As the Somalia Conference opens in London, Somali reporter Jamal Osman gives a personal account of the relationship between the countries, including how Britain may be playing catch up to Turkey.
The London Somalia conference today “aims to provide international support for the government of Somalia as they rebuild their country after two decades of conflict,” according to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The conference follows a greater level of activity by the British government in Somali affairs in recent months, with efforts to lead the international community in this area.
There was a London-Somalia conference last year. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has visited Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, twice in the last two years. The UK embassy in Mogadishu was reopened last month. Days later, the Brit, Nicholas Kay, was appointed as the new UN Special Representative for Somalia by the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Usually, anyone who holds this post is effectively the country’s president.
Behind the scenes too, there are British officials working in key Somali ministerial offices, as permanent advisors. There are the invisible advisors who train Somali soldiers. And there are others – we don’t know what they do.
Some of the Somali ministers are British citizens who have lived in the UK for many years. And, of course, many Somali bus and cab drivers have left London for Mogadishu to become politicians or set up their own business. In certain places in Mogadishu, you would be mistaken to think you are in a Somali cafe in London. The British presence in the country is noticeable.
So why now and will the British government succeed in its mission?
The UK hosts the largest Somali community in Europe, estimated to be around 300,000 strong. And there is a concern in Britain that what happens in Somalia will no longer remain a Somali problem.
In particular, British officials have repeatedly raised their fears that some British passport holders, who fought alongside the al-Qaeda-linked group, al-Shabab, may return to this country to cause havoc. So the British government says it is in their national interest to assist the Somali authorities in their fight against al-Shabab and to reach a lasting peace.
Somalia is in a strategic location; it is believed to have natural resources and is recovering from a two-decades long war. Therefore, the UK government would obviously want to be the key international player in Somali politics and to have the biggest slice of the cake. There are potentially huge investments for British companies in most industries.
Regardless of where the support comes from, most observers accept that Somalia won’t return to the civil war years. It would only move forward from here.
However, it may be too little too late for the Brits in their aim to become the key international player of Somalia. Somalis are asking themselves: “What do the British want from us?” Politicians may publicly say “we are grateful for the Brits”, but they are genuinely suspicious about the renewed involvement.
It could be a classical Somali conspiracy theory (we are very good at that). But, with Somalia being a former colony of the UK, history is not on Britain’s side. In Somali eyes, they have always worked hard to safeguard and support neighbouring countries, Ethiopia and Kenya, who are also Somalia’s main enemies. Somalis say they will never forgive the British for giving away territories and people to their neighbours: the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and the North Eastern Frontier of Kenya.
But, for now, Somalis are left to choose between the “British invasion” or the “Turkish takeover”.
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Western nations are uneasy about the rapid growth of Turkish influence in Somalia, and the UK government’s initiative is seen as part of the West’s agenda to counter it. While the West was watching China and its growth in Africa, the Turkish seemed to pop up from nowhere.
It all began in August 2011, during the height of the Somalia famine and when two planes landed in Mogadishu. They were carrying the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, and his wife, along with a delegation of Turkish politicians, businessmen and journalists.
In the two decades leading up to this, Somalia had come to be seen as a hapless nation in the grip of constant civil war, infested by pirates, warlords, and al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups. Erdogan went there with a different attitude. He became the first non-African head of state since 1991 to visit to Somalia. He wanted to present a momentous gift: showing solidarity to the Somali people in its most desperate time. The visit set off a new era in Somalia, and revealed Turkey as an emerging player across Africa.
Since Erdogan’s visit to Somalia, his government has given scholarships to thousands of Somali students, opened up Turkish language schools in Somalia, approached aid differently (by giving out cash on the ground to be used as salaries, instead of being distributed among agencies as with British aid), and started building roads, hospitals. Turkish Airline became the first international airliner to fly to Somalia and is still the only one.
On the cultural front, every day, Somali families gather in front of television screens to watch the most popular programs: Turkish soap operas. They are so influential that some religious leaders are worried about how they might be changing people. Somali Sheiks, who are so influential in society, are beginning to feel left out because of these Turkish films.
There is even a rumour that there will soon be a massive inter-marriage between hundreds of Somali and Turkish boys and girls. I was told last week that some guys ditched their Somali fiancée in the hope of marrying a Turkish one (if it doesn’t happen, they will regret their decision).
Evidently, the Turkish government has won the hearts and minds of the Somali people in style, and are therefore very popular in Somalia. Ordinary Somalis are seeing their lives improving thanks to the more pragmatic approach of the Turkish.
As for the West, in particular Britain, it is all about big conferences and promises. Britain is playing a catch up game and it is an uphill task to turn the deficit.