During an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman on Monday, Abdillahi, the first Djiboutian ambassador to Turkey, evaluated the importance of the İstanbul Conference II on Somalia (“Preparing Somalia’s Future: Goals for 2015”). The meeting is a follow-up to check the progress on principles agreed upon in an earlier gathering for the East African country’s peaceful transition following over 21 years of civil war. Djibouti is a small country bordering Somalia to the north, and uncertainty regarding Somalia brings about security concerns for both the country itself and the whole region.
The conference, which commenced on Thursday, has seen a large number of attendees on the presidential, prime ministerial and ministerial levels. Fifty-four countries and influential names are expected in total, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu and African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping.
The conference in İstanbul aims at helping drought- and civil war-hit Somalia’s political and civil society leaders to promulgate their voices to the world. The conference will mainly focus on the steps that can be taken to ensure the completion of the transitional process in the country by August 2012 and the short- and middle-term measures for a successful post-transitional period. A roadmap to bring about political and institutional change to the country after the withdrawal of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is already in place and the conference is the last such international conference planned before the start of this period.
Focusing on developmental and institutional mechanisms
The ambassador maintained that the most important condition for such success is to focus on developmental and institutional mechanisms that would bring some hope to the people of Somalia for the future. “Djibouti realized that we cannot just put all our efforts in the security sector toward bringing hope to the people of Somalia; in order to achieve this, we need to provide jobs and to keep the young generation [away] from the war industry. To do that, we need to rebuild working schools, health and road systems and functional institutions,” said Abdillahi.
Southern Somalia remains a stronghold for the religious extremist group known as al-Shabaab, which has previously declared its links to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab is financed by Eritrea and the development of a strong al-Qaeda/al-Shabaab axis poses serious security threats for the entire region, including Djibouti. An even more direct concern for Djibouti is the al-Qaeda presence in the nearby coastal neighbor of Yemen as there are a mere 25 kilometers between the two countries.
“The Islam that we practice in Djibouti is very moderate, just like the Turkish form,” explains the ambassador, expressing a concern over the image of Islam that is represented in the region. Noting also that the minister of religious affairs of Djibouti has been to Ankara to discuss similar issues, he claims that Turkey and Djibouti could work towards the proper representation of Islam in the whole region, including the Middle East, East Africa and the Horn of Africa, through a new platform. The collapse of the state and the resulting political vacuum is the main reason for that kind of extremism, according to Abdillahi, who stresses the importance of economic help from regional countries in rebuilding those countries suffering from such problems. Both Djibouti and Somaliland are stable compared to Somalia because of their established political and security institutions. Regarding Somaliland’s continuing aspiration for independence, the ambassador notes that this should be decided democratically -- by the people of Somaliland. “That [secession] has been done with South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea before. We should be very cautious, otherwise Somalia may be split up completely,” Abdillahi remarked.
Bordering with Somaliland, the ambassador touched upon the strong relations that they (Djibouti) developed with the region, in terms of trade and political cooperation. “At the ministerial level, we have joint commissions; we meet regularly. We are very close, and our trade with them is going very well. Politically we are on the same wavelength,” the ambassador explained.
The ambassador added that he found Turkey’s role very constructive in reaching out to areas such as Somaliland and Puntland. Turkey aims to develop healthy relations with those regions, in addition to its initiatives with the central government in Mogadishu. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ, after attending the London conference on Somalia in February of this year, mentioned Turkish plans to open development offices in both regions.
Turkey sent separate invitations to both the Somaliland and Puntland administrations for the İstanbul conference. Somaliland has accepted the invitation and a delegation from Somaliland, including the foreign affairs minister, the minister of planning, the minister of public works and housing and the minister of energy and minerals, are attending the conference. While it initially appeared that Puntland would boycott the conference in protest of a meeting between Somalia-based civil society groups -- which they say do not legitimately represent the people of Somalia -- the Puntland administration has now accepted the invitation and will be attending.
Recalling the amount of aid going from Turkey to Somalia and how this aid was used strategically to rebuild Somalia’s institutions, the Djiboutian ambassador notes:
“Turkey has made it clear that developing security is one thing and building a working infrastructure in the country is another. Turkey has reflected a new policy, focusing on a roadmap while exerting efforts to improve the security situation in the country.” He also claimed that the Djibouti administration is ready to assist Turkey in all its efforts to ensure peace and security in Somalia.
‘To open trade with the African market, Djibouti is a gateway’
The relations between Turkey and Djibouti date back to the 1980s and the first legal agreement between the two nations on trade, economic and technical cooperation was made in 1989. Djibouti sent a diplomatic mission to Turkey this May, making Abdillahi the first Djiboutian ambassador to Turkey. When asked what motivated the Djiboutian government to open an embassy in Turkey, he singled out boosting economic and trade cooperation between Turkey and Djibouti.
“If you are opening trade with the African market, Djibouti is the gateway. Djibouti is not that big of a country, covering a total area of 23,000 square meters and with a population of around 850,000. However, Djibouti is an important port country and there is significant flow of trade from Djibouti, with goods transiting from our country to go to Ethiopia and northern parts of Somalia,” the ambassador maintained. He anticipated that strong economic cooperation would be the harbinger of dispute resolution within the African continent.
The trade volume between Djibouti and Turkey has also shown an important increase, being around $21 million in the first trimester of 2012. Last year, the announced bilateral trade volume total between the countries was $31 million. Djibouti has a stable political system with working legislative, executive and judicial separation of powers within the country and has an established security system, which is essential for the safety of trade routes. The port of Djibouti is one of the biggest ports in Africa and the country is a transit nexus for the region and an international transshipment and refueling center.
Abdillahi highlighted that even though Djibouti is a small market, has free trade zones -- a port area where goods may be manufactured and exported without any customs authority intervention -- which is an important asset to connect the nation to the African market and neighboring regions like Turkey. “On the sidelines of the Somalia conference in İstanbul, what I would like to do is to inform Turkish businesspeople about the resources Djibouti can provide for them,” the ambassador stated.