Ethiopian foreign policy and the Ogaden War: the shift from “containment” to “destabilization,” 1977–1991

Belete Belachew Yihun

Department of History, Jimma Jimma University, Ethiopia.


With Siad Barre’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1977, the military regime of the Derg implement policies aimed at the weakening and destabilization of the Republic of Somalia. This initiative was not entirely novel but was based upon precautionary plans first laid down under the imperial administration of Haile Selassie. The defeat of the Somalia army in the Ogaden would in fact herald the beginnings of the collapse of the power of Siad Barre and the Somali state, but the destabilization of Somalia has also destabilized the entire region of the Horn of Africa. This article charts the Ethiopian response to Somali irredentism at this crucial time, particularly focusing on the clandestine operations by the Derg to permanently eliminate the threat posed by Somalia. Previously untapped archival materials from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are used as the basis for this analysis of Ethiopia’s foreign policy.

Ethiopia and Somalia have endured a complex and difficult relationship since the decolonization of Somaliland and Italian Somalia in 1960, when both former colonies came together to form the Republic of Somalia. Political tension has primarily revolved around Somalia’s irredentist agenda of establishing a Greater Somalia state and Ethiopia’s determination to ward off this threat to its territorial sovereignty: Somalia’s irredentist claims would swallow up one-fifth of Ethiopia’s territory.

The implementation of the Greater Somalia agenda entirely dictated the nature of Ethiopia’s policies toward the Republic. Ethiopia’s grudging acceptance of the unification of the two Somali territories in 1960, and proposals then drafted regarding the international boundary of the new Republic, did nothing to assuage Somali animosities. After 1960, the intensification of Somalia’s diplomatic offensive on the irredentist issue instead provoked a worsening of relations between the two neighbors. Frequent border clashes during the 1960s, and virulent anti-Ethiopian propaganda emanating from Mogadishu, reflected the irrevocable positions taken by leading Somali politicians.2 Mogadishu also harbored Ethiopian dissident groups and personalities, and publicly sympathized with the causes of freedom fighters in Eritrea and Tigray – whose challenge to the sovereignty of the Ethiopian state on its northern marches was just as constant and compelling as was the challenge of Somalia in the southeast. The involvement of external actors in the Ethiopia–Somalia conflict (Italy, the UK, the USA, the USSR, and Egypt) further aggravated the dispute over these years, ultimately drawing the Horn of Africa into Cold War entanglements.

From 1969, Ethiopia became diplomatically more isolated. In that year anti-Ethiopian regimes came to power through coups in Sudan (May), Libya (September), and Somalia (October). The governments of Nimeiry, Gaddafi, and Barre would each harness their resources against the interests of Ethiopia in the coming years, but it was the Somali threat that seemed the most immediate. Efforts of the Ethiopian imperial regime – up to its military overthrow by the Derg in 1974 – to contain the threat of Somali irredentism focused on trying to bring pro-Ethiopian groups and individuals to power in Mogadishu. Attempts were made to cool tensions when liberal Somali rulers, such as Ibrahim Egal, held power, but Ethiopia’s policies inevitably fanned clan-based divisions and further polarized Somali communities. Under Barre, Somalia’s stance toward the Ogaden became openly hostile. As the papers contained in the archives of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry make clear, more drastic measures, such as the closing of the border and the abetting of opposition activities in Hargeisa, were intended to exert more direct pressure on the government of Somalia. Attempts were also made to contain the state of Somalia within the diplomatic framework defined by the principles of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The key criteria of respect for colonial boundaries and nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states were among the diplomatic instruments the imperial regime persistently utilized.

Initially, the Derg pursued a policy of rapprochement with Siad Barre’s government. With Soviet military and diplomatic support, Somalia represented a potentially dangerous foe. Moreover, liberation secessionist movements mushroomed in every corner of the country, and existing ones intensified their offensives as the Derg took over. The Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, Oromo Liberation Front, Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF), and Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF) all engaged the Derg militarily in its first months, contributing immensely to domestic instability. The fact that Somalia, like the Sudan, actively pursued a policy of sponsoring these factions – lending them safe havens as well as providing moral and material assistance – only contributed to deepened the divide with the military regime in Ethiopia. Since the country was imperiled in so many different ways, some leaders of the Derg, especially Teferi Bante, were reluctant to engage in a belligerent quarrel with Mogadishu. But by the time of the 1977 invasion of Ethiopia by the Somali army, the dynamic of the Ethio–Somalia relationship had dramatically changed. As US power waned in the region because of the rise of the Derg, Siad Barre’s Somalia had acquired substantial material and military assistance from both the super powers as well as Gulf States and so boasted a strong military capability. The switch of Soviet support to Addis Ababa empowered the Derg in new ways, however, while the political purges within the Derg swept aside the more conciliatory voices. Thus, just as the Derg’s external strength grew and its internal politics toughened up so too did its response to the Somali threat. As a consequence, by 1977, the Derg adopted policies aimed at the total destabilization of the Republic, thereby implementing the strategy that the imperial regime had held only as a “last resort” policy. After 1977, even when engaged in peace talks and attempts at reconciliation, Mengistu’s Ethiopia saw safety only in the total disintegration of Somalia.

This article charts Ethio–Somalia relations under the Derg, especially from the years following the Ogaden War up to 1991, using previously inaccessible archival sources from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to map out the policies and programs carried through by the Ethiopian Government. These sources, though partial and incomplete, offer a rare insight on the formulation of government policy, and indicate the remarkable consistency and focus of Ethiopian efforts against Somalia. It is also apparent from these archival sources that the Ethiopian regime at this time felt itself under threat from other hostile neighbors, notably Sudan and to some extent Djibouti, and that the policy of “destabilization” was applied to these states also. All three states, Somalia, Sudan, and Djibouti, were also seen as fuelling Ethiopia’s difficulties in its resolution of the Eritrean problem over these years – a factor that further hardened the Ethiopian response. Ethiopia’s treatment of Somalia was therefore by no means unique but instead fitted into a wider pattern of foreign policy under the Derg. Thus, while these archive sources provide a unique perspective on how Ethiopia’s foreign policy was managed, the papers used here do not shed light on the domestic armed struggles confronting the Derg within the borders of Ethiopia as secessionist movements challenged rule from Addis Ababa. It therefore has to be borne in mind that throughout this period as Ethiopia plotted and schemed to undermine the government in Mogadishu, it was also facing a very real political battle against the Eritreans, Tigrayans, and others to establish its own legitimacy and secure its own survival. Ultimately, though Ethiopia’s interference in Somalia brought the rewards that the Derg sought over these years, the regime was unable to fight off its internal challengers.

War and peace

Somalia’s irredentist agenda, which first emerged in the late 1950s, acquired a new momentum with the coming to power of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1969. The political turmoil in Ethiopia soon afterward, the revolution of September 1974 and the resultant power vacuum in the country, encouraged Somalia to attempt to annex the contested region of the Ogaden. Dissident nationalist groups, the WSLF and the SALF, were utilized to spearhead the plan to incorporate Ogaden, Bali, Arsi, and parts of Sidamo into “Greater Somalia.”

Officials of the Derg were aware that Siad Barre’s regime had been intensifying its attacks on Ethiopia since early 1974 in a bid to exploit the political turmoil in the country. Between March and July 1974, for example, it was alleged that there had been 44 cross-border raids. Encouraged by the absence of retaliatory measures on Ethiopia’s side, by December 1974, pro-Somalia elements had managed to extend their attacks as far inland as Durwale in Kebridehar. The Ethiopian Government indeed had much to be concerned about: Somalia was taking direct action to upgrade its military capabilities, had created training camps for anti-Ethiopian elements (from Eritrea, Afar, Bale, and Ogaden), had mounted a major propaganda campaign supporting the Somali nationalists in the Ogaden, and had concentrated its army along the border (particularly in Degob, Kebridehar district).

Peace talks held in Addis Ababa in January 1976 between General Teferi Bante (then Chairman of the Derg) and General Barre failed to bring the desired rapprochement between the two states. As it had done previously under Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia raised once again the possibility of confederation with Somalia, asked for the reinstatement of diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level, urged the renouncement of Somali smear campaigns labeling Ethiopia “Black Colonialist,” and asked for the return of its fighter jet that had crashed in Somalia when on a “training maneuver.” Barre, in reply, dodged the gesture at reconciliation, simply alluding to the feasibility of confederation and the willingness of his government to mend relations with Ethiopia. Analyzing Somali policy, the Ethiopian authorities came to the conclusion that Somalia was intent on waging war and would not entertain other alternatives. “Believing that any change of the magnitude that took place in Ethiopia would inevitably lead to a period of unsettling conditions,” Ethiopia’s analysis concluded in January 1976, “as far as Somalia’s territorial objective in Ethiopia was concerned, there could not be a more propitious time.”

By the middle of the year, Somalia’s military buildup along the border had continued and armed insurgencies in Harar, Bale, and Sidamo that had reached a new level. Somalia also intensified the propaganda campaigns among the Somalis of Ethiopian nationality. By now, the Ethiopian authorities were certain that an open war was inevitable. As mentioned above, internal power struggles within the Derg had also worked to provoke a more aggressive stance toward Somalia. The political upheavals and purges within Ethiopia’s military junta at this time tightened Mengistu’s grip on the reins of power, as a succession of senior members of the Derg were dismissed from their posts, including the chairman, Teferi Bante. His killing, in February 1977, consolidated power in the hands of the revolutionary nationalists, bringing to an end a period in which the leadership had been less certain and more willing to compromise in its dealings with Somalia.

The final onslaught to war began only three months later, when in May 1977 pro-Somalia forces (mainly WSLF) attacked the Ethio–Djibouti railway line, and managed to gain control of some 60% of the Ogaden. Finally, on 23 July 1977, the Somali National Army (SNA), supported by armored units and aircraft, crossed the border into Ethiopia and initiated a full-scale war of aggression. The invading army carried out military operations in Degahabur, Kebridehar, Warder, and Gode. To disguise this aggression committed against a sovereign state, the Somali claimed that it was a war between Ethiopia and the WSLF.

The odds were initially very much against the ability of Ethiopia to defend itself. The urgency to secure military and technical assistance to ward off the looming danger immediately drove the Derg more rapidly into the arms of their USSR, Cuban, and South Yemen allies, and it was this that would ultimately bring Ethiopia victory. The whole affair improved the political stature of the Derg, helping the military junta unilaterally hold sway over power. It ultimately proved “a nice war” to Mengistu, yet ushered in misfortune for Somalia and Barre. Defeat signified a moment of national embarrassment to Somalis, the bankruptcy of the Greater Somalia dream, and the onset of large-scale uprisings and rebellions in the Republic.

On the diplomatic side, Ethiopia’s successful prosecution of the war was swiftly followed by the implementation of a set of measures designed to undermine and compromise the Republic. On the one hand, Siad Barre’s government was engaged in protracted peace talks – essentially a decoy tactic – while, on the other hand, the Derg initiated covert discussions with anti-Barre elements within Somalia who might collaborate with Ethiopia. The overall intention of Ethiopia was neither to replace Siad Barre with friendly elements nor to ascertain its suzerainty over Somalia, but merely to destabilize and incapacitate the Republic. In this regard, the opposition groups, even if fully supported, were supposed to not rise to power and remain pro-Ethiopian. The diplomatic effort purposefully sought to disguise the clandestine disruptive operations being put in place. Any political, economic, or psychological setback that could be inflicted on Barre’s government was pursued after Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden War, and the widespread popular discontent in Somalia, first in northeast region and later in the south, was fully exploited.

The immediate postwar period

The apparent deadlock on a possibility of peaceful settlement of the dispute could be attributed to the adamant positions the two states espoused in the decade after the Ogaden War. Somalia’s stratagem to internationalize the problem, in August 1977 and January 1978, by taking it to the Security Council, aptly contradicted Ethiopia’s desire to restrain diplomatic efforts under the auspices of the OAU. The former hoped for a resolution ruling for the deployment of UN supervisors along the contested area and the latter preferred to resolve the problem through the continental organization and by military means if necessary.

The national indignations following the initial Somali military success effectively deterred the Derg from entertaining whatever peace proposal might be made. Reversing the invasion and reclaiming the territory occupied by the SNA were given the utmost priority; therefore, even African efforts at mediation were intentionally sidelined. The indifference to OAU Good Offices Commission initiatives (August 1977, July 1978, June 1980, and August 1980) could be attributed to the resentment against the Somali invasion and the determination to punish the Republic for this “cardinal sin.” Proposals espousing favorable principles like respect for colonial boundaries as well as sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, though favorable to Ethiopia, could not assuage the blow to the psyche of the nation. Somalia’s rejection of OAU resolutions perfectly suited the retributive scheme the Derg had in mind. In the meantime, though, the resolution by the OAU Good Offices Commission (August 1980) recognizing Ogaden is an integral part of Ethiopia was considered a major diplomatic victory. The fact that this happened soon after an alleged Somalia cross-border incursions (between 27 May and 17 July 1980) came as a relief to Ethiopia. At its Nairobi meeting of 24–27 June 1981, the OAU adopted the report and recommendations of the OAU Good Offices Commission on the Ethio–Somalia dispute. Parallel unilateral mediation efforts by Madagascar, Uganda, and Italy equally failed to broker a meaningful deal between Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia’s initial readiness to accept peace proposals, as long as they were conducted under the auspices of the OAU and its member states, soon changed following its apparent military success over Somalia. Understandably, the Derg started to project its military success into dictating the proceeding of events.

When, in April 1978, the Italians had expressed their willingness to mediate between the two parties, they were informed of Ethiopia’s ultimatums in unequivocal terms: these included demands that Somalia publicly, immediately, and unconditionally renounce its policy of expansion against Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti; that Somalia officially declare its acceptance of all UN and OAU principles, resolutions, and decisions; that Somalia solemnly pledge that it would, at all times, observe international agreements as well as the principles of nonuse of force in interstate relations; and that Somalia commit itself to pay prompt and effective compensation for the war damages suffered by Ethiopia.

Immediately after the war, Somalia continued a multifaceted diplomatic offensive to ostracize Ethiopia. On the African front, it targeted pro-western states, emphasizing Ethiopia’s oppressive measures, supported by Russia and Cuba, against liberation movements in the region. With respect to the UN, the USA, Western Europe, China, and Arab states, the propaganda mission focused on the need to make joint efforts to frustrate the expansion of communism and the genocide Ethiopia was perpetrating against the disadvantaged groups in the Horn of Africa. Simultaneously, Somalia started to approach leaders of socialist states (Ali Nassir Mohamed of South Yemen, Didier Ratsiraka of Madagascar, Chadli Benjedid of Algeria, and Erich Honecker of the German Democratic Republic) to facilitate its rapprochement with Ethiopia and the USSR. To the delight of the Ethiopian authorities, all of the above leaders advised Somalia to first accept Ethiopia’s conditions to enter into any form of negotiation. The policy paper prepared on this by Ethiopian officials advised extreme wariness on Somalia’s approach and the need to make sure friendly states maintain the current course. The policy paper claimed that, despite Somalia’s insistence that it was changing its foreign policy directives, irrefutable proof of its irredentist claims were visible in Article 16 of the new constitution, which stated:

The Somali Democratic Republic adopting peaceful and legal means shall support the liberation of Somali territories under colonial occupation and shall encourage the unity of the Somali people through their free will.

Ethiopia’s perception of the nature of its relations with Somalia further crystallized soon after the January 1986 meeting in Djibouti between Mengistu and Siad Barre. The assessment issued by a committee responsible for outlining the country’s approach toward the negotiation with Somalia advised caution in regard to the peace initiative. Somalia’s peace effort was simply characterized as a “temporary gesture,” with the ulterior motive of buying time to crush the growing political opposition (as was demonstrated by the relative success of the Somalia National Movement [SNM] and Somalia Salvation Democratic Front [SSDF]) and to boost the failing economy and thereby reinvigorate its military capabilities. No Somali Government would willingly surrender their territorial claims, the Ethiopian policy paper concluded, and Somalia’s peace initiative should be considered only as a form of temporary appeasement. Rather, in a bid to pressurize Somalia into compromise, it was recommended that Ethiopia should adopt an approach that went “from basic to minor issues”, that is, to prioritize the border question before any other matter. In this way, it was hoped that Somalia would be forced to recognize the existing international boundary.

During the first three sessions of the Ethio-Somalia Joint Ad Hoc Ministerial Committee (6–9 May 1986, Addis Ababa; 23–26 August 1986, Mogadishu; and 1–3 April 1987, Addis Ababa), Somalia steadfastly refused to entertain any discussion on the border issue. Instead, Somalia argued for troop withdrawal from the common border areas and secession of hostilities. The talks were in deadlock. The Ethiopian foreign minister, Berhanu Bayeh, therefore issued a press statement outlining Ethiopia’s regret at the failure to reach an agreement on the content of the agenda at the three meetings. He described Somalia’s unwillingness to discuss the frontier issue as “the stumbling block to the resolution of the problem,” warning that if future confrontations occurred over the border, then Somalia should be held responsible.

While the Ethiopian authorities understood the fact that no Somali politician would readily commit on the question of the frontier, on the other hand, Siad Barre was desperate to stem the free movement of major opposition groups, including SSDF and SNM, across the common boundary. Somalia was more beleaguered by the incessant antigovernment insurrections than was the Derg, and Ethiopia’s active engagement with the SSDF and SNM was already having a negative impact on the Barre regime. In contrast, Somalia’s support to rebel groups in northern Ethiopia, particularly the EPLF, was insignificant. The propaganda issued by the EPLF’s office in Mogadishu was a nuisance to the Derg but no more than that. In addition, the WSLF and SALF were significantly weakened after the Ogaden War. The former was practically defunct by the late 1980s, with its splinter group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) operating from headquarters in Kuwait. Even though elements of the ONLF would later manage to slip back into the Ogaden, their actions had little impact. Siad Barre’s negotiating position was therefore a weak one.

This explains why President Barre pleaded for a further summit meeting, which took place in Djibouti in March 1988. During the three-day talks (20–22 March), the leaders again intensely argued on the merits of their respective approaches toward the negotiation without making any significant progress. Mengistu was doubtful as to the purpose of any further meeting, but a decision was nonetheless made to hold the fourth session of the joint ad hoc committee in Mogadishu “on a date to be agreed upon by the two governments.” The agenda agreed upon by the leaders for this meeting included, as a last item, the “consideration of the boundary question between the two countries.”

The fourth session of the committee was held in Mogadishu in early April 1988. Based on the Djibouti agreement, Ethiopia presented a draft agenda and a draft agreement for the normalization of relations. The item dealing with boundary demarcation was deliberately omitted from the draft agenda, but a binding article referring to the convening of the ad hoc committee in the immediate future for the consideration of the issue was inserted in the draft agreement. The agreement on the normalization of relations signed as a result of these Mogadishu talks was considered a huge diplomatic victory for Ethiopia. Somalia’s agreement to the inclusion of a reference to the OAU principles, particularly of the clause dealing with national integrity and sovereignty, was perceived as a departure from its previous policy. This was interpreted as acceptance of the 1964 Cairo Declaration that legalized colonial boundaries and the ruling of the eighteenth OAU summit that considered Ogaden an integral part of Ethiopia. More importantly, Somalia’s commitment to convene the ad hoc joint committee to deliberate on the frontier question in the near future was considered not only a political success for Ethiopia but a legal victory as well. References were also made in the normalization agreement to key principles, such as noninterference in the internal affairs of each other (Article II) and refraining from acts of destabilization and subversion (Article VI).

Steps were immediately put in place to implement the agreement. A committee consisting of high-level military officers was authorized to overlook the withdrawal of Ethio–Somali troops from the boundary. Between April and May 1988, the committee successfully completed its mission. In addition, detailed preparations commenced on the exchange of prisoners of war – a process that the International Committee of the Red Cross had initiated in preliminary talks in 1984. For Ethiopia, these steps were all seen as ground-breaking achievements, but the ultimate diplomatic success was the fact that Somalia was engaged in protracted talks of reconciliation while the actual task of destabilizing the Republic was still going ahead on another front.

Destabilizing Somalia

Ethiopia’s efforts to incite strife in Somalia using disgruntled groups can be traced back to the imperial era. Many of the past mutinies, election-related violence, and coups d’état in Somalia had occurred with the blessing of Ethiopian authorities. The December 1961 mutiny is one example, when Ethiopia complicity was suspected in an attempt by Somali army officers from the north to seize key towns and bring about secession. Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry archives also reveal Ethiopia’s role in the scheme to convince Hargeisa politicians to reject the union formula with the south, in the establishment in 1966 of the North Somalia Liberation Movement (NSLM) and the creation of the South Somalia Refugees Association (SSRA) – the NSLM consisting of marginalized sections of the Isaaq clan in the north, while the SSRA mobilized disgruntled Hawiye and Rahanweyn clan members in the south.

The political turmoil experienced in Somalia following defeat in the Ogaden created opportunities for Ethiopia’s policy of destabilization to be implemented with good effect. The April 1978 attempted coup in Mogadishu, and the state of emergency declared in October 1980, best demonstrated these political tensions in the Republic in the postwar period. The repressive measures Siad Barre’s government now launched against, first, the Majerteen and Isaaq, and later (in the early 1980s) the Hawiye, led to popular discontent that Ethiopia was able to exploit.

Ethiopia’s support for anti-Siad Barre elements strengthened after the mid-1980s. A joint Ethio–South Yemen attempt to create a united front among the Somalia Salvation Front (SSF), Somalia Communist Party (Somalia Democratic Liberation Front), and Somalia Workers Party represented an important step in this campaign. The establishment of the SNM in London in March 1981 had been especially significant in building an opposition network. Ethiopia made every effort to bring the opposition together and to synchronize their struggle against the regime of Siad Barre. The list of those influenced by Ethiopia included opposition groups based in London, New Delhi, Moscow, Bucharest, West Germany, Rome, and Aden.

The contact with SNM was given special attention. Irrespective of the objectives of the SNM constitution, which claimed “to promote the unity of all Somalis and protect the integrity and sovereignty of the Somalia Republic” and “to support the right of all peoples to self determination and political freedom and independence,” the Ethiopian authorities joined the SNM leadership in joint initiatives against Siad Barre. By June 1983, the movement was firmly established in Ethiopia, with freedom of movement for its political and military leaders as well as closer cooperation with similar opposition parties like SSDF. Col. Abdullahi Yusuf, the commander of the section of Somalia’s army that defected to Ethiopia following the abortive coup in Mogadishu in April 1978, was appointed the military head of the SSDF. So successful was this policy of destabilization that by the late 1980s, Ethiopian officials seem to have concluded that no useful purpose could be gained from any peace talks with Siad Barre. Elsewhere, too, this policy was advanced, with external support being given to opposition movements in Sudan. As the Derg came under greater pressure in its domestic policies, it turned increasingly toward an aggressive foreign policy. But support for external groups in Somalia was always intended only to weaken Barre and not to create a viable political alternative.

Siad Barre’s extrajudicial executions waged against the Isaaq and Majerteen clans between 1978 and 1988 had considerably eroded support for his government among the Somali people. The April 1988 normalization of relations with Ethiopia, therefore, had no impact on internal political dynamics within Somalia. Rather, its importance lay in the incentive it gave the Ethiopians to reinforce their policy of destabilization in Somalia. In David Rawson’s words, the SNM was given “a golden handshake in the form of land cruisers, artillery, and automatic weapons” and sent off to northern Somalia to launch attacks on government installations. As Barre lost his grip in the north, where Issaq and Hawiye disaffection was critical and worked to the benefit of Ethiopia, the tactical support to their armed insurgencies removed pressure from the Derg at a moment when it was facing many other challenges. After 1988, Ethiopian efforts focused on creating a united front between the SNM and SSDF. In addition, new clan-based opposition groups in south Somalia were approached.

At this time, Ethiopian policy had several notable successes. The cooperation agreement between the SNM and SSDF in October 1988 (bringing together a joint armed militia of around 60,000), and the SNM’s decision to either create a strong federal arrangement between the north and the south or bring about the secession of Somaliland hugely weakened the Barre regime. The successful military operations the two movements jointly executed in northern and southern Somalia, respectively, and the resultant political turmoil in Mogadishu would ultimately contribute to the final fall of the Somali Government. Ethiopia even managed in this period to woo Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, the future leader of the United Somalia Congress (USC), predominantly of the Hawiye clan, from his ambassadorial post in New Delhi in late 1988. Though the first SNM incursions of May 1988 were less successful than expected, by November, the rebel group had managed to take control of several strategic towns in north Somalia, including Hargeisa, Borao, and Delbis, and to disrupt transportation and communications across the entire region. This was followed by successes in south Somalia, where Ethiopian supported rebels (of the Hawiye, Habar Gidir, and Sea’ad clans) mounted attacks to destroy government infrastructure. Ethiopia’s logistical support to the SNM was crucial. Reconnaissance information on the direction and intentions of the Somali army was supplied to the rebels on a regular basis.

The Somali Government became aware of this assistance and lodged protests about Ethiopia’s infringements of the 1988 agreement. In May 1989, one year after the signing of the agreement, Somalia launched a major diplomatic offensive, accusing Ethiopia of supporting the SNM, SSDF, and, after May 1989, the Ogaden Soldiers Movement (later renamed Somali Patriotic Front – SPF) under Brig. Gen. Omar Jese. By this time, Barre’s regime was fragmenting and on the point of collapse. The military gains of the SNM in north Somalia after mid-1989, bolstered by Ethiopian active support to the rebel group, played a significant role in Barre’s fall.

With escalating political turmoil in Somalia, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry assessed the possible scenarios lying ahead. Four alternatives were identified, each of them designed to further Ethiopia’s interests while weakening Somalia. The first was to engage Barre’s government in protracted talks, without raising the issue of frontier demarcation and abstaining from direct contact with opposition groups in a bid to wait and see the course of events in Somalia’s now menacing civil war. The second was to pressurize the Somali Government into maximum concessions regarding the border and to resume the negotiations along the line of the normalization agreement of 1988. In the case of an agreement from Somalia, Ethiopia would have to unconditionally withdraw its assistance to the major opposition factions and officially side with the Republic. Kenya’s recent protocol with Somalia on their common border and the former’s acceptance of the existing boundary was cited as an encouraging sign in this regard. The third option was to save the Siad Barre regime from the imminent peril it was facing and positively influence its policies toward Ethiopia. This idea was promoted because of fear of the possibility of the accession to power of a regime even more virulently anti-Ethiopian than was Barre – perhaps seeing Muslim fundamentalists or Ogadenis coming to power in Mogadishu. This approach was endorsed by Ethiopia’s Soviet allies. Fourth, since Barre’s demise was inevitable, Ethiopia should identify opposition groups that would clearly understand and respect its interests in the future. This would ensure that Ethiopia would prevent any radical and anti-Ethiopian elements coming to power in Mogadishu and would lessen the possibility of another war between the two states.


It was this final option that received the approval of the Ethiopian Government. The Ethiopian embassy in Mogadishu was instructed to work toward its realization. Siad Barre’s appeal, in January 1990, to resolve the border issue in return for Ethiopia’s closure of its frontiers and ceasing support to the rebels was rejected outright. Accordingly, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali’s SNM in north Somalia, Farah Aidid’s USC in central Somalia (around Mogadishu), and Omar Jese’s SPF around Kismayu and Baidoa in south Somalia were among the opposition forces chosen and supported by Ethiopia. These groups, to the delight of Ethiopian officials, controlled much of the territory they were operating in by August 1990. With victory in sight, the Ethiopians also worked to hinder Barre’s belated attempts to achieve a negotiated settlement: when Egypt, Italy, and Kuwait sponsored a peace conference to be held in Cairo in December 1990, Ethiopian diplomacy ensured that none of the rebel groups it supported would attend the meeting.

The civil war that erupted in Mogadishu in late December 1990 and the subsequent fall of Siad Barre’s regime can thus be seen as a victory for Ethiopian diplomacy. But what would happen next? The last report from Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Somalia, Dr Asmamaw Qelemu, depicted three grim possibilities for the future of the Republic: the intensification of the civil war because it would be difficult to create a united front among these units; the disintegration of Somalia into three distinct governments: Somaliland (Isaaq clan), Mogadishu and its environs (Hawiye), and South Somalia (SPF, Ogaden); or the creation of a new federal arrangement consisting of these regions. Whichever of these outcomes materialized, Asmamaw Qelemu claimed that Ethiopia had successfully attained its policy of destabilizing and weakening Somalia. The remaining task was to realize the coming to power of an entirely pro-Ethiopian Government. In the final analysis, for Asmamaw Qelemu, “…“… ዋና ውጉ ዳይ ከእ ንግ ዲህ አስ ጊሶ ማሊ ያአ ትኖ ርም”” [the important thing is that Somalia is dangerous no more].

This optimistic, may be even, triumphalist declaration was to prove premature. Just four months later, the Derg itself was no more, finally overwhelmed and chased from power by the multiple internal rebellions it had been unable to quell over the previous two decades. The Derg may have defeated Somalia, but Ethiopia’s own internal rebellions had finally defeated the Derg. Seen in this light, the destabilization in Somalia that Ethiopia fomented under the Derg seems a less successful strategy, as it has proved to be a significant element in the ongoing challenges that subsequent Ethiopian Governments have faced on the country’s southeastern frontier. Even after the fall of the Derg, Ethiopia is still paying a heavy price for its “destabilization” strategy in Somalia.



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