Somalia Irredentism and the Changing Balance of Power
Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden War, Ethiopian hostility, the emergence of an alliance between Addis Ababa and Moscow, regional tensions, and periods of international isolation all resulted directly or indirectly from Somalia’s unwillingness to recognize political boundaries drawn by British, French, and Italian colonists, in conjunction with Ethiopia. Since independence, successive Somali governments had sought to reincorporate those Somalis living in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti into Greater Somalia. (Under the Siad Barre regime, the five-pointed star on the Somali flag represented the northern and southern regions of the republic and the “unredeemed territories” in Kenya’s NorthEastern Province, Ethiopia’s Ogaden Province, and Djibouti.) In 1960-64, for example, guerrillas supported by the Somali government battled local security forces in Kenya and Ethiopia on behalf of Somalia’s territorial claims. Then, in 1964, Ethiopian and Somali regular forces clashed.
By late 1964, it had become obvious that the initial campaign to unify all Somalis had failed. Ethiopian forces had established superiority over the Somalis in the Ogaden, in part because of Ethiopia’s ability to conduct air raids on Somali territory. In Kenya the government relied on assistance from British counterinsurgency experts to control Somali guerrillas in what was then the Northern Frontier District (NFD). In late 1964, Kenya’s president Jomo Kenyatta and Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie signed a mutual defense agreement aimed at containing Somali aggression. The two countries renewed the pact in 1979 and again in 1989. These factors, in combination with the opposition of the Organization of African Unity to Somali aims and defense costs that amounted to 30 percent of the national budget in the mid-1980s, forced Mogadishu to reconsider its territorial ambitions.
Under Mahammad Ibrahim Igaal, Somalia’s last civilian government initiated–and Siad Barre’s military regime initially continued–a policy of détente with Somalia’s neighbors. During the 1970s, however, Somali military strength gradually increased as a result of Soviet support. The Soviet Union supplied the Somali National Army (SNA) with the largest tank force in subSaharan Africa, transport vehicles–including armored personnel carriers–for a largely mechanized infantry, and jet aircraft that included MiG-21 fighter-bombers. In 1974 Somalia and the Soviet Union formalized their relationship by signing the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. The Ethiopian army at that time remained twice as large as Somalia’s 23,000-man force, but because of reduced military aid from the United States, the Ethiopians were not as well equipped. Furthermore, in 1974 Ethiopia’s imperial government was headed toward collapse. In September of that year a group of military officers deposed Haile Selassie. Conflict ensued among those responsible for his overthrow, and several insurgent groups sought to secede from the erstwhile empire.
Somalia’s military buildup, coincident with the turmoil in Ethiopia, temporarily altered the balance of power between the two countries. In 1976-77 Somalia attempted to take advantage of the situation by supporting a guerrilla campaign by the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), a pro-Somali liberation group in the Ogaden, to seize the Ogaden from Ethiopia. By the late summer of 1977, Somali armored forces and mechanized infantry supported by aircraft had invaded the Ogaden, capturing 60 percent of the disputed territory within several weeks.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had started supporting the Marxist-Leninist regime that had emerged in Ethiopia while simultaneously attempting to maintain Somalia as a client state. After its attempts at mediation failed, the Soviet Union decided to abandon Somalia. In August 1977, the Soviet Union suspended arms shipments to Siad Barre’s regime and accelerated military deliveries to Ethiopia. Three months later, Somalia renounced the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, expelled all Soviet advisers, broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, and ejected all Soviet personnel from Somalia.
Following Moscow’s decision to support Addis Ababa, Ethiopia received massive amounts of Soviet arms. Along with Soviet military advisers, about 15,000 Cuban combat troops also arrived. By early 1978, this aid had turned the tide of war in Ethiopia’s favor. By March 9, 1978, when Siad Barre announced the withdrawal of the Somali armed forces from the Ogaden, the Somali military had lost 8,000 men–one-third of the SNA, three-quarters of its armored units, and half of the Somali Air Force (SAF).
For all intents and purposes, Ethiopia’s victory during the Ogaden War ended Mogadishu’s dream of recreating Greater Somalia. Even before the setback in the Ogaden, Siad Barre had relinquished his claim to Djibouti after 95 percent of the voters in that country indicated a preference for independence over incorporation into Somalia. In 1981 Somali-Kenyan relations improved after Siad Barre visited Nairobi and indicated that his government no longer had any claim to Kenyan territory. In December 1984, Somalia and Kenya signed a pact that pledged both governments to cease hostilities along their common frontier. Subsequently, the level of insurgent activity along the border was minimal. However, the activities of Somali shiftas, or bandits and ivory poachers and the periodic influx of Somali refugees into Kenya continued to strain relations between Mogadishu and Nairobi.