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After defense deal, Turkey and Somalia ink energy accord amid Somaliland tensions

Turkey is hailing its new agreement with Somalia as it works to enhance its presence in the Horn of Africa.
HASSAN ALI ELMI/AFP via Getty Images

ANKARA — Turkey and Somalia on Thursday signed an offshore energy cooperation accord, setting the stage for a deepening Turkish presence in the Horn of Africa amid continuing tensions over Somaliland.

The accord was signed in Istanbul by Turkish Energy Minister Alparslan Bayaktar and his Somali counterpart, Abdirizak Mohamed, who defined the agreement as an “exciting moment for both countries.”

Bayraktar said the two countries would carry out joint activities in the country's internal waters and offshore blocks to allow Somali people to reach hydrocarbon resources.

“We aim to strengthen Turkey's presence in the Horn of Africa by fostering our cooperation further in the field of energy,” he added. 

The ministers stopped short of elaborating on the details of the deal, which potentially involves hydrocarbon exploration and drilling activities.

“Both parties agreed to work together on developing the oil and gas sector of Somalia,” Mohamed wrote on the social media platform X. 

The inking of the deal followed talks between the two ministers and other officials on Tuesday. The Somali minister traveled to Turkey with a large delegation earlier this week.

The accord marks a new step in the strengthening ties between Ankara and Mogadishu. Last month, the two countries also signed an agreement to enhance their cooperation in the defense field, including the maritime security of Somalia.

Somaliland-Ethiopia Red Sea deal stokes fears

The Feb. 8 Defense and Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement came amid lingering tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia over a controversial deal Addis Ababa signed with the breakaway region of Somaliland. Somalia staunchly rejected the deal, under which landlocked Ethiopia reportedly pledged to recognize Somaliland’s independence in return for access to the Red Sea through a port in the breakaway region. The Ethiopia-Somaliland deal prompted the Mogadishu government to declare Ethiopia an “enemy,” stoking fears of an armed conflict between the two regional countries.

Ankara and Mogadishu offered somewhat differing interpretations of the February defense cooperation agreement. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud asserted that Turkey would defend his country's seas for 10 years under the deal, while Turkish officials have stressed that the deal is not intended to aimed at third countries, in an apparent reference to Ethiopia. 

While refraining from disclosing the full details of the agreement, which is still pending a Turkish ratification, Turkish officials said it aims to develop Somalia's “capacity and capabilities to combat illegal and irregular activities in its territorial waters.”

A Turkish Defense Ministry official stressed on Thursday that the defense deal was “a framework” agreement and that a delegation from Turkey recently paid a visit to Somalia to discuss “the most suitable actions required to support Somalia.”

Somalia is also a critical springboard for Turkey’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Horn of Africa and beyond as Ankara has been seeking to increase its influence in the continent as part of its so-called Africa opening introduced in the early 2010s. Since 2017 the African country has been home to one of its largest Turkish military bases overseas, and Turkey provides training and military support for Somalia in its fight with al-Shabab and other armed groups.

The two cooperation agreements between Turkey and Somalia within the span of a month come amid mounting fears that a military escalation between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu could further destabilize the region. The Horn of Africa is already battered by Islamist insurgency and a major military escalation is unfolding over the Yemeni Houthi forces’ attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. On Wednesday the escalation took a fatal turn when a Houthi missile strike killed three sailors aboard a commercial cargo vessel in the Gulf of Aden.

“A breakdown in relations between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu could threaten their close cooperation in fighting the insurgents,” the International Crisis Group said.

While Riyadh, Cairo and Doha as well as Ankara have been vocal about their solidarity with the Mogadishu government in response to the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal, Abu Dhabi, which has closer ties with Somaliland and Ethiopia, has remained largely silent. 

“Another major concern is that the feud could become the latest front for proxy shadowboxing in the Horn of Africa, echoing previous bouts of competition among Gulf powers in the region,” the watchdog added in its report released earlier this week. “The deal could drive a wedge between two emerging blocs — on one hand, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and their allies, including Eritrea and Djibouti, all of which are situated on the Red Sea; and the UAE, Ethiopia and their allies, on the other.”

Somalia has also been attracting attention from global powers. Following the United Kingdom reopening its embassy in Mogadishu in April 2013 after a 22-year hiatus, the United States signed a deal last month to build up to five military bases in the country. The deal aims to strengthen the Somali army in its fight against the radical Islamists armed group al-Shabab, the Associated Press reported.