The Somali ambassador to Turkey, Nur Sheikh Hamud Mursal, explains how Turkey paved the way for other countries to help in the aftermath of the 2011 drought, which claimed the lives of 29,000 children alone. ‘Security remains a problem,’ the ambassador notes, explaining the role of Eritrea in the current conflict with al-Shabaab
In an interview with Today’s Zaman, Mursal said the Somali people are very grateful for Turkey’s assistance, underlining Turkey’s aid to Somalia last year. In 2011 a drought in Somalia killed 29,000 children under the age of 5 and left 12 million people on the brink of starvation. The epicenter of the drought lay on the three-way border shared by Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Uganda and Djibouti were also hit by the disaster. Tens of thousands of people have so far been displaced due to the drought. In Somalia, the drought has added to already present troubles resulting from the 20-year-long civil war in the country, which began in 1991 when a coalition of clan-based armed opposition groups ousted the nation’s long-standing military government. The United Nations said Somalia’s drought was one of the largest humanitarian crises in decades. Last year, Turkey initiated a countrywide aid campaign to help Somalia. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the capital, Mogadishu, and several refugee camps in the country, pledging more aid in cash and infrastructure. Turkey has sent planes and ships carrying humanitarian relief supplies to the famine-stricken country, with some $365 million (TL 640 million) in cash and aid in kind delivered to the African nation over the past year.
What makes the ambassador so optimistic is Erdoğan’s visit to Somalia last year, which according to Mursal has paved the way for other people and other countries to come to Somalia to help. “In this critical period, the Somali people see Turkey as a savior sent by God to Somalia. Somali people are looking at Turkey not as a foreign country but as their real brother. Turkey did lots of things in a short time and it is really amazing. Turkey is helping us in many fields: education, health, construction. ... They really started to rebuild the country, but the only problem is security,” said the ambassador.
An improvement in security
When asked if there was any improvement in the security situation, the ambassador replied that the situation is currently getting better. “Mogadishu, the capital of the country, is almost 90 percent under the authority of the government. And other areas that were before under the control of al-Shabaab, a Somali-based terrorist cell of the militant Islamist group al-Qaeda, are now also under the control of the government. So, as a whole the situation in the country is improving,” explained the ambassador.
Touching upon bilateral relations between Somalia and Turkey, the ambassador stated that the warming of relations between the two countries started very late. “Turkey’s stance towards Somalia is very different compared to other countries. As we all know, Somalia was colonized by three powers: Italy, France and Britain. So Europeans are looking out only for their interests, nothing more. But if people don’t have food and shelter, how can you take advantage of them? So, firstly you have to help the people: only then you can get what you want. But Turkey’s policy is different. Turkey is a Muslim country, and it was a former imperial country in the Muslim world. In my opinion, Turkey wants to help developing countries, not only Muslim ones, but all countries. Africans really welcome what Turkey is doing in Africa,” said the ambassador.
The ambassador underlined Turkey’s role in bringing many Somalis to Turkey in order to receive a religious and general education.
“I can also speak on behalf of the Somali people and the government. During the 20 years of civil war in Somalia we destroyed the entire infrastructure. Education and health institutions in particular were destroyed. Turkey started to help us with health and education where it was much needed. Turkey sent many doctors to Somalia. This is something very amazing that we will never forget. In the area of education, more than 2,000 Somali students came to Turkey. And this is also something we will never forget. We are very thankful to Turkey that it helped us in all sectors but especially in education, which was a very critical issue. So they started to help in the right place,” said the ambassador.
Corruption: the nation’s biggest problem
Ambassador Mursal highlighted that one of the biggest problems for Somalia is corruption. “Somalia is more than 20 years into a civil war. The political culture has already been lost. People have just been fighting with no rule of law. So, corruption is a big problem, and it is everywhere. Fighting corruption should be a priority for the coming government. I have seen the system in Turkey; in my view, it is very different. Turks respect the law. But what is happening in Somalia is different,” said Mursal.
The United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I) was set up in 1992 to facilitate bringing humanitarian aid to people trapped by civil war and famine. The mission developed into a broad attempt to help stop the conflict and reconstitute the basic institutions of a viable state. Somali political culture is influenced by competition among a number of clans and clan-based factions.
When asked what the current situation of UNISOM I in Somalia was, Mursal stated the United Nations was helping technically but that the military was under Somali control. “I think they [UNISOM I] are now increasing their presence in Somalia, and many countries have begun to increase their presence. But still the new forces haven’t come to Somalia yet, and I don’t know when they will come. The countries such as Uganda and Kenya, who already had forces in Somalia, have also started to increase their presence,” said Mursal.
When asked about Turkey’s intention to help the Somali government build a new police force, Mursal stated that there would be a military agreement signed between Turkey and Somalia. “The agreement will include the training of the police force and the army. Unfortunately, I don’t have any figure about the size of the police force or the army that Somalia is planning to build. For years, Somalia never had a real military. Prior to the 20-year civil war, Somalia had the strongest army in Africa. But when the regime failed, the army also disbanded. Before, the army consisted of tribal people, but now it will be different: Somalia will have a real army,” said the ambassador.
An unfortunate merger
This February, the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, which has control of some parts of Somalia, released a joint video with al-Qaeda, announcing that the two groups have merged. Mursal pointed to al-Shabaab’s recent activity in Yemen as evidence that the group was almost defeated in Somalia. “As they are not wanted in Somalia by the public, they have to find some other place to go. So Yemen is the closest country where they can go and where there is also al-Qaeda. This is normal. They call themselves al-Qaeda. In the future whatever action they take will be considered al-Qaeda’s action,” said Mursal.
It is claimed that al-Shabaab’s policy of banning many foreign aid agencies from areas it controls during the region’s worst drought in 60 years led to the loss of their public support. Touching on the decrease of this public support, Mursal stated that public was fed up with al-Shabaab. “The problem is that their agenda is not clear. They say jihad. But killing Muslims is not jihad. They want to rule Somalia on their own. They are crazy people, really. I think they will be getting out of Somalia in the future because they have lost the support of the public,” said Mursal. When asked how al-Shabaab finances themselves and what Eritrea and Iran’s positions are on the group, Mursal stated that these are very big problems. “I don’t know what the agenda of Eritrea for Somalia is. But I see that there is a conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ethiopia is helping the Somali government, and Eritrea wants to help the rival Islamists, al-Qaeda, in order to make trouble for us. The Iranians’ agenda is very clear: They want to support al-Qaeda. And they want to support whoever is against Europeans. I think Iran is not directly involved. So far we don’t have evidence to show a direct link between Iran and al-Shabaab,” said the ambassador.
It was claimed that a suicide blast during a ceremony at Somalia’s newly reopened national theater on April 4, 2012, which killed at least 10 people including two of the country’s top sports officials, was organized by al-Shabaab to target the prime minister. After denying this allegation, Mursal added that there are forces trying create problems between the prime minister and president and that these people want a crisis in the government. “The relations between the prime minister and president are very good. So this is a fabrication. It is not based on reality. They want to create great divisions inside the government to achieve their goals. Some people are not very happy with their good relations,” said Mursal.
Al-Shabaab is being hit from three sides in Somalia: pushed out of Mogadishu by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union; in the south attacked by Kenyan forces that moved into Somalia in October; and from the west swept by Ethiopian forces.
Ambassador Mursal also highlighted that prior to the 20-year civil war there was not even a single Shiite in Somalia. But now there is every Muslim sect because of the civil war situation, he added.
He also said that Somalia had no reason for a political division such as Sudan underwent in July 2011. “There were reasons for the division in Sudan: for instance, religion and people’s different origins. But in Somalia there is no reason for division. We have the same language, same culture and same religion,” said the ambassador.
The problem of developing countries
When asked whether there was any expectation of foreign interference in Somalia, Mursal replied that this was the main problem of developing countries. “Western people’s hands are everywhere, and they always exploit local people. In the London conference the British invited some officials from Somalia although they were not officially recognized. Somalia’s land was colonized by the British, but I don’t think they have a strong interest because Somalia is a small country. So far they haven’t suspected the presence of oil. But in Puntland [a region of Somalia] they are digging now. But I know Somalia has lots of resources. We have lots of minerals. We have the longest coast in Africa and 80 percent of Somalis eat fish. Somalia is not a poor country; it is a rich country. This country must not turn into a country of hunger,” said Mursal. When asked about the situation of Somali expatriates, Mursal said the diaspora was sure to return to Somalia when security conditions improve. He added that more than 80 percent of the staff of government ministries were former members of the diaspora. “Somalia is in dire need of these educated expatriates. If the security situation improves, most of them will come back. But first we have to repair the institutions which have been destroyed,” said Mursal.
Pointing to Somalia’s place in the Arab League, Ambassador Mursal shared his views on the Syrian crisis. The ambassador stated that Somalia cannot take any position on the Syrian crisis when the same crisis is going on in its own territory. “We cannot judge Syria because we have the same situation. But the difference is that we are not killing our people with government forces. The situation in Syria is very inhumane. The Syrian issue is important, and I think it will follow other examples [of dictators],” said Mursal.