Istanbul—Late one August night in 2011, Rifat Sarıcaoglu, the head of Turkey’s association of private universities, received a call from the office of the prime minister. Sarıcaoglu had three hours to gather as many university scholarship pledges for Somali students as possible. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was about to fly to Mogadishu, making the first visit to Somalia by a non-African head of state since the country’s last effective government was ousted in 1991, and Erdogan wanted to present a momentous gift.

On August 19, 2011, two planes landed in Mogadishu, bearing Erdogan and his wife along with a delegation of Turkish politicians, businessmen, journalists, singers, even a reality television star. This visit touched off a new era in Somalia, and a new posture for Turkey as an emerging player across Africa. In the past two decades, Somalia had come...

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