The Ogaden War was a conventional conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1977 and 1978 over the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Fighting erupted as Somalia sought to exploit a temporary shift in the regional balance of power in their favor to occupy the Ogaden region, claimed to be part of Greater Somalia. In a notable illustration of the nature of Cold War alliances, the Soviet Union switched from supplying aid to Somalia to supporting Ethiopia, which had previously been backed by the United States, prompting the U.S. to start supporting Somalia. The war ended when Somali forces retreated back across the border and a truce was declared.
Origins of the war
While the cause of the conflict was the desire of the Somali government of Siad Barre to incorporate the Somali-inhabited region of Ethiopia into a Greater Somalia, it is unlikely Barre would have ordered the invasion if circumstances had not turned in his favor. Ethiopia had historically dominated the region. By the beginning of the war, the Somali National Army (SNA) was only 35,000-men strong and was vastly outnumbered by the Ethiopian forces. However, throughout the 1970s, Somalia was the recipient of large amounts of Soviet military aid. The SNA had three times the tank force of Ethiopia, as well as a larger air force.
Even as Somalia gained military strength, Ethiopia grew weaker. In September 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie had been overthrown by the Derg (the military council), marking a period of turmoil. The Derg quickly fell into internal conflict to determine who would have primacy. Meanwhile, various separatist movements began throughout the country. The regional balance of power now favored Somalia.
One of the separatist groups seeking to take advantage of the chaos was the pro-Somalia Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) operating in the Ogaden, which by late 1975 had struck numerous government outposts. From 1976 to 1977, Somalia supplied arms and other aid to the WSLF.
A sign that order had been restored among the Derg was the announcement of Mengistu Haile Mariam as head of state on 11 February 1977. However, the country remained in chaos as the military attempted to suppress its civilian opponents. 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 thus secretly approached Mengistu with offers of aid that he accepted. Ethiopia closed the U.S. military mission and the communications center in April 1977.
In June 1977, Mengistu accused Somalia of infiltrating SNA soldiers into the Ogaden to fight alongside the WSLF. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Barre insisted that no such thing was occurring, but that SNA “volunteers” were being allowed to help the WSLF.
Course of the war
Somalia decided to make a decisive move and invaded the Ogaden on 23 July 1977. The aggressors numbered 35,000 SNA soldiers and another 15,000 WSLF irregulars. By the end of the month 60% of the Ogaden had been taken by the SNA-WSLF force, including Gode, on the Shabele River. The attacking forces did suffer some early setbacks; Ethiopian defenders at Dire Dawa and Jijiga inflicted heavy casualties on assaulting forces. The Ethiopian Air Force (EAF) also began to establish air superiority, despite initial numerical disadvantage.
The U.S.S.R., finding itself supplying both sides of a 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. Soviet military advisors flooded into the country, as well as around 15,000 Cuban combat troops. Other Communist countries offered assistance: the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen offered military assistance and North Korea helped train a “People’s Militia”. As the scale of Communist assistance became clear in November 1977, Somalia broke diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. and Cuba and expelled all Soviet citizens from the country.
The greatest single victory of the SNA-WSLF was a second assault on Jijiga in mid-September, in which the Ethiopian troops mutinied and 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 level of attrition among its tank battalions, constant Ethiopian air attacks on their supply lines, and the onset of the rainy season, which made the dirt roads unuseable.
From October 1977 until January 1978, the SNA-WSLF forces attempted to capture Harar, where 40,000 Ethiopians backed by Soviet-supplied artillery and armor had regrouped with 1500 Soviet advisors and 11,000 Cuban soldiers. Though it reached the city outskirts by November, the Somali force was too exhausted to take the city and was eventually forced to retreat outside and await an Ethiopian counterattack.
The expected Ethiopian-Cuban attack occurred in early February. However, it was accompanied by a second attack that the Somalis were not expecting. 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. The attackers were thus able to assault from two directions, allowing the re-capturing of Jijiga in only two days while killing 3000 defenders. The Somali defense collapsed and every major Ethiopian town was recaptured in the following weeks. Recognizing that his position was untenable, Siad Barre ordered the SNA to retreat back into Somalia on 9 March 1978. The last significant Somali unit left Ethiopia on 15 March 1978, marking the end of the war.