Black History Month: Ethiopian-Somali War over the Ogaden region (1977-1978)
February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.
In 1977, Ethiopia and Somalia engaged in a brief territory conflict over the Ogaden region situated between and claimed by both nations. This conflict, however, held significance greater than most territorial disputes because Ethiopia was backed by the Soviet Union and Somalia was supported by the United States, thus bringing the Cold War to eastern Africa.
Long before the 1977 conflict, the Ogaden had been subject to dispute. After the Second World War, when Ethiopia had been aligned with the Allies against the Axis Powers, Britain relinquished its claim on the Haud and Ogaden regions as part of British Somaliland. When British Somaliland became part of the newly independent nation of Somalia in 1960, that government took control over the region. They intensified their control when a military coup led to the assassination of Somali President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, and the army’s seizure of control of the nation in 1969.
Meanwhile in Ethiopia, long-time Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in September 1974 by the military council known as the Derg. The nation was in disarray as a result and numerous separatist movements opposed to the Derg emerged out of the political uncertainty. One of those groups, the Western Somali Liberation Front, made up of Somalis living in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, called for the annexation of the area they controlled to Somalia.
By 1977, Mengistu Haile Mariam had become the leader of the Derg, which now controlled all of Ethiopia. The Derg violently suppressed all Ethiopians and, in particular, the WSLF and its supporters. By this point, they had declared Ethiopia a Marxist state and allied it with the Soviet Union.
The Somali Government, which had previously received considerable amounts of Soviet aid, now provided weapons and supplies to the WSLF. In July 1977, the Somali National Army of 35,000, led by Mohamed Siad Barre and aided by 15,000 WSLF militiamen, invaded Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. The Somalian Army was greatly outnumbered by the Ethiopian military, but it had superior artillery and air force because of earlier Soviet military aid.
The Soviets were also supplying their new ally, Ethiopia. After unsuccessfully attempting to negotiate a ceasefire, they threw all of their support to Ethiopia, bringing in 15,000 Cuban troops as well as “volunteers” from other communist nations such as North Korea and Yemen. In response, the Somalis requested and received support from the United States.
When the conflict began in July 1977, Ethiopia controlled approximately 10 per cent of the Ogaden region. With greater and more consistent Soviet aid, however, they drove back the Somali army and its WSLF allies. In October, the Somalis attempted their most significant offensive to capture the Ethiopian city of Harar. Here they faced 40,000 Ethiopian troops and 11,000 Cuban troops, backed by Soviet artillery and airpower. The Ethiopians prevailed at Harar and began to push the Somalis out of the Ogaden systematically. By March 1978, the Ethiopians had captured almost all of the Ogaden, prompting the defeated Somalis to give up their claim to the region.
Sources: Martin Plaut, Ethiopia – Somalia: A History of Conflict, Martinplaut, January 2013; Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, eds. Africana: The encyclopaedia of the African and African American experience. Oxford University Press, 2005; Kenneth G. Weiss, The Soviet Involvement in the Ogaden War. No. CNA-PP-269, Centre for Naval Analyses, Institute of Naval Studies, Alexandria, Virginia, 1980