Unleashing people power in Somalia

When I was invited to accompany Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ on the Turkish Airlines (THY) maiden journey from İstanbul to Mogadishu this week, I did not hesitate to accept it. The trip gave me the chance to take a tour of the Somali capital and assess the extent to which Turkish humanitarian and development assistance are making a difference on the ground. I must say it is hard not to be impressed with the pace of the massive Turkish effort to help rebuild war-ravaged Somalia in such a short period of time.

In an earlier visit, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told Bozdağ that Turkey has done more in three months than the UN did in five years. “UN officials told us that $1.2 billion was transferred to Somalia. We do not know where this money went. There was no hospital or school built or investment in infrastructure made. Only Turks have done all this in a short period of time,” he explained. It is not easy to dismiss Mr. Abdiweli’s bitter remarks, although the UN claims most of the money went to corrupt officials and warlords.

Similar remarks were also echoed by Abdirashid Duale, considered to be Somalia’s most influential businessman. “I think the Turkish have changed the [development] environment, they’ve changed the landscape. They want to invest,” he told Reuters in an interview in February. Thanks to Turkish efforts, he said, several legitimate sectors of the economy are thriving, which in turn creates jobs, and infrastructure is improving so that merchants can explore business opportunities.

The fact remains that the Turks are the only ones visible on Mogadishu’s streets trying to bring the city back to life. They have succeeded to a certain degree, but so much needs to be done. While most foreign aid workers are confined to the heavily fortified African Union (AU)-supported Amisom base near the airport, hundreds of Turkish aid workers roam freely in the city center and in the outskirts of Mogadishu’s devastated neighborhoods. Turks built hospitals, including the largest one in the city, refurbished existing ones with modern medical equipment, established schools, dug a couple of dozen wells for potable water and set up a tent city (which will later be converted into apartment flats by Turkey’s mass housing development agency). The Turkish Red Crescent provides daily meals to some 15,000 refugees/internally displaced persons living in the newly set up center close to the airport.

The Turkish approach to development and humanitarian assistance to Somalia differs distinctly from other countries and organizations. Not only did Turkey mobilize national governmental and nongovernmental organizations to rush to provide aid here but made sure the assistance efforts would be spearheaded by Turkish nationals with the cooperation of locals on the ground. It was not just about sending money and feeling good about it. They took risks while others shied away from Somalia, preferring to manage it from neighboring Kenya.

The ultimate aim is to help build institutional capacity in Somalia, with a special focus on education following an effort to stabilize the famine and health crises. Ankara strongly believes only Somali people can usher the country to a new era, and for that Turkish officials are determined to educate thousands of bright young Somali students both in Turkey and in schools being built in Somalia. Hundreds have already been sent to Turkey for education. Only through the empowerment of bright Somali generations will sustainable development be achieved, Turkey claims.

In the meantime, to give a further boost to the feeling of normalcy on the streets of Somalia’s capital, Turkey has taken a number of steps. It drafted a plan to clean up the huge piles of debris and clutter in Mogadishu’s neighborhoods. The Greater İstanbul Municipality has set up a development center in Mogadishu to oversee sanitary and garbage disposal services within the city. It has already conducted a tender for heavy equipment from street sweepers to garbage trucks, from excavators to bulldozers, which are scheduled to be delivered to the city of Mogadishu within weeks. The İstanbul mayor will send a team to operate these vehicles and to train the locals before turning them over within a year.

A garbage storage facility will also soon be built for Mogadishu. Turkey has already set up an incineration facility for the huge collection of animal bones that can be seen alongside the roads, and it plans to establish three additional ones. To rebuild the decayed pavements and repair roads, the İstanbul Municipality signed an agreement with the local municipality here to build an asphalt and cement plant. With the Somali government offering basic services to residents here, the hope is that people will start believing in the promising prospect of their war-torn country. The modernization of Mogadishu airport and the launch of flights by THY, the first international carrier to do so, has already linked Somalia to the outside world. It will also help speed up delivery of logistical supplies to the country as well as humanitarian and development aid.

Realizing that all these endeavors may be in vain if there is no stability or security in this beautiful East African nation in the Horn of Africa, Turkey is also extending its help to consolidate reconciliation. The aid is no longer just limited to Mogadishu but reaches out to other areas in the breakaway enclave of Somaliland and its neighbor, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, in the north as well as to the people in the south, where al-Shabaab is still strong. Bozdağ announced Turkey would set up regional development offices in Somaliland and Puntland as well during this trip. Ankara also offered to train the Somalia police force to enforce security in the country, where many young people carry guns and businesses hire private armies to defend their interests.

The main worry for Turkey and other donor countries is how to make the smooth transition from the weak interim government called the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to a new structure six months from now with the elections coming up. Internal fighting among local clans, tribes and the power feud among political and business groups may sabotage the reconciliation efforts, eventually hampering development aid. The most formidable asset Somalia now has against this doomsday scenario is the “newly emerged hope.” That will prevent chaos, violence and terrorism from thriving.

I believe in this new environment, any group or clan that engages in armed conflict will risk a backlash from the Somali people, who are fed up with the fighting. They will be marginalized very much like the militant al-Shabaab, which was accused of impeding the flow of international emergency food aid to famine-struck communities. Any TFG official who wanted to manipulate the political process to stay in office for personal gain would eventually fade into obscurity. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s open threat to spoilers in Somalia during a conference in London last month was significant in overcoming political feuds here. She proposed sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freezes, on people inside and outside the TFG who seek to undermine peace and security, or delay or even prevent the political transition. The follow-up conference in İstanbul in June, two months before the mandate of the TFG expires, will take up these proposals in detail.

The involvement of Turkey, the only Muslim member in NATO, which had historical ties in Ottoman times with Somalia, also refutes the claims of militant radical groups who say the Western interest in Somalia is another crusade against a Muslim state. Turkey also pushed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the front lines in leading campaign of aid to Somalia. Turkish Secretary-General of the OIC Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu called on all Somali parties to remain united, cohesive and strictly focused on the tasks ahead during his speech at the London conference.

At the end of the day, it is up to the Somalis themselves to lead this campaign of nation-building. I sense that the people of Somalia are already committed to achieving this and that they are no longer willing to compromise their future. They appreciate the Turkish help and any other assistance extended to them, but they are determined to carry the flag themselves. And rightly and deservedly so. By unleashing real human potential in this vibrant Somalia, the people will definitely change the fate of the country for what seems to be a promising future.

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