Turkey and the Horn of Africa: Emerging Interests and Relations

July 8, 2012

Horn of Africa

Chatham House in London held an afternoon session on 28 June 2012 dealing with Turkey’s engagement in the Horn of Africa. I was asked to make remarks at this workshop. My opening comments provided a brief synopsis of Turkey’s relations with Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. Somalia, where Turkey has made an extraordinary investment, dominated the discussion at the workshop.

Below are my opening remarks.

Turkey has embassies in Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia but none in Eritrea and Djibouti. Turkey’s trade with the Horn of Africa is not significant. In 2010, it had modest imports from the region, the largest amount being $41 million in value from Ethiopia. Its only exports to the region that year of any significance were $228 million to Sudan and $175 million to Ethiopia. Turkey’s engagement in the Horn of Africa is generally more advanced than in most of the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa because it is geographically close to Turkey and all of the countries except South Sudan are predominantly Muslim or have large Muslim minorities.


Turkey’s least important relationship is with Eritrea. It has an honorary consulate in Asmara; Turkey’s embassy in Sana’a is accredited to Eritrea. There are a few Turkish companies operating in Eritrea. Turkey offers one PhD scholarship to an Eritrean each year. Turkey’s close relations with Ethiopia probably account in part for it limited ties to Eritrea.

South Sudan

Turkey’s newest relationship is with South Sudan. Turkey established a consulate general in Juba in January 2011 and upgraded it to an embassy after independence in July 2011. Turkey has 26 police assigned to the UN Mission in South Sudan. Not much else is happening with the relationship yet and with the possible exception of Turkish commercial activity, it is difficult to envisage much occurring in the near term.


Turkey has a modest relationship with Djibouti. The Djiboutian president visited Ankara in 2009. Turkey provides some humanitarian aid; the Turkish Red Crescent Society occasionally engages in Djibouti. Turkey has a sizeable scholarship program for Djiboutians; there were 30 in 2009-2010 and 25 in 2010-2011. The most important tie is Djibouti port calls by Turkish naval vessels that participate in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia.


Turkey’s longest relationship is with Ethiopia. Turkey opened an embassy in Addis Ababa in 1926; Ethiopia opened one in Ankara in 1933, closed it in 1984 and reopened in 2006. Emperor Haile Selassie visited Turkey twice. The Turkish prime minister has visited Ethiopia twice. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was co-chair of the 2008 Turkey-Africa Summit in Istanbul. The Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) opened an office in Ethiopia in 2005. Turkish Airlines began flights to Addis Ababa in 2006. The two countries have signed numerous agreements and memoranda of understanding. Turkey would like to develop a free trade zone with Ethiopia. Turkey and Ethiopia held their 5th round of political consultations in 2012.

Turkey provides training each year for five Ethiopians at the Turkish Police Academy. As of 2011, there were 238 Turkish firms investing in Ethiopia with total investment estimated between $1.3 and $1.8 billion. The companies were involved heavily in textiles but also construction, leather, furniture, agro-processing, and water well drilling. The Turkish Exporters’ Union and the Turkish Federation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) organized a trade forum in Addis Ababa in 2011. Four schools (2 kindergartens, grades 1-8, and grades K-12) that are part of the Gülen movement operate in Ethiopia with 535 students.

Turkey is not in a particularly strong position, even if it desires, to help resolve the ongoing problems between Ethiopia and Eritrea.


Arguably, Turkey’s most important political relationship is with Sudan. Turkey recognized Sudan after its independence in 1956. While not as long a history of interaction with independent Sudan as with Ethiopia, Turkey has long-standing historical ties that date back to the Ottoman period. The two countries have numerous bilateral agreements, including a free trade agreement. They established an inter-parliamentary friendship group in 1999. Sudan’s president visited Turkey in 1982 and 2008 and the Turkish prime minister visited Sudan in 2006.

Turkish Airlines serves Khartoum. The Turkish National Police train Sudanese police. Turkey is contributing 40 unarmed military and police personnel to the UN/African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. TIKA, the Turkish Red Crescent Society, Humanitarian Relief Organization, and Gülen-affiliated Kimse Yok Mu are all active in Darfur. Total Turkish humanitarian and development assistance to Sudan reached $60 million by the end of 2009. While active on the humanitarian side in Darfur, Turkey tries to walk a middle line on political issues.

Turkish investment in Sudan totals about $200 million and is mainly in steel, cement, PVC manufacturing, grain import and export, furniture, textiles, and home appliances. Turkish companies are building $300 million worth of infrastructure projects. The Turkish government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide assistance to the health sector, including treatment in Turkey of about 100 Sudanese annually who cannot be treated in Sudan.

Turkey provides 10 MA and 10 PhD scholarships annually to Sudanese students. A Gülen-affiliated school that began in Khartoum in 1998 provides secondary education to 400 students.


Turkey’s most interesting relationship is with Somalia. While there is a tendency to see Turkey’s deep involvement in Somalia as a surprise, it has important antecedents, some dating back to Ottoman control over Somali port enclaves. Turkey had an embassy in Somalia until the state collapsed in 1991. In 1993, Turkey contributed a 320-person mechanized infantry unit reinforced by combat support components and three frigates to the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). Turkish Lieutenant General Cevik Bir commanded the UNOSOM force for a year. Turkey pulled back from Somalia at the conclusion of the UN mission but returned forcefully in 2010 when Turkey hosted the UN-sponsored Istanbul Conference on Somalia and the Turkish people donated more than $300 million to combat famine in Somalia.

Turkey provided a rotating commander for the multilateral Combined Task Force 151 aimed at fighting Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and contributes a ship to the operation. In 2011, Turkey hosted the Emergency Ministerial Meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s executive committee on Somalia. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, accompanied by his family, visited Mogadishu in August 2011. This was the first by a non-African head of government in almost two decades.

Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) President Sheikh Sharif has made several trips to Turkey. Turkey reopened its embassy in Mogadishu; the ambassador is reaching out to Somalis and has visited Puntland. Turkey offered to mediate between the TFG and al-Shabaab. Turkey has agreed to train TFG military personnel.

In spite of the large presence of Turks in Mogadishu, they have not been attacked by al-Shabaab, although one al-Shabaab suicide bombing at the Ministry of Education in October 2011 killed many Somali students applying for scholarships to Turkey and Sudan. Al-Shabaab justified the attack by claiming that the students were going for intelligence or military training. Turkey did send some 400 Somalis to Turkey for religious training by the Directorate for Religious Affairs and the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation. Al-Shabaab sees the Turkish version of Islam as a watered down variety that is contrary to its own purist interpretation. Turkish NGOs have successfully provided famine relief in al-Shabaab controlled territory.

In 2012, Turkey’s deputy prime minister accompanied the inaugural flight of Turkish Airlines twice weekly flight to Mogadishu. Turkey also hosted the second Istanbul Conference on Somalia. Doctors Worldwide, TIKA, Kimse Yok Mu, Turkish Red Crescent, Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Islamic Relief, and the Physicians for Hope Foundation are active in Somalia. Turkish NGOs operate refugee camps in Mogadishu. The Gülen-affiliated Nile Foundation of Turkey signed an agreement with TIKA to enhance the education system in Somalia over a 49-year period and has opened the first Turkish high school in Somalia.

As many as 200,000 Somalis have been treated at Turkish field hospitals and clinics.

Turkey has inaugurated a 400-bed hospital and plans to provide garbage trucks, build a waste-disposal facility, pave the road between Mogadishu airport and the city center, dig water wells and improve agriculture and livestock production.

TIKA is also in contact with the government of Somaliland concerning assistance programs; Turkey is trying to balance its ties between the TFG and Somaliland but has expressed a clear preference for a unified Somalia. TUSKON is encouraging Turkish companies to invest in Somalia. A Somali-Turkish Businessmen’s Association is being formed.

The Bottom Line

Turkey’s primary goal in the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa generally is the winning of commercial contracts, profitable investments, and increasing exports to key countries. Turkey is also asserting its position as a regional power with an expanding definition of its region. Turkey also exhibits an occasional not so subtle flashback to the glory of the Ottoman period.

Turkey seeks political support from Africa’s 54 countries, which constitute more than a quarter of all UN members, on issues such as a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council, Cyprus, counterterrorism, antipiracy, and trade disputes in the World Trade Organization. There is a religious component driven by both Turkish NGOs, business persons and the Turkish government of engaging more extensively in predominantly Muslim countries in Africa.

There is also a straight forward humanitarian concern based on Turkey’s Islamic culture of giving that comes from the government, Turkish NGOs, the business community, and individuals. It would be interesting to track the flow of Turkish governmental and NGO aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. I suspect it would demonstrate a high correlation of aid to predominantly Muslim countries and to Islamic minorities in other countries. Some of this can be explained by geography as the predominantly Islamic communities in Africa tend to be geographically closer to Turkey.

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  • glaverghetta

    @Theginnie Comprehensive article. Interesting point about Turkish involvement in Somalia going back to Ottoman times - not many know that.