Ogaden War

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(Redirected from Ethio-Somali War)
Ogaden War
Part of the Ethiopian Civil War, the Ethiopian–Somali conflict, and the Cold War

Cuban artillerymen prepare to fire at Somali forces in the Ogaden
Date13 July 1977[10] – 23 March 1978[11]
(8 months and 2 days)

Ethiopian victory[12][13]

Commanders and leaders
Beginning of war:
35,000–47,000 soldiers[16]
37 aircraft, 62 tanks, 100 armored vehicles[6]
75,000 soldiers[17]
1,500 Soviet advisors
12,000–18,000 Cuban soldiers[18][19]
2,000 Yemeni soldiers[20]
Beginning of war:
31,000[21]–39,000 soldiers[22]
40 aircraft, 250 tanks, 350 armored vehicles, and 600 artillery pieces[23]
54,000–63,000 soldiers[22]
Casualties and losses
6,133 killed[24]
10,563 wounded[24]
1,922 captured[24]
Equipment losses:
23 aircraft[24]
139 tanks[24]
108 APCs[24]
99 vehicles[24]
160 killed[25]
250 wounded[26]
6 tanks[26]
South Yemen:
90 killed
150 wounded[26]
6,453 killed
2,409 wounded[24]
275 captured[24]
Equipment losses:
28 aircraft[27]
11 helicopters[28]
200+ tanks[29]
30 APCs[24]
90 vehicles[24]
~2,000 killed[26]
25,000 civilians killed[25]
500,000 Somali inhabitants of Ethiopia displaced[30][31]

The Ogaden War, also known as the Ethio-Somali War (Somali: Dagaalkii Xoraynta Soomaali Galbeed, Amharic: የኢትዮጵያ ሶማሊያ ጦርነት, romanizedye’ītiyop’iya somalīya t’orinet), was a military conflict fought between Somalia and Ethiopia from July 1977 to March 1978 over the Ethiopian region of Ogaden. Somalia's invasion of the region, precursor to the wider war,[32] met with the Soviet Union's disapproval, leading the superpower to end its support of Somalia and support Ethiopia instead.

Ethiopia was saved from defeat and permanent loss of territory through a massive airlift of military supplies worth $1 billion, the arrival of more than 12,000 Cuban soldiers and airmen sent by Fidel Castro to win a second African victory (after his first success in Angola in 1975–76),[28] and 1,500 Soviet advisors, led by General Vasily Petrov. On 23 January 1978, Cuban armored brigades inflicted the worst losses the Somali forces had ever taken in a single action since the start of the war.[29]

The Cubans (equipped with 300 tanks, 156 artillery pieces and 46 combat aircraft)[25] prevailed at Harar, Dire Dawa and Jijiga, and began to push the Somalis systematically out of the Ogaden. By 23 March 1978, the Cuban backed Ethiopian army had recaptured more than two-thirds of the Ogaden, marking the official end of the war.[11] Almost a third of the regular SNA soldiers, three-eighths of the armored units and half of the Somali Air Force had been lost during the war. The war left Somalia with a disorganized and demoralized army as well as a heavy disapproval from its population. These conditions led to a revolt in the army which eventually spiraled into the ongoing Somali Civil War.[33]


Before the proclamation of an independent Somali state, a greater de facto Somalia already existed within the framework of foreign powers. In 1936, after the capture of Ethiopia by Italy, Italian East Africa was formed, uniting all Italian colonial possessions (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Italian Somalia) in the Horn of Africa, including British Somaliland in 1940.[34] The Italian colonial administration thus united most of the territories that had a predominantly Somali population. Italian East Africa was divided into governorates, and the Somalia Governorate included Somali-majority territories not part of present-day Somalia.

In 1941, during the British East African campaign (May–April), the Italians were defeated and the Italian colonial administration across all of Italian East Africa was replaced by a British military administration. On 31 January 1942, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom signed the first "Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement", ending British military occupation in most of Ethiopia except Ogaden[35] (British troops remained in Ethiopia until 1955). As part of the second "Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement", the British military administration remained in the Ogaden province and in the so-called "Reserved Zone", adjacent to Somalia and constituting a third of Ethiopia's territory, until 19 December 1946. In 1949, the British occupation administration created the British Ogaden Protectorate, which ceased to exist in 1954. The British military contingent was withdrawn from the Ogaden in 1955,[36] and the Ogaden became part of Abyssinia.

Territorial partition

Following World War II, Britain retained control of both British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland as protectorates. In 1950, as a result of the Paris Peace Treaties, the United Nations granted Italy trusteeship of Italian Somaliland.[37][38] British Somaliland remained a protectorate of Britain until 1960.[39]

In 1948, under pressure from their World War II allies and to the dismay of the Somalis,[40] the British gave the Haud (an important Somali grazing area that was presumably 'protected' by British treaties with the Somalis in 1884 and 1886) and the Ogaden to Ethiopia, based on an 1897 treaty in which the British, French and Italians agreed upon the territorial boundaries of the Ethiopian Empire with Emperor Menelik II in exchange for his help against raids by hostile clans.[41]

Britain included the provision that the Somali residents would retain their autonomy, but Ethiopia immediately claimed sovereignty over the area.[37] This prompted an unsuccessful bid by the United Kingdom in 1956 to buy back the Somali lands it had turned over.[37]

Independence, 1964 Ethiopian–Somali War and 1969 Coup

British Somaliland became independent on 26 June 1960 as the State of Somaliland; the Trust Territory of Somalia (former Italian Somaliland) followed suit five days later.[42] On 1 July 1960, the two territories united to form the Somali Republic.[43][44]

Three and a half years later, starting February 1964, Somalia and Ethiopia had their first war following a major rebellion that had begun in the Ogaden during June 1963.[45]

In October 1969, while paying a visit to the northern town of Las Anod, Somali President Shermarke was shot dead by one of his bodyguards. His assassination was quickly followed by a military coup d'état on 21 October (the day after his funeral), in which the Somali Army seized power without encountering armed opposition. The putsch was spearheaded by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, who at the time commanded the army.[46]

Supreme Revolutionary Council

Somali Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, Chairman of the Supreme Revolutionary Council

Alongside Barre, the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) that assumed power after President Sharmarke's assassination was led by Lieutenant Colonel Salaad Gabeyre Kediye and Chief of Police Jama Ali Korshel. Kediye officially held the title of "Father of the Revolution", and Barre shortly afterwards became the head of the SRC.[47] The SRC subsequently renamed the country the Somali Democratic Republic,[48][49] dissolved the parliament and the Supreme Court, and suspended the constitution.[50]

In addition to Soviet funding and arms support provided to Somalia, Egypt sent to the country millions of dollars' worth of arms shipments.[6] Though the United States had offered Somalia arms support prior to the 1977 invasion, the offer was withdrawn following the news of Somali troops operating in the Ogaden Region.[51]

Somali strategy

Under the leadership of General Mohammad Ali Samatar, Irro and other senior Somali military officials were tasked in 1977 with formulating a national strategy in preparation for the war against Ethiopia.[52] This was part of a broader effort to unite all of the Somali-inhabited territories in the Horn region into a Greater Somalia (Soomaaliweyn).[53]

A distinguished graduate of the Soviet Frunze Military Academy, Samatar oversaw Somalia's military strategy. During the Ogaden War, Samatar was the Commander-in-Chief of the Somali Armed Forces.[52] He and his frontline deputies faced off against their mentor and former Frunze alumnus, General Vasily Petrov, assigned by the USSR to advise the Ethiopian Army. A further 15,000 Cuban troops, led by General Arnaldo Ochoa, also supported Ethiopia.[54][55] General Samatar was assisted in the offensive by several field commanders, most of whom were also Frunze graduates:[56]

Somali Air Force

The Somali Air Force was primarily organized along Soviet lines, as its officer corps was trained in the USSR.[26][57]

Somali Air Force operational aircraft


The party badge of the Derg regime of Ethiopia (c. 1979).

In September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie had been overthrown by the Derg military council, marking a period of turmoil. The Derg quickly fell into internal conflict to determine who would have primacy.[59] Meanwhile, various anti-Derg groups as well as separatist movements began emerging throughout the country.

One of the separatist groups seeking to take advantage of the chaos was the pro-Somalia Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) operating in the Somali-inhabited Ogaden; by late 1975, the group had attacked numerous government outposts. WSLF controlled most of the Ogaden, the first time since World War II that all of Somalia had been united (with the exception of the Northern Frontier District in Kenya). The victory in Ogaden occurred primarily because of support from the Harari populace who had aligned with the WSLF.[60][61] From 1976 to 1977, Somalia supplied arms and other aid to the WSLF.

Opposition to the reign of the Derg was the main cause of the Ethiopian Civil War. This conflict began as extralegal violence between 1975 and 1977, known as the Red Terror, when the Derg struggled for authority, first with various opposition groups within the country, then with a variety of groups jockeying for the role of vanguard party. Though human rights violations were committed by all sides, the great majority of abuses against civilians as well as actions leading to devastating famine were committed by the government.[62]

A sign that order had been restored among Derg factions was the announcement on February 11, 1977 that Mengistu Haile Mariam had become head of state. However, the country remained in chaos as the military attempted to suppress its civilian opponents in a period known as the Red Terror (Qey Shibir in Amharic). Despite the violence, the Soviet Union, which had been closely observing developments, came to believe that Ethiopia was developing into a genuine Marxist–Leninist state and that it was in Soviet interests to aid the new regime. They therefore secretly approached Mengistu with offers of aid, which he accepted. Ethiopia closed the U.S. military mission and its communications center in April 1977.[63][64][65]

In June 1977, Mengistu accused Somalia of infiltrating SNA soldiers into the Somali area to fight alongside the WSLF. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Barre strongly denied this, saying SNA "volunteers" were being allowed to help the WSLF.

Ethiopian Air Force

The Ethiopian Air Force (ETAP) was formed thanks to British and Swedish aid during the 1940s and 1950s, and started receiving significant US support in the 1960s. Despite its small size, the ETAP was an elite force, consisting of hand-picked officers and running an intensive training program for airmen at home and abroad.[66]

The Ethiopian Air Force benefited from a US Air Force aid program. A team of US Air Force officers and NCOs assessed the force and provided recommendations as part of the Military Advisory and Assistance Group. The ETAP was restructured as a US-style organization. Emphasis was given to training institutions. Ethiopian personnel were sent to the US for training, including 25 Ethiopian pilots for jet training, and many more were trained locally by US Defense personnel.[67]

Prior to 1974, the Ethiopian Air Force mainly consisted of a dozen F-86 Sabres and a dozen F-5A Freedom Fighters. In 1974, Ethiopia requested the delivery of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighters, but the US instead offered it 16 Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and two Westinghouse AN/TPS-43D mobile radars (one of which was later positioned in Jijiga).[68] Due to human rights violations in the country, only 8 F-5E Tiger IIs had been delivered by 1976.[66]

Ethiopian Air Force operational aircraft

Castro's trip to Aden

When the Cubans and the Soviets learned of Somali plans to annex the Ogaden, Castro flew in March 1977 to Aden, South Yemen, where he suggested an Ethiopian-Somali-Yemeni Socialist Federation. Castro's plan didn't get any support, and two months later Somali forces attacked the Ethiopians. Cuba, supported by troops from the USSR and South Yemen, sided with Ethiopia.[69][70][71]


Course of the war

Approximate extent of Greater Somalia
Ethiopian territory occupied by Somalia in 1977

Somali invasion (July–August 1977)

The Somali National Army (SNA) committed to invade the Ogaden on July 12, 1977, according to Ethiopian Ministry of National Defense documents (other sources state July 13 or 23).[72][73]

According to Ethiopian sources, the invaders numbered 70,000 troops, 40 fighter planes, 250 tanks, 350 armored personnel carriers (APCs), and 600 artillery pieces, amounting to nearly the entire Somali Army.[72] Soviet officials put the number of attacking Somali forces at 23,000 servicemen, 150 T-34 and 50 T-54/55 tanks, and 250 APCs including BTR-50PKs, BTR-152s and BTR-60PBs. In addition to Somali regular troops, another 15,000 WSLF fighters were also present in the Ogaden.[26]

By the end of July, 60% of the Ogaden had been taken by the SNA-WSLF force, including Gode on the Shebelle River. The attacking Somali forces did suffer some early setbacks; Ethiopian defenders at Dire Dawa and Jijiga inflicted heavy casualties on assaulting forces. The Ethiopian Air Force (ETAP) also began to establish air superiority using its Northrop F-5s, despite initially being outnumbered by Somali MiG-21s.[74]

However, Somalia easily overpowered Ethiopian military hardware and technology. Soviet General Vasily Petrov had to report back to Moscow the "sorry state" of the Ethiopian Army. The 3rd and 4th Ethiopian Infantry Divisions that suffered the brunt of the Somali invasion had practically ceased to exist.[74]

The USSR, finding itself supplying both sides of the war, attempted to mediate a ceasefire. When their efforts failed, the Soviets abandoned Somalia. All aid to Siad Barre's regime was halted, while arms shipments to Ethiopia were increased.[citation needed] A Soviet military airlift with advisors for Ethiopia took place (second in magnitude only to the colossal October 1973 resupplying of Syrian forces during the Yom Kippur War), alongside 15,000 Cuban combat troops in a military role.[75]

Other communist countries like South Yemen and North Korea offered Ethiopia military assistance.[75] East Germany offered training, engineering and support troops.[4] Israel reportedly provided cluster bombs, napalm and were also allegedly flying combat aircraft for Ethiopia.[76][77] In November 1977, Somalia broke diplomatic relations with the USSR, expelled all Soviet experts from the country, abrogated the 1974 treaty of friendship, and cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba.[1]

Not all communist states sided with Ethiopia. Because of the Sino-Soviet rivalry, China supported Somalia diplomatically and with token military aid.[78][79] Romania under Nicolae Ceauşescu had a habit of breaking with Soviet policies and also maintained good diplomatic relations with Barre.

The Somali Armed Forces conducting a military parade shortly before the outbreak of the war in 1977.

By 17 August 1977, elements of the Somali Army had reached the outskirts of Dire Dawa; the outcome of the battle for the strategic city would prove critical. Not only was Ethiopia's second largest air base located there, but the city represented both its crossroads into the Ogaden and rail lifeline to the Red Sea. If the Somalis took Dire Dawa, Ethiopia would be unable to export its crops or bring in equipment needed to continue the fight.[80]

History Professor Gebru Tareke wrote that the Somalis advanced on the city with two motorized brigades, one tank battalion and one BM-13 battery. Facing these were the Ethiopian Second Militia Division, the 201 Nebelbal battalion, 781st battalion of the 78th Brigade, 4th Mechanized Company, and a tank platoon with two tanks.[80]

Both sides were aware of the stakes; fighting was ferocious, but after two days, despite initially taking the airport, the Somalis were forced to withdraw. After the Ethiopians repulsed the assault, the city was never again at risk of attack.[81]

Somali victories and siege of Harar (September–January)

Cuban soldiers
Damaged Somali National Army (SNA) T-34 tank undergoing repairs

The greatest single victory of the SNA-WSLF was the assault on Jijiga in mid-September 1977, in which demoralized Ethiopian troops withdrew from the town. The local defenders were no match for the assaulting Somalis, and the Ethiopian military was forced to withdraw past the strategic strongpoint of the Marda Pass, halfway between Jijiga and Harar. By September, Ethiopia was forced to admit that it controlled only about 10% of the Ogaden and that the Ethiopian defenders had been pushed back into the non-Somali areas of Harerge, Bale, and Sidamo.

However, the Somalis were unable to press their advantage because of the high attrition of its tank battalions, constant Ethiopian air attacks on their supply lines, and the onset of the rainy season which made dirt roads unusable. And in a few months, the Ethiopian government had managed to raise, train and integrate a 100,000-strong militia into its regular fighting force. In addition, although the Ethiopian Army was historically a client of U.S weapons, it was able to hastily adapt to new Warsaw Pact bloc weaponry.

Throughout the war, there were sharp tensions between the SNA and WSLF forces.[82] The WSLF resented the fact that Somali political commissars insisted on direct Somali government control over conquered territory.[82] Particularly bothersome to the WSLF were incidents in which Somali officials tore down WSLF battle flags raised over conquered areas and replaced them with the flag of Somalia.[82]

Over a span of four months, spanning from the third week of September to the end of January, the Somalis exerted considerable effort to seize Harar. They nearly encircled the city from the north, south, and east. On two occasions, it appeared that the city, with its forty-eight thousand inhabitants and as the home of Ethiopia's foremost military academy, was on the brink of falling. However, Harar did not surrender, primarily due to the relatively slow and indecisive operational maneuvers of the Somalis and the unwavering tenacity of the Ethiopian defenders.[83] Though Somali forces reached the outskirts of Harar by November, they were too exhausted to take the city and eventually had to withdraw to await the Ethiopian counterattack. At this point came the regular Cuban troops, starting with a few hundred in December, they grew to 3,000 in January to 16,000 in February, more than half of them ferried in from Angola. They came with full gear including armored cars and T-62 tanks, mainly of Soviet production. The Somalis had gambled by expelling the Soviet and Cubans; now they stood almost alone against an multinational colossus.[28]

Ethiopian-Cuban counterattack (February–March)

The expected Ethiopian-Cuban counterattack occurred in early February; however, it was accompanied by a second attack the Somalis did not expect.[84] A column of Ethiopian and Cuban troops crossed northeast into the highlands between Jijiga and the border with Somalia, bypassing the SNA-WSLF force defending the Marda Pass. Soviet Mil Mi-6 and Mil Mi-8 helicopters airlifted a Cuban battalion behind enemy lines.[28]

The attackers were thus able to attack from two directions in a pincer movement, allowing the re-capture of Jijiga in only two days and inflicting 3,000–6,000 casualties on the Somalis.[85][25] The Somali defense collapsed, and every major Somali-occupied town was recaptured in the following weeks. Cuban artillery and aerial assaults wreaked a terrible toll on Somali forces.[86]

Recognizing that his position was untenable, Siad Barre ordered the SNA to retreat back into Somalia on 9 March 1978, although Rene LaFort claims that the Somalis, having foreseen the inevitable, had already withdrawn their heavy weapons.[87] The last significant Somali unit left Ethiopia on 15 March 1978, marking the end of the war.

Effects of the war

The Tiglachin Monument in Addis Ababa commemorates the victory of the Derg over Somalia in the Ogaden War

Executions and rape of civilians and refugees by Ethiopian and Cuban troops were prevalent throughout the war.[88][89] A large Cuban contingent remained in Ethiopia after the war to protect the socialist government.[88] Assisted by Soviet advisors, the Cuban contingent launched a second offensive in December 1979 directed at the population's means of survival, including the poisoning and destruction of wells and killing of cattle herds.[89]

Following the withdrawal of the SNA, the WSLF continued its insurgency. By May 1980, the rebels, with the assistance of a small number of SNA soldiers who continued helping their guerrilla war, controlled a substantial region of the Ogaden. But by 1981, the insurgents, reduced to sporadic hit-and-run attacks, had been defeated. In addition, the WSLF and Somali Abbo Liberation Front (SALF) were significantly weakened after the war. The former was practically defunct by the late 1980s, and its splinter group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), operated from headquarters in Kuwait. Even though elements of the ONLF would later manage to slip back into the Ogaden, their actions had little impact.[90]

For the Barre regime, the invasion was perhaps the greatest strategic blunder since independence,[91] and it greatly weakened the military. Almost one-third of regular SNA soldiers, three-eighths of its armored units, and half of the Somali Air Force (SAF) were lost. The weakness of the Barre administration led it to effectively abandon the dream of a unified Greater Somalia. The failure of the war aggravated discontent with the Barre regime; the first organized opposition group, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), was formed by army officers in 1979.

The United States adopted Somalia as a Cold War ally from the late 1970s to 1988 in exchange for use of Somali bases it used for access to the Middle East, and as a way to exert influence in the Horn of Africa.[92] A second armed clash in 1988 between Somalia and Ethiopia ended when the two countries agreed to withdraw their armed forces from the border.

Refugee crisis

Somalia's defeat in the war caused an influx of Ethiopian refugees (mostly ethnic Somalis and some Oromo)[93] across the border to Somalia. By 1979, official figures reported 1.3 million refugees in Somalia, more than half of them settled in the lands of the Isaaq clan-family in the north. As the state became increasingly reliant on international aid, aid resources allocated for the refugees caused further resentment from local Isaaq residents, especially as they felt no effort was made on the government's part to compensate them for bearing the burden of the war.[94]

Furthermore, Barre heavily favoured the Ogaden refugees, who belonged to the same clan (Darod) as him. Due to these ties, Ogaden refugees enjoyed preferential access to "social services, business licenses and even government posts."[94] As expressed animosity and discontent in the north grew, Barre armed the Ogaden refugees, and in doing so created an irregular army operating inside Isaaq territories. The armed Ogaden refugees, together with members of the Marehan and Dhulbahanta soldiers (who were provoked and encouraged by the Barre regime) started a terror campaign against the local Isaaqs,[95] raping women, murdering unarmed civilians, and preventing families from conducting proper burials.

Barre ignored Isaaq complaints throughout the 1980s.[95] This, in addition to Barre's suppression of criticism or even discussion of widespread atrocities in the north,[95] had the effect of turning long-standing Isaaq disaffection into open opposition, with many Isaaq forming the Somali National Movement, leading to the ten-year civil war in northwestern Somalia (today the de facto state of Somaliland).[96]

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