Turkey's Involvement in the Horn of Africa

In recent years, economic and security developments in the horn of Africa have boosted the area's significance as a geostrategic location. In this framework, Turkey has been trying to affirm itself as a key actor. In February 2021, Ankara offered its mediation on the recent border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia. In May 2020, Turkish intelligence played an important role in the delicate releasing of a young Italian aid worker, held hostage in Somalia. But despite recent developments, Turkish involvement in the Horn can be dated back to 2011. In that year, Turkish President Erdogan visited Mogadishu, devastated by a terrible famine, becoming the only non-African political leader to be seen in the Somali capital in over two decades.


Ankara has developed important ties with Addis Ababa as well. Turkey’s involvement in Ethiopia has expanded over the past decade, mostly in areas involving trade and investment. Over the years the landlocked country has become a primary destination for Turkish investors. According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission, Turkey is the second-biggest investor in Ethiopia, with an investment capital of $2.5 billion. Djibouti has also received Turkish attention. In February 2020, Turkey and Djibouti signed an agreement on maritime cooperation. The deal established the legal basis for Turkish investments in Djibouti. Within the small country, the State Hydraulic Works of Turkey is constructing a dam, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs is constructing a mosque, and there are plans for a Turkish Special Economic Zone.


This growing presence of Turkey in the Horn begs the question of why Ankara chose to involve itself in an area where it has neither security concerns nor common borders. First, domestic economic growth gave Turkey the means to engage in a more assertive foreign policy, and, in turn, Turkish companies (called ‘Anatolian tigers’) reached the size and appetite to look for markets abroad. Turkish investors are also driven by the potential for a new economic zone, accentuated by the intense clustering of foreign powers in the Red Sea region. Second, Turkey, using its soft power, is aiming to become a big player on the African continent. Ankara has become a “strategic partner” of the African Union and a non-regional member of the African Development Bank.


In regards to Somalia, the two countries became closer in 2011, when President Erdogan visited Mogadishu. The president, shocked by the country’s condition, invested large amounts in humanitarian aid. The aid has supported Turkey’s expansion deeper in the country, with multiple agreements signed, including: the opening of the largest Turkish embassy in Africa in 2016, millions of dollars of Turkish investments into industry, management of the port and airports by Turkish companies, and education and healthcare support.


The number of commercial, military and construction projects carried out by Turkey is impressive.

In the military field, the two countries have engaged in military and intelligence collaboration. For example, in Mogadishu, a military base has been established where Turkey trains local security forces using Turkish equipment, weapons, drones, and vehicles. Turkish military influence in Somalia has increased in the last decade under the umbrella of a soft power which, through the construction of roads, hospitals, schools, university scholarships and commercial exchanges, has allowed Ankara to become an important partner of Somalia.


Somalia invited Turkey to conduct research for hydrocarbons on its seabed. "We received a proposal from Somalia,” affirmed Erdogan, “they told us that there is oil in Somali waters and we could conduct research, just like off the coast of Libya."


Turkey has made significant steps in the area, but is considered a relatively new actor in the region. Nevertheless, Turkish engagement, particularly its social interventions, has been viewed positively, and the potential long-term impact of the large number of young Somalis being educated and encultured in Turkey will strengthen connections between the countries in the longer term.

At the same time, Turkey's influence in the Horn of Africa has also been interpreted as a way to counter powerful Gulf rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While Ankara shows itself as a benevolent power, driven by an enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy, Gulf rivals consider Erdogan’s moves in the Horn as a dangerous quest for a “neo-Ottoman” revival. As of today, it is difficult to understand if this Turkish foreign policy will exacerbate relationships with Gulf countries.