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Somalia: The 21 Years Itch and Turkey’s Role in Somalia

(By Abukar Arman)

Two decades have passed since the collapse of the Somali state. Twenty one years to be exact. According to Lee Cassanelli, Professor of African history at the University of Pennsylvania, this exact number matters in Somali politics – perhaps in a subconscious way.

In August 2007, during one of his presentations at the Somali Studies International held in Columbus, Ohio, Cassanelli anecdotally argued that every twenty one years, Somalia has a collective experience or an itch of a sort that causes significant changes. These cycles extend from Sayyid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan’s anti-colonial movement which started at the dawn of the 20th Century that came to an end in 1920; to the Somali Youth League (SYL) founded in 1948 and the democratic government born out of that movement that was overthrown by a military coup in 1969; to the military government which lasted from 1969 till the end of 1990; to the fratricide and division era that started in 1991 and continues albeit faintly in 2012.

I don’t know if this falls in the realm of political astronomy or political astrology, or whether or not the cycle at hand would bring about a positive change, lasting peace, and reconciliation. All I know is that the expectation of the upcoming Istanbul Conference is very high, because Somalia cannot afford another year of systematic self-destruction. And, because this marks the first conference in which Somalis from every social and political sector (300 Somalis from the homeland and the Diaspora including this one) would gather to discuss, negotiate, and jointly develop a blueprint to ending the current political stalemate that has been corroding the social fabric and the essence of Soomaalinimo or Somaliness.

The Istanbul Conference’s goal is to provide a level playing field and an opportunity to negotiate fairly and transparently without any foreign dictates. This would be one last hope for Somalia’s sons and daughters to prove to themselves and the rest of the world that their hopes and dreams for a better future has not withered; their vision for unity and coexistence has not died; and their capacity to craft and implement a strategy for the common interest of their nation has not been eternally crippled.

Turkey is hosting this with a hands-off approach that is entirely different than the over a dozen major conferences held for Somalia which were exploitatively micro-managed by foreign interest groups.

In such a short time, Turkey’s involvement in Somalia has made a tremendous impact on the ground.  There are several reasons why this is the case, and this article would not be extensive enough to cover all. However, here are some that cannot be overlooked. First, Turkey’s prudent recognition that all problems are not nails, and all solutions are not hammers. Second, its recognition that it is not about how much money is raised or poured into a system, but how strategically those dollars are invested. Their prudence to rely on hands-on service delivery and steer away from the Nairobi-based money squandering institutions has proven a success. Theirs is a model worthy of emulation.

Contrary to the United States—another friend who spent on Somalia far more than Turkey—the latter’s approach was to go beyond handouts. Turkey has (unilaterally) taken a nation-building approach. It decided to rebuild the infrastructure, to provide financial infusion into local economies, to provide housing and health care, to empower households with monthly stipends, to produce jobs for the locals, and to build capacity for sustainable growth by providing scholarships.

On the political front, even at this early stage, Turkey has demonstrated a keen understanding that the old paradigm in dealing with Somalia problems does not work. They understand that the rule of law can only be re-established by a legitimate government with competent national security forces, judicial system, etc. They understand that a comprehensive approach to solving the most contentious issues dividing the nation is necessary, and that a viable solution cannot come out of foreign dictates. It comes out of thoroughly negotiated resolutions born out of a legitimate and transparent organic process.

Turkey came to the scene with certain level of credibility extending from its historical relationship with Somalia and from being free of political baggage. It came with will and commitment that extends from its highest political office to the lay person in remote villages.

The international community, particularly the United Nations, United States, European Union, and African Union should support Turkey in its commitment to engage and help Somalia help itself out of its current condition. Because, the alternative is status quo and the anarchy of the past 21 years, and a growing threat with the potential to extend beyond the Horn.

The first gesture of that support could be expressed in the conversion of AMISOM (AU peace-keeping force) to a UN peace-keeping force that includes Turkey and a few other Muslim nations. This will also defuse al-Shabaab’s propaganda that AMISOM is non-Muslim military force with sinister anti-Islamic motives.

* Originally published on , on May 26, 2012, titled ‘The 21 Years Itch and Turkey’s Role in Somalia’, authored by Abukar Arman, who is Somalia Special Envoy to the United States.

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Check the Somalia archive for related posts.

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