Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Ogaden War: The Greatest War Between African States

War, contrary to expectations, is a semi-civilized business, requiring, as it does, qualities of organization, discipline, and application that only civilized states are capable of. While most Sub-Saharan countries are capable of low-grade guerrilla anarchy, they are usually not able to carry out proper prolonged conflicts. For this reason, most African conflicts have little interest for the student of war or the military historian.

But African states do occasionally fight wars beyond the level of simple savagery. The most substantial war between two Sub-Saharan African states was probably that which started 39 years ago today between Somalia and Ethiopia, usually referred to as the Ogaden War.

In the post-colonial period, in order to replace the unifying expertise of the departing colonial powers, many African states, which were oversized in comparison to their indigenous political traditions, were drawn to a mixture of Marxism, nationalism, centralization, and crude modernization. These systems were often centred on a charismatic leader. This was the case with Somalia, where General Mohamed Siad Barre had seized power in a military coup in 1969. Barre then styled himself as "Comrade Siad" and established the "Somali Democratic Republic."

Somalian leader Mohamed Siad Barre
Another factor for opting for this political formula was to invite economic and military aid from the more proactive geopolitical players. In the case of Somalia, these were Nasserite Egypt and the Soviet Union, which was supportive of any left-leaning African state. Egypt meanwhile was happy to build up Somalian power as a counterweight against Ethiopia, ruled until 1974 by the Emperor Haile Selasie. This was largely motivated by the issue of exerting control on the waters of the Nile, vital to Egypt, as much of the Nile waters arose in the Ethiopian highlands.

The Soviet Union, however, started to have a change of mind following a coup by army officers in Ethiopia in 1974, which led to a period of instability and Red Terror that moved the country in an increasingly Marxist direction. Over the next few years Soviet support started to move toward the Mengitsu regime in Ethiopia.

But before these lines of support were clear "Comrade Siad" decided to take advantage of Ethiopia's post-coup weakness  in order to bolster his own cult of personality by invading Ethiopia's Ogaden, a large arid region thinly populated by people of Somalian origin. He was also keen to avenge atrocities committed by the Ethiopians against Somalians in the Red Terror.

On the 13th of July, 1977, the well-organized and well-supplied Somalian army, numbering an effective strength of around 35,000 men, accordingly crossed the border and made rapid progress with armoured columns. They had around 250 tanks. Several major battles were fought, resulting in heavy casualties, and within weeks most of the Ogaden region was in Somali hands.

Somalian troops advance.
The USSR, however, now became concerned. The progress of the Marxist revolution in Ethiopia, a country with a much larger population than Somalia, and thus one that better fitted the theoretical model of a Marxist state, persuaded the Soviet Union to increasingly side with Ethiopia. After the successful Somalians rejected calls for a negotiated settlement, the Soviet Union swung fully behind Ethiopia. China, by contrast, with a more Maoist view of Marxist revolution that emphasized the possibility of Marxism developing in more backward and sparsely-populated territories, and also going through a period of anti-Soviet rivalry, gave its support to Somalia.

It was Soviet support, however, that counted for a lot more, as they poured military supplies into the country as well as large numbers of Russian "advisers" and around 15,000 Cuban troops to bolster the Ethiopian army of around 45,000 men on the Somalian front. This effectively led to a de-Africanization of the war, as outside elements came to play a dominating role.

The high water mark of the Somalian advance.
After halting the Somalians in a major defensive battle at the town of Harar from September 1977 to January 1978, and bombing their supply links, the allies on the Ethiopian side then successfully counter-attacked in February. Using Russian helicopters, the Russians, Cubans, and Ethiopians were able to outflank and roll back the Somalian forces, who retreated back into Somalia in March.

The war greatly weakened Barre, who was then propped up by American and Saudi support as a counter to growing Soviet influence in Ethiopia and Yemen. This also pushed the Somali Democratic Republic towards Islam and Western democracy, a destabilizing mixture that sowed the seeds of the chaos that would lead the country to the anarchy it is in today.

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