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Turkey and Ethiopia have had close ties for many years: Somalia maritime deals may shift the dynamics

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Michael B. Bishku, Augusta University

Ethiopia and Turkey, which have had cordial ties since the early 20th century, have drawn even closer in recent years as both battle criticism from the west over domestic policies. But new developments are putting the relationship to the test. These include Turkey assuming the role of protecting Somalia’s waters – deemed to include the Gulf of Aden – as well as efforts by Ethiopia to gain access to the sea through a deal with Somaliland.

Michael Bishku, a Middle Eastern and African history scholar who has recently researched Ethiopia-Turkey relations, explains why Turkey’s ties with Ethiopia are largely economic while those with Somalia are sentimental, in assisting an impoverished Muslim country.

What binds Ethiopia and Turkey historically?

Turkey and its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, have had a long history of interactions in the Horn of Africa, going back to the 16th century. But formal diplomatic ties between Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II and the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Abdul Hamid II were not initiated until 1896. At the time, the Ethiopians had just defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa. In 1889, the Italians began to occupy the largest share of Somalia, while the British established a protectorate in the Somaliland region in 1898. Ethiopia did not participate in the first world war and Britain and Italy were part of the victorious Entente. After the war, the Ottoman Empire, as part of the defeated Central Powers, was partitioned. Turkey, by 1923, asserted control over Turkish areas of the former empire.

The new Republic of Turkey opened its first embassy in sub-Saharan Africa in Addis Ababa in 1926. Ethiopia reciprocated by setting up its embassy in Ankara in 1933.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia between 1935 and 1937, Turkish soldiers volunteered for the Ethiopian army, with the Turkish government strongly supporting sanctions against Italy. During the occupation, which lasted until 1941, Ethiopia’s embassy in Turkey never closed. Turkey was neutral until the end of the second world war. But it embraced alliance with the United States after the war, as did Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia.

Relations between Turkey and Ethiopia remained close during the 1960s. At the time, both countries took the pragmatic approach of improving relations with both the Soviet bloc and the Arab world.

In 1974, Haile Selassie was overthrown by the military. The military then established a Marxist regime in Ethiopia which lasted until 1991. Relations were suspended by Turkey during this time.

What’s the history of Turkey’s relations with Somalia?

A united Somalia, including former British Somaliland, achieved independence in 1960. The enlarged state coveted the Somali-populated Ogaden region in Ethiopia. Turkey did not establish an embassy in Somalia until 1979, when that country shifted away from close ties to the Soviet bloc in the midst of a war against Ethiopia when it attempted unsuccessfully to occupy Ogaden (1977-1978).

Somalia’s President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 and the country fell into chaos. The Turkish embassy closed until 2011. Turkey participated in the two United Nations operations in Somalia, the first one between 1992 and 1993 and the second one from 1993 to 1995.

In 2011 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then Turkey’s prime minister and whose government regarded itself as a defender of Sunni Muslim interests, became the first non-African leader to visit Somalia in two decades. Five years later, he visited the country again as president, to open Turkey’s largest embassy complex in the world. Mogadishu’s airport and seaport are run by Turkish companies. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/9xTxL/1/

In 2017, Turkey opened a military base in Mogadishu to train Somali soldiers. It has also built hospitals and infrastructure though the offices of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) as well as providing scholarships for Somalis to study in Turkey.

Turkey has provided more than US$1 billion in humanitarian aid since 2011, part of which came from Muslim NGOs.

Both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) support the efforts of the Somali government against the threat of al-Shabaab.

The UAE’s assistance to Somalia has been far less than that of Turkey. However, it’s been involved in the country in other ways. In 2015, it also participated in the second UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia, and set up a military training facility in Mogadishu. It also upgraded Berbera airport in Somaliland and manages two Somali ports: Berbera and Bosaso. Bosaso Port is in Puntland, another breakaway Somali territory.

These moves were regarded as a means to increase security against Iran and its Houthi ally in Yemen.

How does Somaliland complicate matters?

Somaliland declared its independence in 1991. But it is still internationally recognised as a de jure part of Somalia.

Ethiopia, Turkey and Djibouti have established consulates in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital city. Other countries such as Kenya and the UAE have liaison offices there. But only the UAE and Ethiopia have bypassed Mogadishu to make deals directly with the Somaliland government even though the UAE publicly supports the territorial integrity of Somalia.

The UAE’s deal involved setting up a military base in Somaliland and training Somaliland’s security forces.

In January 2024 Ethiopia and Somaliland signed a memorandum of understanding under which Somaliland has offered Ethiopia port access through a lease for 50 years of 20km of Somaliland’s coastline. In return, Ethiopia would give Somaliland diplomatic recognition.

Somalia countered the announcement of this deal by making Turkey a key security partner. Turkey is to train and equip Somalia’s naval force and help patrol the Somalia’s coastline.

Michael B. Bishku, Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern and African History, Augusta University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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