The Horn of Africa


The ceding of Eritrea to Italy, and the arbitrary division of the Somali people among the participating colonial powers, provided the opportunities for foreign intervention and intra-regional enmity, which did so much to destabilise the Horn more than eighty years later. To the outside world Ethiopia was a Black Christian state which had not only retained its independence but profited from it.

Thus Ethiopia enjoyed a prominent position not only on the African continent but on the world stage. The brave stand against the Italians in 1935 only added to this reputation and secured Haile Selassie extremely favourable concessions from the UN after the end of the Second World War.

In 1952, Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia as a locally autonomous state and was fully incorporated into the Ethiopian empire in 1962. It was after this annexation that the Eritrean's frustration at economic decline began to be focussed on the regime in Addis Ababa. Also, and in spite of Somali protestations, the Ogaden was relinquished to Ethiopia, and Somalia made a UN trusteeship under Italian administration for a ten-year-period in preparation for self-governemnt.

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Meanwhile the tiny Republic of Djibouti won an independence in 1977, imperilled by ethnic division and guaranteed only by the presence of 3,500 French Legionnaires, to protect it from the predatory designs of Somalia. Thus the stage was set for the regional- wide instability and warfare which plagued the Horn in the 1970's and 80's.

Political and strategic interests of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan

Upon becoming independent in 1960, Somalia immediately set about pursuing its claims to the Ogaden province of Ethiopia, the North-eastern province of Kenya and the French possession of Djibouti.

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All of these territories and people, Mogadishu claimed, were rightfully part of a Greater Somalia based on the facts that "they share a common language, a common religion, a common culture, and notably.... a common understanding of themselves as a long-standing political community. " (Schwab:p. 10) The Somali's, however, received little sympathy from the United Nations (UN), or the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) whose policy is to respect the sanctity of borders of its member states.

Despite these setbacks, the desperately poor Somali state set about looking for allies who would support their irredentist ambitions and help them in the simmering feud with Ethiopia over the Ogaden. These ambitions became much more realistic with the military coup in 1969, which placed Siad Barre, through the Supreme Revolutionary Council, at the head of the Somali state. In October 1970, on the first anniversary of his taking power, Siad proclaimed Somali socialism and proceeded rapidly to build a society and economy modelled on Marxism-Leninism. The initial interest which the Soviet Union had shown in Somalia during the 1960's, was heavily reinforced by the 1974.

Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the two countries and resulted in over $300 million dollars of military assistance in the following three years. In return for this, and previous military equipment, the Soviet Union received port facilities for its Indian Ocean fleet at Berbera and an airbase at Harghessa. In addition to this thousands of Soviet advisors and military personnel were stationed in Somalia. Therefore, with the erosion of the American position in Ethiopia, the Soviet Union, utilizing the friendly ports of South Yemen and Somalia, had succeeeded in the mid 1970's in crucially affecting the balance of power in the Indian Ocean/Red Sea/Gulf of Aden area.

The years that the USSR was consolidating its presence on the Horn

However, during the years that the USSR was consolidating its presence on the Horn, Somali efforts towards economic and social development began to falter. Therefore, Siad revived the territorial ambitions of a Greater Somalia, which the USSR had now provided him with the means to achieve. To this end, the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) which had been involved in the the border wars with Ethiopia in the 1960's, was resurrected in 1975. And in 1976, the Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF) announced its formation with the intention to liberate the Moslem Oromo people from Ethiopian oppression and incorporate then into a Greater Somalia.

Both of these organisations received aid from regular Somali forces and began insurgency operations inside the Ogaden and southern Ethiopia. Siad planned to destabilise Ethiopia and then liberate the Ogaden with his powerful Soviet trained and equipped army. In July 1977, Siad took advantage of the internal dissent and weakness of the Ethiopian regime and sent his armed forces into the Ogaden. By October, virtually the whole province was under Somali control with the exception of the cities of Harar and Diredawa. This, however, was as far as Siad Barre and his armies reached.

Their failure to mobilise the Oromo through the SALF, capture the all important cities of Harar and Diredawa and consolidate their control in the Ogaden was due to a sudden and unexpected upsurge in Ethiopian nationalist solidarity: and, more perversely still; to the massive military airlift to the Ethiopians from the Soviet Union, the Somali's staunchest ally. That the Soviets were becoming increasingly attracted to an alliance with the very able and hardline Marxist, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who eventually emerged as the undisputed leader of the Ethiopian Provisional Military Administraive Council (PMAC), or Derg: became obvious to General Siad even as his guerrilla movements and army invaded Ethiopia with the full knowledge, but not blessing, of the Soviet advisors stationed in Somalia.

The months betweeen the invasion and November 1978

The months betweeen the invasion and November 1978, when the Somalians were being thrown back and Siad publicly tore up the Treaty with the Soviets, were spent inveigling foreign powers to become Somalia's new military backer. The USA, however, declined to become directly involved, but assured Somalia that its borders would not be violated by Ethiopia and gave the go-ahead to the Saudi's, Egyptians and Iranians, to provide Somalia with enough defensive weapons to ensure its territorial integrity.

Siad's gamble, therefore, had not paid off. The basis of the Somali claim was that the border itself lacked international validity, having been arbitrarily determined, not by the former colonial powers, but by Ethiopia's imperial expansionism. However, this Somali claim was not upheld by the OAU: not one Black African state supported Somalia, the general feeling being that the regime in Addis Ababa had the right to invite any allies it chose to help defend itself from Somali aggression.

Despite the subsequent and humiliating defeat suffered by Somalia, Siad clung onto ower and continued to support the insurgency operations by the WSLF and the SALF in their struggle with Ethiopia. In turn, however, the Ethiopians harboured and supported the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) and the Somali National Movement (SNM) which emerged during the eighties to challenge the increasingly corrupt and tribal regime based in Mogadishu. Predictably, Siad accused these movements of being Ethiopian and Soviet tools and received just enough military and financial aid from the Americans and the Gulf States to stave off this internal challenge.

"Thus it was in the pursuit of their own local interests that the local contenders in the struggle to reshape the political and geographical contours of the Horn of Africa region sought foreign allies to buttress their perceived strategic and economic needs. " (Legum:p. 4) The economic and social collapse, plus the inevitable military strife, which these policies courted, is evident in Somalia this very day. Ethiopia's traditional regional interests - retaining access to the sea through Massawa, Assab and Djibouti and preserving its territorial integrity in the face of Muslim encirclement - survived the otherwise drastic convulsions following the 1974 coup.

These, however, were virtually the only things to remain constant in the turbulent years following the fall of Haile Selassie's 'Palace Government'. The 'creeping coup' of 1974 was in response to a number of short-term factors: the oil crisis, famine, falling living standards among the armed forces; but beneath these lay a deep-seated need to overhaul the corrupt, bureaucratic, patronage system, which had administered the creaking empire for hundrds of years.

The increasing pressure of supporting

The increasing pressure of supporting a three tier system of exploitation: the landed elite, the central government, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; was giving rise to latent feelings of nationalism among such important ethnic groups as the Oromo and the Tigreans. Haile Selassie, in his declining years, failed to appreciate that his economic and social reforms had not gone far enough, and that his central government was presiding over a situation in which various ethnic elites, such as the Highland Eritreans and the others mentioned above, were becoming economically marginalised, and so increasingly susceptible to historical grievances.

In the jockeying for power after the 1974 revolution, the only question was: which political grouping would emerge as dominant and in which direction and how far the new elite would take the ethnically diverse and economically weak Ethiopia. In February 1977, after successful assassination attempts on his rivals and a decisive shoot out a Derg committee meeting, Major Haile Mariam Mengistu finally emerged as the undisputed leader of the PMAC. He was determined to impose a brand of Ethiopian Socialism on the country's economic problems and a ruthless military solution on the secessionist insurgents and political opposition.

To achieve these aims Mengistu had been fostering relations with the Soviet Union who quickly moved in as the USA, Ethiopia's military backer since 1953, was pushed firmly out of the equation. The Soviet/Cuban airlift of 1977/78 saved Mengistu's regime during the Ogaden war and was to sustain it right into the 1990's. However, the increasing hostility from the Somali's, and ultimately, the invasion of the Ogaden, was only one of many problems facing Mengistu. The sweeping social, economic and agricultural reforms in March 1975, shattered most of the lines of authority that had held imperial Ethiopia together, and consequently anti-Derg resistance movements mushroomed. In Gondar, Gojjam and Wollo, the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) was covertly supported by Sudan and advocated replacement of the Derg with a liberal democratic government.

The Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party (EPRP) challenged the Dergs

In Addis Ababa the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party (EPRP) challenged the Dergs interpretation of marxism and fought bloody street battles. The Tigre Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) also emerged: all with demands and claims, and all looking, and usually getting, external help. The Derg let loose a reign of terror and mobilised peasants and workers to smash the opposition.

The fears that these centrifugal forces might cause the Ethiopian state to fragment, before the revolutionary reforms could take affect, were very real to the Derg at this time. In this respect suppressing the Eritrean rebellion meant not only keeping Ethiopia's outlet to the sea, but keeping the lid tightly shut on the hopes for autonomy and federation of other ethnic and religious groups. Therefore "Mengistu accepted the doctrine that permitting Eritrea to obtain independence would cause the disintegration of a state that was riddled with horizontal cultural pluralism" (Schwab:p. 16)

Once this is accepted it becomes clear why Mengistu so assidously courted the USSR and pursued a ruthless policy of centralisation. The Soviet Union could easily equip an efficient war machine, and a centralised system could produce the surplus and circumstances needed to run and maintain an all powerful State. For Mengistu the only soltuion to the Eritrean insurgency was a military one. Unfortunately, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) refused to be beaten. After the bloody attacks by the Derg during the 1970's, all hopes for compromise began to fade. The EPLF and the ELF had support and safe havens in the Sudan, and from these bases gradually began to control much of Eritrea and continue to attract money and arms from various states opposed to Mengistu's regime, and the USSR's hegemonic interests on the Horn.

The massive influx of arms from the USSR

Therefore, the PMAC, which took over power from Haile Selassie, was committed to retaining and strengthening the centralised power of the Amharic/Shoan elite which had traditionally run the affairs of the Ethiopian empire. However, the revolutionary reforms, with which it hoped to quell the growing economic marginalisation and consequent political awareness of its various ethnic groups, were subverted in the face of Somali designs on the Ogaden and Djibouti and the secessionist movements in Eritrea. In order to solve these security problems the ideological inclination of the Derg was to veer sharply towards the Soviet Union.

The massive influx of arms from the USSR, and the concomitant response from other interested powers, contributed to the plethora of insurgencies which raged on the Horn into the 1990's. The relationship between the Sudan and Ethiopia was one of uneasy tolerance. A relationship which, from time to time, most notably during border clashes in 1976, threatened to break out into open hostility.

Despite close ties with the USSR during the early part of the seventies, President Nimeiri of Sudan maintained that the July 1976 abortive coup in his country was an attempt by the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Libya to topple his regime and strengthen Soviet control of the Horn of Africa. As well as this area of tension were well- founded accusations between the two states that each was providing supplies and safe-havens to insurgency groups hostile to their respective governments. After 1978, when a fragile understanding had been thrashed out between the two countries, the Sudan turned increasingly towards the pro-West Arab regimes and America for economic aid and military equipment to counter the perceived Soviet threat. However, with the introduction of Islamic Law in 1983 and in consequence of the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, the mainly Christian South was once again alienated and a bitter civil war ensued.


"The Horn of Africa is one of those regions of the world where the present never seems to disentangle itself completely from the past... " (Lewis:p. 1) In this respect the network of conflicting relationships; based on historical, ethnic, nationalist and religious grievances, were nourished by Great Power involvement (either through proxies or direct intervention) jockeying for strategic/political goals.

However, it must be stressed that the fertile for ground subversion and conflict was as much a product, if not more, of economic deprivation than any of the above explanations. In short, a hungry belly sharpens the mind to other grievances; most notably in the former Ethiopian empire.... "Whatever the external and international factors, an essential cause of continuing conflict in the Horn of Africa has been the failure of the Ethiopian revoltuion to ameliorate the country's pressing problems of poverty and economic backwardness: and to contain the centrifugal forces within the former empire which have drawn many.

Ethiopians even further from the grasp of central authority; and to resolve the conflicting and long-standing nationalisms which for centuries have vied for supremacy in the region.... " (Legum:p. XL) In this respect, external powers fished in troubled waters and provided the means to facilite aggression, but not to resolve the conflicts which sprang largely from ecnomic frustration.


  1. Calvocoressi world politics since 1945
  2. Clapham transformation and change in revolutionary Ethiopia
  3. Henze the horn of africa: from war to peace
  4. Lewis Nationalism and self-determination in the horn of Africa
  5. Baxter African affairs 1978, vol77 p. 283 - 296
  6. Schwab 'cold war in the horn of africa' african affairs, vol77 1978
Updated: May 20, 2021
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The Horn of Africa. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Horn of Africa essay
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