Maritime Diplomacy: Somalia’s Defense Deal With Turkey In Exchange For Sea Resources – Analysis



Somalia has maintained a robust diplomatic rapport with Turkey since 2011 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Somalia to evaluate the devastating impact of drought on vulnerable communities. At the time, Somalia grappled with various challenges, notably security issues, drought, and state fragility.

Turkey emerged as a pivotal ally, offering substantial support across multiple sectors, encompassing health, education, humanitarian aid, and development initiatives. The people of Somalia have embraced Turkey as a genuine ally dedicated to assisting Somalia in rebuilding its state institutions. During a time when international humanitarian efforts aimed at alleviating the devastating effects of drought in Somalia, estimated to require billions of dollars, failed to significantly improve conditions on the ground, Turkey’s approach stood out. Unlike the modalities employed by international donors and the United Nations, which proved ineffective, Turkey directly engaged with the Somali government, local institutions, and affected communities. This direct intervention rendered Turkey’s efforts more impactful than those of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). 

An essential factor contributing to Turkey gaining the trust of both the Somali populace and its government is its steadfast commitment to refraining from involvement in local Somali politics. Unlike numerous Gulf countries that often assist certain political factions in Somalia to secure influence and power, Turkey has maintained a neutral stance, refraining from backing any particular political group.

Turkey has cultivated a robust diplomatic relationship with Somalia, positively impacting various aspects of social life, including humanitarian aid and development initiatives. Notably, Turkey has played a significant role in the reconstruction of the Somali National Army and the enhancement of Somalia’s security sector. Additionally, Turkey stands out as one of the primary investors in Somalia’s local economy, demonstrating a high level of trust and confidence in Somalia’s investment potential, a feat few other nations are willing to undertake. 

However, recently, the Somali government entered into a defense and economic cooperation agreement with Turkey. This agreement stemmed from Ethiopia’s desire to gain access to a sea route in the Red Sea, a request that Somalia vehemently opposed, leading to the agreement with Turkey. The agreement between the Somali government and Turkey was not made transparent to the Somali populace or to parliamentarians, who possess the legal authority to review, analyze, and vote on proposed agreements before they are enacted into law. The president of Somalia persuaded the House of Representatives to place trust in him and approve the agreement, despite none of them being allowed to examine the terms of the agreement.

Based on publicly available information, some terms of the agreement suggest that Turkey will receive 30% of Somalia’s sea resources under a 10-year timeframe. In return, the Turkish government will assume full responsibility for safeguarding Somalia’s maritime security, along with providing assistance in the construction and training of Somalia’s naval forces. This development occurred when Somaliland entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Ethiopia, granting Ethiopia access to a sea route in the international maritime of the Gulf of Aden. Access to this maritime route has long been a desire of Ethiopia’s successive emperors and prime ministers, although none of them have ever attempted to annex or claim independent Somali territory. Certainly, while it is commendable for the Somali government to employ any means necessary to prevent potential threats to Somalia’s marine resources, the method chosen, signing an agreement with Turkey granting them access to 30% of Somalia’s sea resources, warrants analysis from various angles. This article explores both the potential benefits Somalia could derive from this agreement and the repercussions it may have on the future of Somalia’s blue economy.

Challenges Ahead for Somalia’s Blue Economy

Following the collapse of the military regime in Somalia under Gen. Mohamed Siyad Barre, the nation’s institutions tasked with safeguarding its sovereignty crumbled, ushering in an era of statelessness. Concurrently, Somalia’s blue economy has garnered significant attention amidst challenges of compromised sovereignty and deliberate foreign meddling. Since the onset of statelessness, Somalia’s maritime assets have been disregarded and treated as sites for dumping nuclear waste by Western countries. Illegal fishing has further exacerbated the plight of Somalia’s maritime domain, persisting as a significant issue from then until the present day.

Due to the absence of capacity to protect its maritime waters, the Somali government remains unable to effectively manage its blue economy. However, when illegal fishing began to threaten the livelihoods of Somali local fishermen, Somalis resorted to engaging in piracy activities. This drew the attention of the international community, particularly as Somalia’s maritime routes serve as vital trade routes connecting Europe, Asia, and Northeastern Africa.

In response, the European Union launched a mission known as the Anti-Piracy Mission, aimed at securing both international maritime routes in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean, as well as Somalia’s territorial waters, from pirate threats. The European mission is not involved in addressing the problems of illegal fishing and waste dumping that have persisted in Somalia’s maritime domain since the collapse of the central government. Despite this, illegal fishing activities continue, leading the Somali government to repeatedly capture fishing trawlers belonging to various Asian and European countries. Some of these vessels have been detained, charged, and convicted in Somalia. In certain cases, they have paid nominal licensing fees to gain access to autonomous regions like Puntland. 

It has been reported that certain Somali politicians have engaged in agreements with private companies operating in the fishing industry. These agreements allow these companies to fish in Somalia’s territorial waters in exchange for a small percentage of the profits received by the politicians. Additionally, the Kenyan government has been exploiting and controlling certain portions of Somalia’s territorial waters, claiming ownership until the Somali federal government filed a case against Kenya’s claim with the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ ruled in favor of Somalia, affirming Somali ownership of the territorial waters in question.

These scenarios, coupled with Turkey’s acquisition of 30 percent of Somalia’s maritime resources, underscore the magnitude of Somalia’s state fragility. The inability of the Somali government to assert control over its resources has left its citizens facing malnutrition, hunger, and humanitarian crises, exacerbated by acute food shortages.

Here, several questions require logical explanations and answers: Who is overseeing, and what mechanisms are being utilized to ensure that Turkey is only acquiring a 30 percent share of Somalia’s maritime resources? Is Turkey prepared to protect the sovereignty of Somalia’s territorial waters against threats such as illegal fishing, waste dumping, and potential annexation by Ethiopia? 

These questions are being disregarded by Somali parliamentarians, who are tasked with overseeing the Somali government. The reason each parliamentarian remains silent about the agreement and its potential challenges for Somalia’s blue economy in the long term is that every Member of Parliament, including those from the opposition, is avoiding the stigma of being labeled as collaborators with what the president of Somalia recently referred to as “the enemy of Somalia.” If anyone dares to question why Turkey has been granted 30 percent of Somalia’s maritime resources, they are likely to be labeled as pro-Ethiopian, suggesting support for Ethiopia’s quest for sea access, which is highly unprofessional.

The lack of collective deliberation and disclosure of the terms of the agreements reveals the immaturity of Somalia’s political leaders in defending their opinions and propositions on certain issues. On one hand, the reason the agreement was kept hidden from the House of Representatives may stem from the fear of the Somali citizens’ rejection of an agreement granting Turkey ownership of 30 percent of maritime resources. This ownership not only encompasses fishing and other relevant activities but also includes ownership of natural gas and oil blocks. 

The areas in Somalia’s territorial waters previously claimed by Kenya are thought to harbor oil blocks, particularly in the vicinity of the Kismayo port and the lower Juba region. The lack of clarity from the government and specific delineation of which maritime resources Turkey will acquire and own 30 percent of implies that the agreement allows Turkey to exploit any resources found in Somalia’s maritime domain. This poses a significant risk to the sustainability and future development of Somalia’s untapped maritime resources.

Somalia’s history is marked by recurring scenes of bewilderment when viewed from various perspectives. Siyad Barre, often regarded as one of Somalia’s greatest nationalist leaders, is depicted as surrendering land that Somalis had fought and sacrificed for in a matter of seconds, as he sought to address internal challenges he was confronting at the time.

During his final meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in Djibouti, Barre acquiesced and signed off on disputed land that Ethiopia had annexed in 1954 with the support of Britain. He did so intending to quash the SNM, which had weakened his government, and engaged his forces in full-scale conventional warfare in the northern regions. This approach did not advance his interests nor accomplish his pre-established agendas, which primarily included seeking assistance from Ethiopia to apprehend SNM officers and facilitate their extradition. Siyad Barre had an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the SNM but instead opted for this course of action.

In a comparable scenario, when the Somaliland government, an offshoot of the SNM, announced the granting of a 20km naval base and commercial port to the Ethiopian government, the Somali government opted for a different approach, showing little action regarding the current issue. This course of action is unlikely to contribute to the long-term defense of what Somalia claims as its maritime sovereignty, given the inability of its forces or any other entity to intervene and protect the maritime within Somaliland. 

The challenges posed by this Agreement to Somalia’s blue economy include the extensive utilization of Somalia’s maritime resources by Turkey, potentially leading to shortages of various types of fish and other marine resources abundant in Somalia’s waters. Conversely, it will pose technical challenges to limit the quantity of resources Turkey receives and to ensure compliance with the specified amounts outlined in the agreement.

The Promising Prospects for Somalia in the Agreement

The potential benefits of this agreement for Somalia’s government are uncertain, primarily revolving around Turkey’s role in influencing Ethiopia to alter its access routes to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. However, it could potentially serve as a mediator and prevent any resurgence of conflict that could destabilize the region, thereby safeguarding territorial sovereignty, which has been under threat in recent months. 

One of the tangible benefits that this agreement may provide to Somalia is that Turkey, as outlined in this undisclosed agreement, will undertake the construction, training, and equipping of Somali naval forces. After the ten-year duration of the agreement, these forces will be capable of assuming full responsibility for safeguarding Somalia’s maritime security against any potential aggression from neighboring countries.

If Turkey follows through with this commitment, it would signify significant progress in the right direction for the Somali government, potentially leading to the actualization of the revival of the Somali naval forces. However, these measures taken by the Somali government are not significantly contributing to the resolution of the Somaliland case, and they are unlikely to assist in overcoming the persistent deadlocks that Somaliland and Somalia have faced over the last three decades.

Mohamed Rage

Mohamed Rage is an independent researcher based in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics and a Master of Public Administration from IGNOU. He has authored and published numerous research papers, book chapters, and analyses on Somali issues, including governance, conflict, and public finance. His most recent work focuses on peace and the role of collective citizen action as an approach to Somalia's peace-building initiative.

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