The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977

In the past week Somalia has found itself in diplomatic tiffs with both Kenya and Ethiopia. The Kenyan government recently denied entry to Somalian public officials on diplomatic passports — perhaps to pressure Somalia to drop claims over possibly hydrocarbon rich waters in the Somali Sea. In return, Somalia urged donors and the development community to not hold meetings in either Nairobi or Addis, and instead consider Mogadishu or other regional capitals. And in Ethiopia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a map that included Somalia as part of Ethiopia (it also did not include South Sudan and the Sahrawi Republic).

greatersomaliaSomalia’s problems with its more powerful neighbors are not new. Both Nairobi and Addis have always looked at Somalia as a threat to their territorial integrity on account of their substantial ethnic Somali populations and on-and-off nationalist claims over all of “Greater Somalia” (see map). As such, both are currently working to ensure that a strong unitary state does not emerge in Mogadishu. In the 1960s Kenya fought irredentists in its Somali-speaking northeast. At the time Nairobi accused Mogadishu of supporting the irredentists.

Ethiopia, too, fought Somalia in the Ogaden in the late 1970s. Cuba, the Soviet Union, and South Yemen backed Addis (the OAU was also on Ethiopia’s side). Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia vowed to back Mogadishu were Ethiopia to invade Somalia’s territory.  In many ways the Ogaden War began the end of Siad Barre’s regime and Somalia’s eventual state collapse in the early 1990s (and arguably also set the Derg regime on its way to collapse). This great post recounts the dynamics of the war:

This blog post is intended to highlight the history of a short, but nonetheless bloody inter-state conflict which cost the lives of over 12,000 soldiers on both sides. The two opposing sides were well-equipped for manoeuvre warfare, and had been trained and equipped by the superpowers. That capacity for major combat operations (MCO) has been recorded by the historian Gebru Tareke, the most authoritative scholar of this conflict, quoting an Ethiopian veteran of this war who stated that ‘if one were to combine the Ethiopian air force and the Somali tank units, one would have created Africa’s dream army’. The Ethiopian-Somali War of 1977-1978 provides an example of non-Western MCO outside that continues to be worthy of wider consideration and analysis. It also had catastrophic consequences which continue to destabilise the region as a whole.

……On the eve of the Somali invasion of the Ogaden Barre’s forces were outnumbered on paper by their adversaries, having 25,000 troops (in one commando, 9 mechanised and 5 infantry battalions) facing 51,000 soldiers (in 3 infantry divisions, a mechanised battalion and an airborne battalion). However, Ethiopian combat power was dissipated by a series of insurgencies (most notably the Eritrean revolt), while military morale was further undermined by the purges and executions of the officer corps instigated with Mengistu’s ‘Red Terror’. The Ethiopians had a slight advantage with artillery and air power (6 field batteries to 4 Somali ones, and one bomber and three fighter/ground attack (FGA) squadrons to one bomber and 2 FGA squadrons), but were outnumbered in armour, as the SNA had 6 battalions of Soviet-supplied T-54/T-55 tanks to Ethiopia’s two battalions of US-made M-41s and M-60s. The mismatch between the two sides – and the preparatory guerrilla campaign by the WSLF – accounts for the immediate successes of the Somali onslaught in the summer of 1977.

Shortly after the SNA crossed the frontier in force on 13thJuly 1977, both they and the WSLF conquered 90% of Ogaden. The Ethiopians were routed, and on 12thSeptember 1977 the strategically-vital town of Jijiga fell to the invaders. Mengistu’s forces managed to keep a toe-hold on Northern Ogaden, thwarting an SNA/WSLF attack on Dire Dawa on 17thAugust, whilst defending Harar from a series of Somali/insurgent onslaughts from September 1977 to January 1978. Like Josif Stalin in the first months of Operation Barbarossa, Mengistu responded to battlefield setbacks by arraigning and executing both officers and soldiers for cowardice and incompetence. However, the Ethiopian dictator also rallied his people with patriotic appeals to defend the homeland against the Somali aggressors, and like the French Jacobins in the 1790s he raised a militia of ill-trained but fervent fighters who provided the manpower which enabled the professional military to hold Dire Dawa and Harar, and then subsequently reconstitute its depleted ranks. An external attack allowed Mengistu to overcome the internal revolutionary turmoil he had fuelled, temporarily unifying his people against an external enemy.

In addition to the fascinating military history of the Ogaden War, the post has this interesting tidbit about Soviet and Cuban designs in the Horn and southern Arabia:

Barre’s failure to gain US support was compounded by the rupturing of Somalia’s alliance with the Soviet bloc. Moscow and Havana had hoped that a ‘progressive’ Ethiopia and Somalia could form a Federation with another Marxist-Leninist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and both Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro were infuriated by the Somali dictator’s demands for the secession of the Ogaden as a precondition. Moscow came to the conclusion that in political, economic and demographic terms Ethiopia counted for more than Somalia, and the latter’s isolation from the OAU provided an additional incentive to back Mengistu. Furthermore, the Soviets concluded that after the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s turn towards the West, the USSR needed for reasons of prestige to bolster its newest ally in North-East Africa. In late September 1977 the PDRY sent two battalions of troops to Ethiopia, and two months later the USSR commenced a massive sea and airlift of arms to Mengistu’s regime. Barre responded by denouncing his friendship treaty with the USSR on 13thNovember 1977, and by expelling Soviet and Cuban military advisors from Somalia. This proved to be a catastrophic mistake on his part.

Soviet and Cuban military assistance eventually proved decisive in helping Addis regain control over the Ogaden. Read the whole thing here.

Also, the Battle of Jijiga needs to be made into a movie.

Finally, it is worth noting that the decades-long fears in Nairobi and Addis about a strong unitary state in Somalia will continue to hamper efforts to stabilize Somalia. While Ethiopian and Kenyan troops continue to serve as peacekeepers in Somalia, both countries’ medium term goals (the achievement of peace and stability) are at variance with their long-term strategic objectives (to keep Mogadishu too weak to mount any credible challenge to their respective territorial integrity). At the moment these dual goals are aligned with the interests of some of Somalia’s elites who want a federal system of government with decentralized security powers.

However, it is unclear if formalized warlordism will result in lasting peace.

 

One thought on “The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977

  1. It is a quite frank and thorough peace of historical evidence worthy of reading. As you stated in the article both Ethiopia and Kenya are proving to hamper efforts to build a stable government in the war ravaged horn of Africa country with a centralised security mechanism according to many experts.

    However, somalia’s various competing regional militias as well as foreign intervention will sooner or later produce either of two scenario. One being a perpetual instability in the east Africa region that from time to time will spill over across boundaries. And second being the prospect of the creation of radical forces in the form of extreme ethno nationalism or even worse religion based one.

    Therefore, I think all neighbours of Somalia including Djibouti have to work together to sincerely install a viable Somali government willing to be part of broader east African co-operative model that can trade and inter act geoplotically with the goal of a group of countries that prosper in peace and solidarity than the jungle law politics currently pitting one state agains the other in one way or another.

    Like

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