Somalia-Turkey pact inflames maritime spat with Ethiopia



Turkey and Somalia last week signed a significant defense and economic cooperation agreement.

Under the 10-year pact, Turkey will help defend Somalia’s long coastline and also rebuild the naval forces of the fragile Horn of Africa nation.

“We will help Somalia develop its capacity and capabilities to combat illegal and irregular activities in its territorial waters,” a Turkish Defense Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

“With this agreement, Turkey will contribute to the recovery of natural resources within Somalia’s maritime borders,” said Yunus Turhan, a Turkey-Africa relations analyst at Haci Bayram Veli University in Ankara.

The Somali government hopes the deal will strengthen its ability to combat threats like piracy and terrorism, but also, more pointedly, “foreign interference.”

Some experts think otherwise.

“With the new deal, it means that the kind of control that Turkey will have in Somalia has become expansive and unlimited… It creates a lot of contention,” said Mohamed Gaas, an analyst who heads the Raad Peace Research Institute, a think tank in Mogadishu, Somalia.

“Because as Africans, we are concerned about a European country having that kind of influence or military power in the Horn of Africa.”

Exacerbating existing tensions

The Turkey-Somalia agreement comes amid growing frustration over Ethiopia’s maritime deal with Somaliland — a breakaway region of Somalia that is pushing for autonomy — which could escalate an already delicate conflict.

The deal would see Ethiopia gain access to the Red Sea and its major trade routes in exchange for formal recognition of Somaliland.

Somalia has strongly opposed Ethiopia’s agreement with Somaliland, stated that it was “illegal” and promised to protect Somalia’s maritime rights.

“Because Somaliland is not a sovereign state, Ethiopia’s deal with it is wrong and an affront to the sovereignty of entire Somalia,” Fidel Amakye Owusu, a geopolitical and security adviser told DW.

Meanwhile, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud explained the domestic implications of the Somalia-Turkey pact.

“We tell the Somali people that the agreement we have tabled to parliament today is solely about cooperation between Somalia and Turkey on maritime defense and economy. It is not in any way aimed at creating hatred or a feud with another country or government,” Mohamud said.

Owusu suggested that such assurances might not be enough especially from Ethiopia’s perspective.

“The whole country may rally behind the government if Turkey’s presence is perceived as a threat. Ethiopia having access to the sea is very popular among Ethiopians,” he said.

In the context of Ethiopia’s internal conflicts, particularly in Tigray, Owusu noted that the presence of Turkey in the northern region might influence Ethiopia’s stance.

“Internal wars, be it with Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, could be addressed to pursue the external enemy,” he suggested, referring to Ethiopia’s three most powerful regions.

In Somalia, the deal with Turkey could complicate internal power dynamics and potentially impact ongoing conflicts.

“The region is already in turmoil, terrorism going on, hunger, droughts and famine. We don’t have an extra issue that can lead to unnecessary anger, death, and war. It’s only a political solution and not the use of hard power,” Owusu said.

Regional Implications

The deal further cements Turkey’s position as a major player in Somalia. Already its leading economic partner, Turkey boasts a large military base in the country and has trained thousands of Somali security forces.

This increasing influence is viewed with concern by some, who worry about the potential for regional instability and the overshadowing of other international actors.

Some experts think these fears are unfounded as there has been long term military cooperation between Somalia and Turkey.

“In 2017 Turkey opened its first overseas military training centre in Mogadishu. This is not a military base. It’s a military training centre. So it’s the very backbone of the Somali defense capacity in tackling al-Shabab,” Turhan said.

Concerned about the developments, Molly Phee, the top US diplomat for Africa, held individual meetings in Addis Ababa with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and in Mogadishu with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

She said the United States is willing to assist them in improving their communication.

“The region can ill-afford more conflict,” she said, adding that they are “encouraging all sides to deescalate the tensions that were provoked” by a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Somaliland and Ethiopia on January 1.

But Owusu said the challenge goes beyond Somalia and Ethiopia.

“Any negotiations that have been pushed by the AU (African Union) and IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) are going to be ignored because Somalia has already outsourced its security responsibility to Turkey,” he told DW.