Somalia: The Ethiopian Factor II

The Ogaden

Continued from ‘Somalia: The Ethiopian Factor’

The Geographical Dispute:

There is a deep wound in the heart of the Somalis that continues to bleed profusely and nourishes the long-held distrust in Ethiopia and her policies. That the North Eastern Province (NFD) and the Ogaden regions are part and parcel of the Somali state is a notion deeply ingrained in the mind of the Somali population in its entirety. And as the years slowly roll by, under the shackles of black colonialism, the lingering hopes of the Somalis imprisoned in those regions also continues to fade. Prompted by foreign meddling and proxy wars that, to this day, continue to shape the political decisions of the region, the protracted cross-border raids between Somalia and Ethiopia have existed for a very long time. There have been several explosive skirmishes at the border between the years of 1960-64 and the flames of the conflict that erupted in the region at that time were doused with a ceasefire between the two countries. But this did not kill the lingering notion of pan-Somalism and the Somali man’s persistent struggle for Greater Somalia.

In the run up to the 1977-78 Ogaden war, the Soviets, having given up on the Somalis, deemed that the ground was fertile enough in Addis Ababa for the establishment of a Marxist-Lenin state and thus transferred their interests to Ethiopia, immediately ordering them to expel the Americans who have been at the time giving substantial military aid and advice to the Ethiopians. Soon the Soviets began pouring in state-of-the-art weapons into the Ethiopian capital. As a result, Somalia withdrew from the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union and soon after that, expelled all Soviet personnel from the country. To take advantage of the situation, the United States, having been expelled from Ethiopia, decided to weigh in on the other side and offered support to Somalia, though it soon withdrew the offer shortly after that.

Ethiopian Losses by Unit & Rank

The Ogaden war was a fully-fledged conventional war between the two countries and the casualties were high on both sides. In Somalia there was popular support for the battle to regain Somali lands from the Ethiopian control, and thousands of volunteers enlisted their services in the army. The Somali army steadily marched on, their souls burning with pride and their hearts pounding with patriotism. Songs extolling their bravery were sung in their name and the entire country, young and old, was chanting their praise. With an overwhelming level of optimism and boosted morale, coupled with a significantly advanced weaponry (the Russian have supplied them well enough before switching sides), the Somali army soon defeated the large number of Ethiopian troops. The Somalis regained Western Somalia and advanced further, camping within a close range of the capital city, Addis Ababa. The situation alarmed the Soviets and her allies and soon the battle formations changed dramatically.

Ethiopian and Somali losses

In March 1978, the Ethiopians, with a massive support from North Korea, foot soldiers and armoured units from Yemen and Libya, infantry and artillery from Cuba and a huge influx of weapons and military advisors from the Soviets, regained control of the Ogaden. The Somalis returned with a defeat and soon the revenge-ridden Ethiopian soldiers embarked on a brutal campaign of oppression using the scorched earth policy. The hostility on both sides did not die down with the end of the war but continued to simmer, and five years later, in 1982, Ethiopian MiG-21s conducted aerial bombardment of several Somali cities. Somalia’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Ahmed Mohamed Adan, addressing the UN at the Third Committee on Assistance to Refugees in 1982, described the Ethiopian conduct during the war:

‘…the forces of oppression and persecution which set in motion the refugee flight into Somalia and other neighbouring countries are still operative, and these forces work against the return of the refugees to their homes.

The bombarding of villages, the massacre of nomads, the poisoning of wells, the killing of livestock and even the strafing of refugees from the air as they make their way to the border areas – these atrocities have all been reported by the international media. The genocidal attempt to depopulate Western Somalia and resettle there people from other areas deepens the tragedy of the refugees and sharpens the political problems of our region.’

Source: The Evaded Duty by Louis FitzGibbon

But what further sharpens or perhaps even shapes the political pandemonium in this volatile region is manifested in the increasing popularity of the religious warfare that has replaced the Pan-Somali nationalism of yesterday.

The (Religious) Ideological Struggle:

While the geographical dispute in the Horn is driven by nationalistic impulses and rests upon the desire to annex or regain certain portions of land from an adversary, the ideological struggle is stimulated by a set of deeply-held beliefs and uncompromising set of values. Emperor Menelik’s famous statement, in the late 19th century, that Ethiopia ‘is a Christian Island in a Sea of Pagans’ won him the support, both political and military, of many European countries. Soon military hardware and firearms were pouring in to his small kingdom which was, until then, of no significance to the outside world. Little did the Europeans realise that Menelik’s calls were for the expansion of his enclosed kingdom and the colonisation of his neighbouring regions. With the possession of firearms, the Europeans had unwittingly placed into the Emperor’s hands the very tool he sought to subdue his enemies. As a revenge for the victories of the ‘left-handed’ Imam Ahmed Ibrahim Al Ghazi (Imam Ahmed Gurey), who, through his offensive Jihad in 1533, destroyed the Abyssinian adversaries and came to control large swathes of their Kingdom, including the entire South and Central Abyssinia, Menelik embarked on a campaign of a cruel repression against the Muslims – particularly Somalis. And with blood of Muslims still dripping from the unsheathed swords, the Abyssinian kingdom grew and moved southwards from Axum to Gondar and finally Addis Ababa.

In 1891, when the Ethiopians were in the process of conquering the Ogaden region, Emperor Menelik, whose ambition was to establish the frontiers of Ethiopia from Khartoum to the Somali coast, sent a document known as ‘Menelik Circular’ to the heads of State of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. After detailing the Ethiopian borders, Menelik stated in the Circular that:

‘Ethiopia has been for fourteen centuries a Christian Island in a sea of pagans… As the Almighty has protected Ethiopia up to this day, I have confidence He will continue to protect her, and increase her borders in the future. I am certain He will not suffer her to be divided among other powers.

Formerly the boundary of Ethiopia was the sea. Having lacked the strength sufficient, and having received no help from Christian Powers, our frontier on the sea coast fell into the power of the Mussulman.

At present we do not intend to regain our sea frontier by force, but we trust that the Christian Power, guided by our Saviour, will restore to us our sea-coast line, at any rate, certain points on the coast.

Written at Addis Ababa, the 14th Mazir, 1883 (10 April, 1891)

Source: The Evaded Duty by Louis FitzGibbon

Surprising as it may seem, it is this very idealistic optimism and a rather preposterous ambition of dominance that carves out the Ethiopian policy of engagement with Somalia. This ideological warfare continued to exist, for a long period of time; during the Dervishes’ periods of dominance, led by Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, in late 19th – early 20th century and more recently, during the decades of anarchy, in the form of a trivial exchange of bullets and ambushes between the Ethiopian troops and the weak, but ideologically strong, Al Ittihad Al Islami along the border regions. It was the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), however, that precipitated the maelstrom of religious warfare and brought the war of ideology from the trenches to the front line.

Whether through the concepts of nationalism or the conviction of religious ideology, the Somali is a threat to Ethiopian and the rebirth of a unified Somalia poses a significant threat to Ethiopia. In order to fulfil her ambitious territorial expansions, Ethiopia must dispose of her only two remaining enemies: The pan-Somali Nationalists and the Islamists.

continue reading – ‘Somalia: The Ethiopian Factor III’


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