x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Erdogan goes to Somalia to help victims and Turkey's image

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, goes to Somalia on a visit designed to demonstrate Turkey's readiness to help famine victims, but also to showcase Ankara's ambition to become a major political and economic player in Africa.

ISTANBUL // Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, went to Somalia yesterday, the first major Western leader in decades to visit the country wracked by war and starvation.

The visit was designed to demonstrate Turkey's readiness to help victims of a devastating famine, but also to showcase Ankara's ambition to become a major political and economic player in Africa.

The fact that the prime minister braved the considerable security risks of a visit to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, was sure to raise Turkey's profile even further.

Speaking to reporters in Mogadishu, Mr Erdogan said that events in Somalia were a "test" for all humanity. "Everybody alive today has to pass this test on the name of honour and dignity", he said, according to Turkish news reports. "We want to draw the world's attention to this place."

News reports from Mogadishu said the situation in the capital was considered especially dangerous after Islamist rebels mostly pulled out last weekend, raising the spectre of more guerrilla-style attacks after they failed to seize control of the city.

"First and foremost, this is a humanitarian visit," Halil Ibrahim Bahar, an expert on Africa at the Ankara Strategic Institute, a think tank in the Turkish capital, said yesterday.

"But of course there are political and economic dimensions as well."

Mr Erdogan was accompanied by his wife Emine and three of his four children, as well as Ahmet Davutoglu, his foreign minister, who is scheduled to tour South Africa and Ethiopia after leaving Somalia.

The last foreign leader to visit Mogadishu was Yoweri Musevini, Uganda's president, last year. The former US president, George Bush, visited Somalia in late 1992.

Yesterday, the first stop for Mr Erdogan in Mogadishu was a camp for famine victims run by the Turkish Red Crescent.

The prime minister distributed aid and said Turkey would establish a field hospital soon, according to Turkish news reports.

Mr Erdogan said Turkey was involved in humanitarian assistance, but also in efforts to dig more wells to combat a water shortage.

Ankara would provide generators for power and would rebuild the road from the airport and the city centre because road conditions were "like a safari", Mr Erdogan said.

The biggest problem was security, he said, adding that Turkey wanted the Islamist Shabab militia to be part of a peace process for Somalia.

He also offered his condolences to a Somali woman whose child died a day before the visit, the reports said.

Some 3.7 million Somalis are at risk of starvation, the majority of them in the south of the country that has been in a state of armed anarchy for two decades, complicating relief effort.

Hundreds of thousands have made the dangerous trek to Mogadishu in search of aid. Somalia is the country hardest hit by a drought that has affected millions of people around the Horn of Africa region.

The plight of the famine victims in Somalia has triggered an unprecedented wave of donations in Turkey.

Turks will have donated more than US$200 million (Dh734m) by the end of Ramadan, Mr Erdogan said. Ankara has sent several planes carrying tonnes of food and medical supplies for Somalis.

Turkey has also hosted two meetings of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the last three weeks to coordinate aid efforts for Somalia.

The second meeting, in Istanbul on August 17, ended with a promised to donate $350 million, which will include the Turkish share announced by Mr Erdogan.

"Somali children have a right to a piece of every bite we eat," the prime minister told the OIC meeting. Mr Erdogan, a pious Muslim, also criticised the rich for not doing enough to help the people of Somalia.

"How can billionaires sleep soundly when children in Turkey save every penny and send it to Somalia?"

Mr Erdogan said efforts to rebuild and reopen the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu were ongoing. It has been closed for 20 years because of the fighting.

At present, Turkey has 15 embassies in African countries south of the Maghreb, but is planning to raise this number 30 in the coming years.

One reason behind the expansion is a drive by Turkey, the world's 17th biggest economy, to find new markets for its products. Turkish exports to Africa stand at about $10bn a year, less than 10 per cent of the total. Mr Bahar, the Africa expert in Ankara, said Turkey was "definitely late" in developing its trade ties with Africa, compared to other rising economic powers such as India, Brazil or China.

"But better late than never," he said.

Turkey heavily relied on votes from Africa when it won a seat as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council in 2009. Ankara is hoping to repeat the feat in 2015.

Safety risks surrounding Mr Erdogan's visit were underlined when a plane carrying Turkish politicians, artists, businessmen and reporters, who accompanied Mr Erdogan, scraped trees and the ground with its right wing during turbulence while landing.No one was hurt.

tseibert@thenational.ae