Why Ogaden War
SUBJECT AREA History
TITLE: WHY OGADEN WAR
As the sun rose in the Horn of Africa, on July 23rd.
1977 at 0600hrs, [the rumbling of] the tanks and the straight
legged Somalias' Army crossed the international boundary of
Ethiopia into the Ogaden Province without any resistance.
Events in the Ogaden had been brewing for months, when all of
a sudden the Somalia leader Said Barre officially committed
units of his regular army to the struggle to enhance their
ambition of the "Greater Somalia."
The origins of the existing conflicts of the frontiers in
'the Horn of Africa can be traced as far as the European
scramble for Africa terrotories, which erupted like a plaque
in the nineteenth centuries. The British, French, and
Italian interests mingled competitively in and around the
Horn of Africa. This resulted in a demarcation of the Horn with
unidentable boundaries on the ground. The existing national
boundaries were drawn with no regard to geographical and
The Soviet foreign policy in the Horn of Africa in 1977
must rank as the greatest piece of political oppportunism in
post-war history. Within months, the Russians switched from
backing Somalia to backing Ethiopia and hence rose the interests of
the United States in the Horn where they had diplomatic
relationships with the Ethiopian government prior to the fall
of Emperor Haile Sellassie, the "Rising Lion of Ethiopia".
The economical chaos and political instability of Mengistu
Dergue who took over the government in the bloodiest coup in
September, 1974 encouraged Somalia to intensify the
subversion activities in the Region and hence the Ogaden War
WHY OGADEN WAR?
Thesis Statement: The Ogaden War was a direct result of
Somalia's attempt to obtain Ethiopia's Ogaden Province, through
subversion and direct aggression, which ultimately focused the
attention of both the Soviet Union and the United States towards
the Horn of Africa.
A. Prelude to war
B. Geographical setting
C. Countries comprising the Horn of Africa
II. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
A. Scramble for the Horn of Africa by the European nations
B. Conflicting interests in the Horn of Africa by the
European nations prior to independence
C. Demarcation of the Regions in the Horn of Africa
D. Creation of Ogaden Region conflicts
III. REVOLUTIONARY GOVERNMENTS IN THE HORN OF AFRICA
A. Roots of the conflict and the coup de etat creating the Military
B. Influence of the Soviet Union and the United States in
the Horn of Africa
C. Why Ogaden War
IV. EVENTS OF THE OGADEN WAR
A. Insurgents Movements in the Ogaden Region
B. Somalia's support of subersion and invasion of Ethiopia
C. Counter attack by the Ethiopians with the support of
Soviets and Cubans against the Somalia's invasion
WHY OGADEN WAR
"Little did we guess that what has been called
the century of the common men would witness as its
outstanding feature more men killing each other
with greater facilities than any other five
centuries together in the history of the world."
Winston Churchill, 1945.
The twentieth century has been marked by an escalating of
the efficient killing of common men by one another in war. It is
equally true that in this century the evolution of "Peoples
Revolution". "Classic Insurgence" and the more recent "Low
Intensity Conflict" has never before captured the attention of so
many, for so long, and with so little practical effect. The
unfolding political and human crisis in the Horn of Africa during
this century attracted the attention of the world. The
intriguing conflicts which have been smoldering for a long period
in the Horn of Africa erupted as Somalia invaded Ethiopia's
Ogaden Province through subversion and direct aggression in an
unique war in Africa which has practical impact in the continent
since World War II.
In January, 1976, the Ethiopian government distributed to
Heads of States who were attending the Organization of Africa
Unity (OAU) meeting in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia's Capital), a thirty
nine page memorandum entitled "War Clouds in the Horn of
Africa".1 The document's purpose was to alert African
governments to the growing tension between Ethiopia and Somalia.
The memorandum documented a number of border incidents between
the two countries and concluded that Somalia "has made a decision
to go to war against Ethiopia immediately."2
As an area without obvious physical boundaries, the Horn of
Africa is somewhat difficult to define precisely. In present and
in past times, this has contributed to long standing conflicts.
Politically and internationally the Horn is the area comprised of
four states: The Somalia Republic along the east coast of the
Indian Ocean; Djibouti, an enclave at the southern end of the Red
Sea; Ethiopia in the center; and Sudan which stretches deep into
the Sahara desert. (See map 1). Ethnically, the Horn is defined
as the territory inhabited by a Somalia-speaking population.3
Geographically, this is perceived as the Ethiopian Ogaden, the
Kenyan North Eastern Province (formerly known as North Frontier
District - NFD), and part of the Republic of Djibouti. (See map
The conflicts of the existing frontiers on the Horn of
Africa can be traced as far back as the European scramble for
Africa territories in the early nineteenth century. The
boundary between the then Italian Somalialand and Ethiopia,
although defined by the treaties of 1897 and 1908 between King
Menelik and the Italians, remained undemarcated on the grounds.4
Although these treaties were mutually agreed upon, the Italians
were unhappy perhaps because of the defeat by the Ethiopians when
they tried to conquer Ethiopia in the battle of Adawa in 1896.
By the 1920's, the colonial authorities in Italian Somalialand
were conducting covert military probes farther inland of Ogaden
region beyond the agreed boundary. In 1935, the Italian Army had
40,000 Somalia troops. After a careful orchestrated border
incident, the Italians and Somalia Army marched into and occupied
the highlands of the Ogaden region. The Italians went from
victory to victory. British Somalialand was next on their
During August 1940, Italy sent entire divisions supported by
tanks and artillery against a mixed handful of lightly armed
defenders in the area. After seven days of bitter combat, British
survivors were evacuated to Aden through the port of Berbers.
For the first time, the great majority of Somalis were united
within a single political enterprise. Only Djibouti and the
Northern Frontier District of Kenya were excluded. After seven
months of defeat, the British made a come back and blasted their
way back into Somalia. They rolled up the Italian Army all the
way to the farthest extremities of Ethiopia.
Haile Sellassie, the ageless personification of imperial
dignity, triumphantly returned to Ethiopia from exile. However,
events in the Ogaden took on another dimensions. Haile Sellassie
began a relentless campaign for the consolidation of personal
power and expansion of the Ethiopian State. He proclaimed, "I
have come to restore the independence of my country including
Eritrea and Southern Somalia whose people will henceforth dwell
under the shade of the Ethiopian flag."5 In a later memorandum
to the United Nations, his government proclaimed that prior to
the race of the European powers to divide up the Continent of
Africa, Ethiopia included an extensive coast line along the Red
Sea and Indian Ocean.6
The British, having betrayed the Somalis for reasons of
enhancing power, wealth, and influence, had yet another precedent
for doing it again. They immediately recognized the throne of
Haile Sellassie. In a statement on fragmentation of Somalia
nation to the House of Commons in early 1941 Anthony Eden, a
mediator on Ethiopia-Somalia problem, had the following to say:
"His Majesty Government would welcome the
reappearance of an Ethiopian State and recognize
the claim of Emperor Haile Sallassie to the throne...
His Majesty's Government reaffirm that they have
themselves no territorial in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). "7
During 1942, the Emperor continued the fight to restore full
sovereighty of Ethiopia in pursance to regain the pre-war
boundary between Ethiopia and the British Protectorate. An
agreement was then approved granting the British temporary
administrative authority in the Ogaden Region. The Emperor
pressed on with his ambitions to regain total control over the region.
Finally in 1948, the British withdraw but retaining residual
rights of supervision over Somali clans pasturing in the region.
This marked the Ogaden Region as part of Ethiopia.
Somalia nationalism raced unsucessfully to catch up with the
irretrievable flow of events. Its leading institution, the
Somalia Youth Club (SYC) was formed in Mogadishu (Somalia's
capital) with thirteen members, including several prominent
religious leaders representing all of the main clan groups.
They were united by a desire to transcend clan rivalries and to
forge a political nation which would embodied the Islamic values.
Events moved more erratically in the British Somalialand in 1955
as the SYC grew stronger in their demands over the right of trans-
border grazing lands in the Ogaden region.
Conflict evolved around the issue of who should be regarded
as an Ethiopian subject in the region. Somalis in the
protectorate had apparently clung to the hope of ultimate
diplomatic action to recreate a unified Somalia or at least to
strengthen the safeguards of cross border migration. Since there
were no positive response from the British, the Somalis
immediately staged mass demonstrations throughout the
protectorate demanding recovery of the lost land, and for the
first time, demanded the right to become independent.
The failure by the British to resolve the transborder
grazing lands doomed their prestige and hence the authority of
protectorate administration. The unequivocal loss of the grazing
lands destroyed the three pillars of colonial bluff: it created
an issue transcending clan lines, it directly affected the lives
of individual Somalis, and it revealed the emptiness of the
The British were left with two options, either fight or
leave. In Kenya, they had fought for awhile Somalia as being
poor as the day they had arrived. Therefore, they decided to
On 26 June 1960, the British Somalialand became an
independent state. Four days later, the Italian Somalialand
achieved its independent, and the two were united by a hastly
concluded treaty. The accords established a unitary republic
with northern and southern regions. On the flag of the new state
there was a five pointed star. The British had organized and
trained the leaders of the Somalia SYC to realize the dream of
greater Somalia. Consequently, generation of Somalis are being
borne with the conception of greater Somalia claiming parts of
Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti.
The Republic of Somalia with muit-party politics had a
potential to lure the Western influence. However, her obsession
with greater Somalia proved an obstacle considering her
neighboring countries were also subjects of Western influence.
Failing to lure a consolidated support from the West, especially
its former colonial masters. Somalia condemned Great Britain for
not handing over to her the Northern Frontier Region of Kenya.
In March 1962, she broke off diplomatic relationship with
Britain. It must be remembered that British first floated and
nurtured the idea of "Greater Somalia". The relationship even got
worse when Prime Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Egal made a public
statement to the effect that "Reclaiming our land and their
people..." was in fact in accordance with Somali proverb of
"Stand with one leg ready for war and the other ready for
peace."10 It was Somali's leg of war that eventually become a
point of discord between Somalia and the West. Early in 1961,
after failing to obtain military aid to staff its 20,000 man
Army, Somalia turned to the East.
During the period between 1961 and 1967, Somalia continued to
support the insurgent movement known as "Shifta" in the region
in search of liberating the lost land. However, its meager
economy could not sustain the country's badly needed development;
therefore, there was political turbulence. After the 1969
elections, there ensued political parties coalition which was
marred by fraud and intimidation. Senior government officials
submitted their resignation following an uproar in the
government. The Prime Minister reshuffled senior police offic-
ials in key electoral districts in his efforts to restore stabil-
ity within the government and the country. Authoritative sources
believe that these interventions in police created a mood of deep
bitterness in the officer cadre.11
On October 15, 1969, four months later the Somalis
parliamentary democracy came to an end with a dramatic
suddenness. President Shermark was assassinated in the Northern
portion of the country, an area alleged to have featured with
major electoral frauds. Prime Minister Egal, who was out of the
country, hastened his return to Somalia.12 However, before dawn
on the sixthteen, Mogadishu was in the hands of the Army.
After this Revolution, which brought President Said Barre
into power, the Soviet Union emerged as the dominant foreign
power in Somalia. Perhaps because of their failure in Egypt, her
move in Somalia during this period might be termed as yet another
attempt to regain and maintain influence in the Indian Ocean and
the Red Sea. To counter the American influence in Ethiopia, the
Soviet Union singed a friendship treaty to equip the Somalia
defense forces and in exchange they were allowed to improve and
use the air and naval facilities in the ports of Berbera,
Kismaya, and Wein. Long distance maritime reconnaissance patrols
aircraft were to be stationed in these facilities.
The stage for eventual invasion of Ogaden Region was set.
After the fall of Emperor Haile Sellaisse in 1974, the military
government that took over power was riddled with many fighting
factions. Senior officers in power were eliminated one after the
other until, then Major, Mengista Hails Mariam emerged as a true
leader of the Dergue and head of State of Socialistic Ethiopia.
During this period, the Eritrea Liberation Front (ELF) operating
in the Eritrea Region (Formerly French Somalialand ) was getting a
lot of support from the Arab World in the form military
equipment. Between December, 1976, and May, 1977, almost the
entire Eritrea Province countryside was under effective control
of the ELF employing about 15,000 well trained guerrillas.13 The
Ethiopian troops, in small garrison town, were already surrounded
by the guerrillas. During this period, the ELF raided and sieged
one of the towns (Keroba) and as a result, 96 regular Ethiopian
troops had to flee across the border to Sudan.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Democratic Union was operating
along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border with some support from the
Sudanese government under auscipious of the Eritrea Popular
Liberation Front. Also within the country itself, there was the
White and Red Terrorist squads who roamed the surrounding towns and
countryside eliminating citizens who had remained loyal to the
regime within Addis Ababa.
The economical and political status of Ethiopia was clearly
in chaos. The acute rise in the price of fuel added inflationary
pressures in the cities and urban areas. Meanwhile, in parts of
the highlands, above all in the provinces of Wollo and Tigre, a
murderous drought consumed the countryside. Because of this
drought oxen and cattle died. There was no grain harvest.
There was no food. The people started dying in tens, and
eventually in the thousands.
The domestic change in Ethiopia's ideolog towards the
Socialist camp paved the way for the realignment of Somalia and
Ethiopian foreign policies. During July, 1976, Mojus Wolde
Mikall of Ethiopia held cordial talks with Soviet officials.14
Six months later the Soviet Union granted substantial aid to
Ethiopia and as events of 1977 unfolded, it became clear that a
major transformation was taking place.
In late February, 1977 the United States decided to cut off
military grant aid to Ethiopia, as part of a protest over the
treatment of dissidents by the Dergue.15 Faced with serious
domestic opposition and a cut back of U.S. aid the Dergue began
to search for alternative sources of financial support. During
March, 1977, Fidel Castro met with Dergue officials to discuss a
number of issues including the prospects of military aid.16 On
April 23, 1977, Ethiopia ordered the closure of the U.S. Embassy.
Less than a week later, the United States announced that delivery
of nearly $100 million already appropriated dollars for Ethiopia
would be stopped.17 Mengistu wasted no time in courting the
Soviet officials on the topic of continued military aid. He met
with Foreign Minister Gromyko and President Podgomy in Moscow in
early May, 1977.18 Although, the contents of the meeting were
not made public, it was evident that an increase in military aid
Immediately after the meeting, there was an increasing
presence of Cubans in Ethiopia.19 The relationships between
the Soviet Union and Somalia started experiencing upheaval as it
became clearer that Ethiopia was leaning towards the East in the
name of the Socialist dogma and more so, the arrival of arms to
Ethiopia from the Soviet Union.
On 27 June 1977, Djibouti became independent under the
leadership of Mr. Hassan Gouled, whose party was pro-Somalia
Republic. As events were unfolding, an emergency meeting between
Somalia and Ethiopia was held in Aden under the chairmanship of
Fidel Castro.20 The theme of the meeting was an attempt to
convince the two leader to lay aside their differences and to
form a Marxist Confederation. Apparently, such a resolution was
aimed at consolidating the Soviet influences on the Horn of
Africa and give it control over the economically entrance to the
Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Said Barre is said to have vowed that
Somalia had no intentions of attacking another socialist
Shortly after the meeting, Said Barre rebuffed the Soviet
initiative. He stated that international solutions were fruitless
until the national question of a "Greater Somalia" had been
solved.21 Somalia ventured to explore their Arab connection for
assistance. As the Ethiopian-Soviet relationship grew warmer and
overtone of the Soviet presence in the Horn increased, the United
States was ready to embark upon a closer relationship with
Somalia. In May 1977, Saudi Arabia offered Somalia an equivalent
of U.S. $200 million dollars to lure her away from Moscow.22 It
appears as if Saudi Arabia was acting as a broker between the
U.S. and Somalia, after the U.S. [had] lost Ethiopia to Soviet
influence. As time went by, the U.S. found itself in a somewhat
different predicament as the outsider looking in, having no
formal ties with Somalia.
During June, 1977, the Carter Administration began to
explore the prospects of wooing Somalia away from Soviet
influence. President Carter is reported to have instructed his
aids to "get Somalia to be our friend".22 The man who was tasked
to perform the delicate task was Dr Kevin Cahill, a close
personal friend and physician of Said Barre. Dr. Cahill
consulted with Matthew Nimatz, a chief aide of Secretary of State
Cyrus Vance before leaving for Somalia. Dr. Cahill delivered the
message to Barre who "got an impression that the United States
did not care about Ogaden",24 Public announcement by U.S.
officials underscored Washington's intention to meet the exercise
of influence by the Soviet Union in Africa peacefully but
aggressively, an attempt to denouce the presence of Cubans and
Russians in the Horn and an indication that United States was
consenting to cordial relationship with Somalia.
Saudi Arabia also promised Barre that it would ship weapons
immediately. With other Arab States making similar promises and
attitude of the West, it is conceivable that Barre calculated in
mid-July the invasion of Ogaden was possible, even without the
access to Soviet arms. Somalian leaders believed also that future
opportunities to recover the Ogaden would be limited in view of
the trends in international support of the Horn. (See diagram
President Said Barre indeed seized the opportunity. Between
1976 and 1977, Somalia had infiltrated enough "Shifta" guerrillas
led by regular Somalia National Army personnel to establish firm
bases in the Ogaden Region. (See diagram 2). At 0600 local time
on July 23rd, 1977, Somalia Armed Forces Support by tanks, and
aircraft crossed the common border into Ethiopia.
Colonel (Dr.) Feleke Gedle Giorgis, Ethiopia's top official
made the statement in the wake of the invasion. "The situation is
a serious threat to international peace and security, is a
culmination of Somali's expansionist policy which has its goal of
of Ethiopian territory. Over the last several months, the
government of the Democratic Republic of Somalia has been
infiltrating its regular troops into Ethiopia for deliberate
purpose of committing aggression against Ethiopia short of
launching a full scale conventional war ----".25
The invasion took the Ethiopians by total surprise, and between 24
and 26 July 1977, ten major towns in Ogaden had already been
captured. By the 28th of August, 1977, the main thrust of
Somalia columns were heading westwards towards Jijiga and
Harar.26 (See map 2).
On 14 November 1977. The Ethiopian launched a major counter
offensive operations in the northern front, starting with probing
attacks around the Jijiga area. The counter offensive operations
were supported by the Cubans and the Russians, who had been flown
into Ethiopia prior to the invasion. In fact, Russia's Army-
General Vasily Petro, at that time First Deputy Commander of the
Soviet Ground Forces, is reported to have planned and directed
the operations.27 Skirmishes between the two opposing forces
continued, both sides suffering a number of casualties. Finally,
on 10 March 1978, the Ethiopians had reached the Ethiopia-
Djibouti-Somlia border. The Somalia occupied defensive position
across the border. On 15 March 1978, all Somalia troops had
crossed back into Somalia having left pockets of Western Somalia
Liberation Front to harrass the Ethiopians. A truce was reached,
apparently with the pressure from the super powers. Ethiopians
were told not to cross the border in pursuit of the retreating
enemy and indeed the Ethiopians were very unhappy.
During the 1970's, no area of Africa underwent more sudden
and startling internal upheavals and foreign policy than did the
Horn of Africa. As a result of coups d'etat in Ethiopia and
Somalia, power was in the hands of new leadership who were bent
on policies that forced the Soviet Union and the United States to
re-think their stand on the Horn. The deteriorating political
and economical situation in Ethiopia's Mengistu regime
offered a golden opportunity to Somalia to enhance their dream
to fulfill "The Greater Somalia". Since the national boundaries
were drawn by colonial powers without regard to geographical and
ethnographical considerations, the Horn of Africa will continue
to experience boundary disputes. The Ogaden War is an example of
wars or skirmishes to be expected in the future.
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1Hillary Ngweno, "Ethiopia Alerts Heads of States, "Weekly
Review Magazine, January, 1976, p.4.
2Ngweno, p. 4
3John Drydale, Somalia Dispute (New York: Praeger Publishers
1964) p. 122.
4Tom J. Farer, War Clouds on the Horn of Africa: A Crisis for
Detente (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1976) p. 70.
5Farer, p. 68.
6Robert F. Gorman, Political Conflict on the Horn of Africa
(New York: Praeger Publishers 1981) p. 29.
7C. Claphan, "Ethiopia and Somalia, "Conflicts in Africa,
Adelphi Papers Number Niney Three, London: The International
Institute for Strategic Studies 1972.
8Farer, p. 67.
9Gorman, p. 35.
10Saadim Touval, Somalia Nationalism: International Politics
and Drive for Unity on the Horn of Africa (London: Oxford
University Press, 1963) p. 15.
11Farer, p. 91.
12"President Shemark is Assassinated," Daily Nation Newspaper,
October 16, 1969. p. 1.
13Richard Sherman, Eritrea: The Unfinished Revolution (New York:
Praeger Publishers, 1980) p. 88.
14Colin Legum and Bill Lee, Conflict in the Horn of Africa (New
York: Africana Publishing Company, 1977) p. 92.
15Marina Ottaway, Soviet and American Influence in the Horn of
Africa (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982) p. 101.
16Gorman, p. 55
17"United States Turned Down Ethiopian Request, "New York Times,
May 2, 1977, p. 16.
18Ottaway, p. 149.
19"Cubans in Ethiopia, "New York Times, June 11, 1977, p. 15-16.
20Gorman, p. 61.
21Gorman, p. 64.
22Ottaway, p. 119.
23Gorman, p. 70.
24Gorman, p. 70.
25"Somalia Invades Ethiopia," Daily Nation Newspaper, July 24.
26Mark Urban, "Soviet Intervention and Ogaden Counter-Offensive
of 1978," RUSI J for Defense Studies (June 1983) p. 42 - 46.
27Urban, p. 42 - 46.
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Drydale, John, Somalia Dispute, New York: Praeger Publishers,
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Nelson, Harold D. and Kaplan, Irving, Handbook Series Ethiopia,
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Ottaway, Marina, Soviet and American Influence in the Horn of
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Sauldie, Madam M. Ethiopia: Dawn of the Red Star, India: Asia
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