Ogaden War

Ogaden War
Ogaden War
Part of the Cold War
Date July 13, 1977 – March 15, 1978
Location Ogaden, Ethiopia
 South Yemen
 Soviet Union
Somalia Somalia
Commanders and leaders
Mengistu Haile Mariam[3]
Aberra Haile Mariam[4]
Soviet Union Vasily Petrov[5]
Cuba Arnaldo Ochoa[6]
Somalia Siad Barre
Somalia General Muhammad Ali Samatar
Beginning of war:
47,000 soldiers in total
On Somali front:
4 infantry brigades (1 mechanized)
2 tank battalions
2 artillery battalions
3 airborne battalions[7]
75,000 fulltime soldiers in 1980[8]
1,500 Soviet advisors
18,000 Cubans[6]
2,000 South Yemenis
Beginning of war:
35,000 soldiers
23 motorized and mechanized battalions
9 tank battalions
9 artillery battalions
4 airborne battalions[7]
End of war:
SNA 63,200[9]
WSLF 15,000
Casualties and losses
6,133 killed[10]
10,563 wounded[10]
3,867 captured or missing (including 1,362 deserters)[10][11]
400 killed[11]
South Yemen:
100 killed[11]
33 killed[12]
Equipment losses:
23 Aircraft[10]
139 tanks[10]
108 APCs[10]
1,399 vehicles[10]
6,453 killed[10]
2,409 wounded[10]
275 captured or missing[10]
Equipment losses:
28 Aircraft[10] (1/2 of Air force)
72 tanks[10]
30 APCs[10]
90 vehicles[10]

The Ogaden War was a conventional conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1977 and 1978 over the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. 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

Ethiopian tank on the outskirts of Jijiga.

During the Scramble for Africa, the lands inhabited by the Somali people were divided between the relevant powers. To Italy went Southern Somalia, to Britain Northern Somalia along the Gulf of Aden, to France the hinterlands of Tajoura, while Ethiopia, which had gained the respect of the European powers with its decisive victory at Adwa, received the Ogaden region by treaty. In 1960 Britain gave independence to its colony which joined with southern Somalia to create the new state of Somalia. By the beginning of the war, the Somali National Army (SNA) was only 35,000-men strong[7] 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, and had a larger air force.

In addition to previous Soviet funding and arms support to Somalia, Egypt sent millions of dollars in arms to Somalia, established military training and sent experts to Somalia in support of Egypt's longstanding policy of securing the Nile River flow by destabilising Ethiopia.

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 anti-Derg as well as separatist movements began throughout the country. The regional balance of power now favoured 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 Somali-inhabited Ogaden area, 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 centre in April 1977.

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.

Course of the war

Somalia committed to invade the Ogaden at 0300 13 July 1977 (5 Hamle, 1969), according to Ethiopian documents (some other sources state 23 July).[13] According to Ethiopian sources, the invaders numbered 70,000 troops, 40 fighter planes, 250 tanks, 350 armoured personnel carriers, and 600 artillery, which would have meant practically the whole Somalian Army.[13] By the end of the month 60% of the Ogaden had been taken by the SNA-WSLF force, including Gode, on the Shabelle 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 using its Northrop F-5s, despite being initially outnumbered by Somali MiG-21s. However, Somalia was easily overpowering Ethiopian military hardware and technology capability. Army-general Vasily Petrov of the Soviet Armed Forces 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. [14]

The USSR, 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 aid (second in magnitude only to the October 1973 gigantic resupplying of Syrian forces during the Yom Kippur War) and advisors flooded into the country along with 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"; East Germany likewise offered training, engineering and support troops.[15] As the scale of communist assistance became clear in November 1977, Somalia broke diplomatic relations with the USSR and expelled all Soviet citizens from the country.

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

By 17 August elements of the Somali army had reached the outskirts of the strategic city of Dire Dawa. Not only was the country's second largest military airbase located here, as well as Ethiopia's crossroads into the Ogaden, but Ethiopia's rail lifeline to the Red Sea ran through this city, and if the Somalis held Dire Dawa, Ethiopia would be unable to export its crops or bring in equipment needed to continue the fight. Gebre Tareke estimates the Somalis advanced with two motorized brigades, one tank battalion and one BM battery upon the city; against them were the Ethiopian Second Militia Division, the 201 Nebelbal battalion, 781 battalion of the 78th Brigade, the 4th Mechanized Company, and a tank platoon possessing two tanks.[4] The fighting was vicious as both sides knew what the stakes were, but after two days, despite that the Somalis had gained possession of the airport at one point, the Ethiopians had repulsed the assault, forcing the Somalis to withdraw. Henceforth, Dire Dawa was never at risk of attack.[16]

The greatest single victory of the SNA-WSLF was a second assault on Jijiga in mid-September (the Battle of Jijiga), in which the 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 on its tank battalions, constant Ethiopian air attacks on their supply lines, and the onset of the rainy season which made the dirt roads unusable. During that time, the Ethiopian government managed to raise and train a giant militia force 100,000 strong and integrated it into the regular fighting force. Also, since the Ethiopian army was a client of U.S weapons, hasty acclimatization to the new Warsaw Pact bloc weaponry took place.

From October 1977 until January 1978, the SNA-WSLF forces attempted to capture Harar, where 40,000 Ethiopians had regrouped and re-armed with Soviet-supplied artillery and armor; backed by 1500 Soviet "advisors" and 11,000 Cuban soldiers, they engaged the attackers in vicious fighting. Though the Somali forces reached the city outskirts by November, they were too exhausted to take the city and eventually had to withdraw to await the Ethiopian counterattack.

The expected Ethiopian-Cuban attack occurred in early February; however, it was accompanied by a second attack that the Somalis did not expect. 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 in a "pincer" action, allowing the re-capture of Jijiga in only two days while killing 3,000 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, although Rene LaFort claims that the Somalis, having foreseen the inevitable, had already withdrawn its heavy weapons.[17] The last significant Somali unit left Ethiopia on 15 March 1978, marking the end of the war.

Effects of the war

Following the withdrawal of the SNA, the WSLF continued their insurgency. By May 1980, the rebels, with the assistance of a small number of SNA soldiers who continued to help the guerilla war, controlled a substantial region of the Ogaden. However by 1981 the insurgents were reduced to sporadic hit-and-run attacks and were finally defeated.

The Ogaden War weakened the Somali military. Almost one-third of the regular SNA soldiers, three-eighths of the armored units and half of the Somali Air Force (SAF) were lost. The weakness of the Barre regime 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 client state from the late 1970s to 1988 in exchange for use of Somali bases, and a way to exert influence upon the region. A second armed clash in 1988 was resolved when the two countries agreed to withdraw their militaries from the border.



  1. ^ Richard Crockat, The fifty years war: the United States and the Soviet Union in World Politics, p. 283
  2. ^ Robert F. Gorman, Political conflict on the Horn of Africa, p. 208
  3. ^ Gebru Tareke, "The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977 Revisited," International Journal of African Historical Studies, 2000 (33), p. 648.
  4. ^ a b Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War," p. 645.
  5. ^ Payton, Gary D. (November–December 1979). "The Soviet-Ethiopian Liaison: airlift and beyond". Air University Review. http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1979/nov-dec/payton.html. Retrieved 2008-02-10. 
  6. ^ a b Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War," p. 656.
  7. ^ a b c Gebru Tareke, "The Ethiopia-Somalia War", p. 638.
  8. ^ Fred Halliday, Maxine Molyneux, "Ethiopia's Revolution from Above" in MERIP Reports, No. 106, Horn of Africa: The Coming Storm. (Jun., 1982), p. 14.
  9. ^ Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War," p. 640.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War," p. 665.
  11. ^ a b c Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War," p. 664.
  12. ^ Krivosheev, G.F. (2001). "Russia and the USSR in the wars of the 20th century, statistical study of armed forces' losses (in Russian)". Soldat.ru. Archived from the original on 2008-01-29. http://web.archive.org/web/20080129193951/http://www.soldat.ru/doc/casualties/book/chapter6.html#6_8. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  13. ^ a b Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War," p. 644
  14. ^ Soviet intervention and the Ogaden counter-offensive of 1978 by Mark Urban pg 42
  15. ^ "Ethiopia: East Germany". Library of Congress. 2005-11-08. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+et0179). Retrieved 2007-02-24. 
  16. ^ Gebru Tareke, "Ethiopia-Somalia War", p. 646
  17. ^ Rene LaFort, Ethiopia: An Heretical Revolution?, translated by A.M. Berrett (London: Zed Press, 1983), p. 260

General references

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