodate the country's self-reliance. Turkey has assisted Somalia in almost every aspect and contributed to the state building process. Ankara now maintains its largest embassy in Somalia and has inaugurated its largest overseas military facility in Mogadishu. The $50 million facility is designed to provide support and training to troops of the war-torn country which is struggling to rebuild its national security forces. It is expected to house and train at least 1,000 soldiers at a time.

At the London High Level Conference, the UN Secretary General said that the political stability has improved in Somalia but the gains are fragile because "growing food insecurity" is affecting millions of Somalis. "Somalia now hangs in the balance between peril and potential," Guterres said. More than 6 million people - half of the country's population - are facing severe drought and a cholera outbreak, which claimed at least 1,000 lives this year, according to the UN. Last August, a Turkish Airlines cargo plane carrying over 60 tons of food aid arrived in Mogadishu. Yet more needs to be done.

Now that situation is getting to normal in Somalia, the Somali refugees, who are spread across the world, are being encouraged to return to their homeland and start re-building their country.  Those living in refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia are being asked to give up their refugee status and are given some money and basic supplies, such as blankets. But for those who are dispersed in Western countries, the Turkish Airlines extends them all facilities to travel back home. In Somalia, where employment opportunities are limited for the local population, it is even more difficult for refugees, returnees and asylum seekers to enter the labour market and to find means of livelihood. Therefore, the local authorities have put up vocational training programmes to enhance their marketable skills, creating better links to job offers and supporting them with capital investment, so that in the end they will be able to create and manage their own small business. But as things are improving for Somalia, Donald Trump wants to increase the American military involvement, a gesture that may enrage the al-Shabab and complicate the matter further. The US already has military bases in Somalia, although it has not publicly acknowledged them. An aggressive US military involvement has the risk of pushing Somalia in a quagmire again.

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