In a nation’s life there are crucial historical times when its socio-economic and political history is made or broken. The Republic of Somalia experienced such critical times in 1970s.
The Republic was politically stable and secure. The military regime, which had deposed the last democratically elected civilian government on 21 October 1969, was popular and the public was behind it. Its “scientific socialism” ideology and socio-economic developmental projects were making headways.
It had completed an impressive mass literacy campaign (1974-75), and for the first time had successfully introduced the Somali language script officially. It had also managed successfully the 1974-75 droughts, the worst in Somalia’s modern history, which meant the resettlement of thousands of people that were affected by the drought and creating a new life for them..
The proud Republic was militarily strong. Supplied by the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Somalia had accumulated the largest military arsenal in the sub-Sahara Africa with 250 T-34 tanks, T-54/55 Soviet tanks and over 300 armoured personnel carriers. Even though Ethiopia had armed forces as big as twice of Somalia’s 23,000-armed personnel, the Somali tank force was three times larger than the Ethiopian one. The Somali air force of 52 combat aircraft, including 24 Soviet supersonic MiG-21s, was larger than the Ethiopian air force of up to 40 aircraft.
On the other hand, unlike Somalia, the situation in Ethiopia was worse. The 1972-73 droughts had hit the Wallo and Tigray regions, and over 200,000 people had died. Because of the famine and failure of Emperor Haile Selassie’s socio-political and economic reforms, the Ethiopian empire was under the grip of some huge socio-political and economic upheavals. Social forces were demanding political reforms amidst mass demonstrations.
After its defeat in Eritrea, the moral of the Ethiopian armed forces was low, as some units had mutinied. Indeed, on 28 June 1974, army representatives met in Addis Ababa and established what they called Dergue, an advocacy military committee. After various internal power struggles within the Dergue, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariame emerged as the strong man.
The military junta deposed Emperor H. Selassie on 12 September 1974. This date, declared as the revolution day, marked the end of Ethiopia’s monarchy, which represented a feudal-based land grabbing empire.
By 1975, as disorder increased in Ethiopia and the Dergue was struggling to consolidate its power, insurgency groups intensified their activities throughout Ethiopia. A separate liberation front for Oromo people, called Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was challenging the Dergue over the control of the Oromia region. Different Eritrean liberation movements were consolidating their grip over much of Eritrea having defeated Ethiopian armed forces.
A newly revived Somali resistance movement called Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), committed to the liberation and unification of the Ogaden region with the Republic, completed its re-organisational and structural process in Somalia. And by October 1976, its forces were already conducting military guerilla operations in Ogaden.
The proud Republic, feeling superior and stronger than Ethiopia, was clandestinely but actively supporting WSLF. The Ethiopian regime accused Somalia of its involving in the conflict. The two neighboring countries were at the brink of war.
It was at this critical historical juncture that the late president Fidel Castro of Cuba intervened in the conflict politically. He visited Aden, South Yemen in March 1977 in order to mediate between the two governments and also to get them agree on a USSR-sponsored plan, under which the Ogaden region would have been granted local autonomy within Ethiopia in a loose socialist federal structure, including South Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia as the two countries were socialists.
However, the initiative failed after the two socialist countries had rejected the plan. Brotherhood in socialism could not stand in the way of fervent Somali nationalism determined to realizing the Greater Somalia dream and Ethiopia’s perseverance in preserving its disintegrating empire.
In a transcript of a meeting between Castro and East German leader Erich Honecker on 3 April 1977, in which the Cuban leader was briefing the German leader about his mediation efforts, Castro made clear how the Somali leader’s strong nationalist views and his “chauvinistic” attitude were obstacles to the talks. He also revealed his preference of the Ethiopian revolution and Mengistu’s socialist credentials over the Somali leader and his revolution, which he saw as being hijacked by imperialist forces. Indeed, in the meeting, he did not hide his willingness to support Ethiopia politically and militarily when he said:
“…..In order to find the best solution we must think through this question calmly and thoroughly and consider it in terms of the overall situation of the socialist camp. Above all we must do something for Mengistu. Already we are collecting old weapons in Cuba for Ethiopia, principally French, Belgian and Czech hand-held weapons. About 45,000 men must be supplied with weapons. We are going to send military advisers to train the Ethiopian militia in weapons-use. There are many people in Ethiopia who are qualified for the army.”
After the failure of the above mediation and other peace initiatives, by the summer of 1977, the conflict reached its peak, and the looming war was unstoppable. Strength of Somalia’s regular and irregular forces was estimated at 50,000-strong army. By now the Somali regime was not in complete control of the situation as WSLF guerrilla forces were already militarily active in Ogaden. Therefore, the proud Republic, which had already been supporting the insurgency, had little choice but to commit its regular forces to the conflict.
Once the battle was underway, Somali forces’ performance was remarkable. By 25 July 1977, they captured Godey followed by the immediate fall of major towns and other areas, such as Shilaabo, Qalaafe, Qabridaharre, Wardheer, Aware, Dhagaxbur, and Dhagaxmadow, Jigjiga and Dirir Dawe to the Somali forces. By mid-September, the Ethiopian regime conceded that 90% of the Ogaden region had fallen to the Somali forces. The talk in the town was the imminent fall of the historical town of Harar was not if but when, though that never happened.
As towns and villages were liberated, celebrations broke out in the Ogaden region and across the Republic. Combined with the independence of Djibouti from France, Somali nationalism reached its peak at this point in time as people believed that Ogaden, another occupied territory, had been liberated. Helped by the script of the Somali language, and led by the mass media, this oral society expressed strong nationalist views in poems and songs in all corners of the nation.
This first phase of the conflict ended in favor of the proud Republic, which had nearly brought down the Ethiopian empire, a historical enemy, to its knees. However, Somali victory proved premature and short-lived because of the intervention of some powerful foreign powers in the war, a conflict that was already a classic example of Cold War superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa.
The former USSR, having let down the proud Republic in its time of need and having sided with Ethiopia, triggered off the second phase of the conflict by undertaking the largest shipment of military equipment and men in Africa. This included shifting 225 planes (12% of the entire Soviet fleet), 1,500 Soviet advisors, and 10,000 Cuban troops and Yemeni forces, and the mobilisation of the public in Ethiopia.
Even though he was already involved in the Ethio-Somali conflict, it was during the second phase of the conflict that the role of Fidel Castro as the man who frustrated dreams of Somali nationalists became clear.
It is true the conflict was driven by an international coalition of socialist states. However, Cuba, with its national interest in the region at heart, was the most important partner n the conflict, and played crucial role in determining the outcome of the conflict. Indeed, Cubans had the largest troops estimated at 10,000 – 18,000 under the political leadership of Mengistu and his Soviet and Cuban masters. The overall commander of the military operation was a Cuban Major General by the name of Arnaldo Ochoa, supported by a mixture of Ethiopian and Soviets generals.
The Ogaden conflict was the only time that Cubans and Soviets had ever agreed on and conducted a joint military operation, as confirmed by President Fidel Castro in an interview 30 years after the end of the conflict. Explaining the USSR-Cuban military adventure, the Cuban president said: “It was the only operation we conducted in full agreement with the Soviets. No such cooperation took place even in Latin America. Quite the opposite.”
In the second phase of the conflict, Somalia suffered heavy casualties. 8,000 armed personnel, one third of its pre-war army, killed; three quarters of its tank force and nearly half of its aircraft destroyed. It took less than a month for the alliance to eject Somali forces from territories they had captured. Unfortunately, the Somali forces were no match for the huge multinational force, and within a few weeks of the fighting, major cities had fallen to the allies.
The conflict ended after the Somali government announced on 9 March 1978 of the withdrawal of its regular forces from the Ogaden region.
Even though the Somali National Army was defeated, it has to be noted here that this was not by Ethiopian or even African forces but by the might of a multinational force, which had cornered the proud Republic, forced it to capitulate, and in a way denied its long held dream of liberating the Ogaden region from Ethiopian hegemony.
Also, it must be said that the role played by the late Fidel Castro was one of the most decisive factors in the conflict because his country had the largest coalition forces on the ground and their crucial role in the battle ground is undisputed.
Indeed, even with the help of Soviets, Ethiopian forces could not have defeated Somalis in such a short period, as confirmed by Peter Chaplygin of the Soviet military mission in Ethiopia. Commenting on the role of the Cuban forces, he said: “The Cuban troops in Ethiopia played a very important role. The Ethiopians could not have provided the military organisation to destroy the Somalis in such a short period even with our help.
In conclusion, although USSR-led military intervention had saved Ethiopia from total disintegration and restored its national pride by ejecting Somali forces, it has, however, had negative impact on the proud Republic of Somalia. This is because the Republic had committed a large junk of its national resources on the Ogaden cause, and once that national adventure failed, Somalia’s national pride was humiliated by the defeat in the conflict-the biggest in the world at the time. Indeed, the Ogaden debacle was a turning point in Somali history because it unleashed socio-political forces and sequence of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Somali state.