Turkey opens military base in Mogadishu

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Turkey opened its biggest overseas military base at the weekend in Somalia’s capital cementing ties with the volatile but strategic Muslim nation and building a presence in East Africa.

More than 10,000 Somali soldiers will be trained by Turkish officers at the base, a senior Turkish official said ahead of a ceremony in Mogadishu attended by Turkish military chief of staff Hulusi Akar.

The opening of the $50 million base signals closer ties between Turkey and Somalia. Turkey’s relations with the Horn of Africa date back to the Ottoman Empire and President Tayyip Erdogan’s government has become a close ally of the Somali government in recent years.

At the opening ceremony, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire thanked the Turkish government for opening the training school and said it would help government “reconstruct” its national force — “not based on clan…not from a particular place, but well-trained forces that represent the Somali people.”

He noted the military school was Turkey’s biggest overseas. The facility can train and house 1,000 soldiers at a time and also has sports facilities and a running track.

Erdogan, whose roots are in political Islam, is an outspoken defender of Muslims, particularly those in need of humanitarian aid, such as Syrian refugees and Myanmar’s Rohingya.

Analysts say in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, as Turkey’s foreign policy forays close to home floundered, Ankara has found a willing partner in Somalia.
“It’s a country where Turkey could make a difference without necessarily having to compete with regional or global powers,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ankara’s initial focus on aid, as opposed to security assistance or overt backing of political parties, helped build trust, he added.

WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS

Turkey’s aid effort at the height of the 2011 famine endeared it to many Somali people and it has continued to pour in aid, much from private companies.

It has built schools, hospitals and infrastructure and provided scholarships for Somalis to study in Turkey. Erdogan has visited Mogadishu twice. When he made his first trip in 2011 he became the first non-African leader to visit the war-ravaged nation in 20 years.

Rapidly growing trade followed. In 2010, Turkish exports to Somalia totalled just $5.1 million. By last year, they had ballooned to $123 million. In the space of six years Turkey has gone from Somalia’s 20th-largest source of imports to its fifth-largest.
“Turkey really has won the hearts and minds of Somali people,” Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman told Reuters.

Somalia’s government is a vocal backer of the Erdogan government in its bid to quash Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen’s influence abroad. The Somali cabinet ordered schools and a hospital in Mogadishu linked to Gulen shut in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup, which Erdogan repeatedly blamed on the cleric. Gulen denies involvement.

SECURITY SUPPORT WELCOMED

Somalia’s government has a number of foreign backers, including the United Nations, the African Union and the United States, who are assisting in building a functional national army capable of taking on the fight against the militant al-Shabaab group.

The militants were driven out of Mogadishu in 2010, but their deadly attacks remain one of the main obstacles to stability in the chaotic Horn of Africa country, which lies along one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

The Somali government praised Turkish investment for improving infrastructure and the information minister singled out Turkey’s new move into security support.
“We are happy they are giving us modern facilities for our security forces,” he said.
“This is something Somalia has never seen even though countries like the US and UK give millions. The difference is the camp Turkey built is an institution that will remain for the next 50 or 100 years.”

The Turkish official who spoke to Reuters before the opening said the base was in line with Ankara’s priority of expanding its weapons sales “to new markets”.