The 4th March 1978 was a pivotal day in one of the most obscure decisive battles in military history. The battle of Jijiga was the climax of an eight month war between Ethiopia and Somalia, provoked by the latter’s territorial claim on the province of Ogaden, and it was a crushing victory for the Ethiopians, aided by a Cuban expeditionary force and a military mission of Soviet advisors. The battle of Jijiga had second and third-order consequences in the form of the decline of East-West détente, Somalia’s collapse into anarchy, the horrors of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s (which inspired the Live Aid and Band Aid charity concerts), and endemic instability within the Horn of Africa.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor for the then-US President Jimmy Carter, blamed Soviet and Cuban intervention in the Ethiopian-Somali War for the deterioration of superpower relations during the late 1970s, declaring portentously that US-Soviet strategic arms control talks were ‘buried in the sands of the Ogaden’. And yet this conflict – and the culminating battle which ended it – remain as blank spots in recent history, arguably because very little about the Ogaden War has been published in English.

This blog post is intended to highlight the history of a short, but nonetheless bloody inter-state conflict which cost the lives of over 12,000 soldiers on both sides. The two opposing sides were well-equipped for manoeuvre warfare, and had been trained and equipped by the superpowers. That capacity for major combat operations (MCO) has been recorded by the historian Gebru Tareke, the most authoritative scholar of this conflict, quoting an Ethiopian veteran of this war who stated that ‘if one were to combine the Ethiopian air force and the Somali tank units, one would have created Africa’s dream army’. The Ethiopian-Somali War of 1977-1978 provides an example of non-Western MCO outside that continues to be worthy of wider consideration and analysis. It also had catastrophic consequences which continue to destabilise the region as a whole.

The war’s origins:

The province of Ogaden is around 200,000 square kilometres in size, consisting of a largely barren plain, bounded to the North by the highlands of the Ahmar mountains and the Harar Plateau. Its population is predominantly ethnic Somali and traditionally hostile towards the Ethiopians, although the minorities of the highlands are better disposed towards Ethiopian rule. As this map shows, the key urban areas of the province are in close proximity to Somalia:

Jijiga 001

The cities of Harar, Dire Dawa and Jijiga sit on the road and rail communications connecting the urban-industrial centres of Ethiopia with the port of Djibouti. They – along with the Kara Mardeh Pass – constitute key terrain, and it is worth noting that they were fought over during the East Africa Campaign of 1941, in which British Empire forces liberated Ethiopia from Fascist Italy.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ during the late 19th Century, in which the European powers divided the continent between then in their quest for colonies. However, the Ethiopian Empire was the one indigenous state that not only survived the European onslaught, but also had a say in how its borders were drawn. The Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II crushed an Italian invasion at the battle of Adwa in 1896, and also conquered Ogaden and added it to his realm. Aside from the Italian occupation from 1935-1941, the Ogaden remained an Ethiopian possession. In the aftermath of World War II the British did propose to cede the territory to Somalia (as a preparatory move towards statehood), but the Emperor Haile Selassie successfully opposed secession with US diplomatic support.

In July 1960 Somalia was granted independence with the unification of the former British and Italian colonial territories. However, irredentism was one of the few sources of political unity in the new state, not least because Somali clans had kinship ties with their brethren across the border with Ethiopia, and also with the populations of the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (which achieved statehood as Djibouti in June 1977) and the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, which gained independence from Britain in 1963. Somalia pursued its territorial claims on Ethiopia with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, the precursor to the African Union), but the latter backed Addis Ababa; not only because Ethiopia was one of its founder states, but because the newly-independent sub-Saharan states recognised that while colonially-defined frontiers were an affront, their unravelling was also potentially destabilising.

Ethiopia also benefitted from its defence ties with the USA. An American Military Advisory and Assistance Group (MAAG) trained its armed forces, which also received a total of US$161m in arms and equipment from the USA from 1950 to 1973. A substantial number of Ethiopian officers (including the future dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam) were educated and trained in American military academies and colleges. Haile Selassie’s decision to commit an Ethiopian battalion to the US-led UN forces during the Korean War (June 1950-July 1953) – and the National Security Agency’s construction a signals intelligence (SIGINT) station at Kagnew (outside the capital of Asmara in contemporary Eritrea) – reinforced the alliance between Addis Ababa and Washington DC, and successive US administrations calculated that Ethiopia’s prestige in continental politics made it a valuable ally.

Even before the commander of the Somali National Army (SNA) Mohammed Siad Barre seized power on 21stOctober 1969, Somalia was a Soviet ally. The USSR provided arms and also a military mission to train the SNA, and five years after Barre’s Moscow and Mogadishu concluded a bilateral friendship treaty – the first signed by the Soviets with a sub-Saharan African state. One of the oddities of the Somali-Soviet alignment is that although the USSR did not support Mogadishu’s claim to the Ogaden, its arms supplies to Somalia provided Barre with the means to wage an offensive war against his neighbour. This was an anomaly that was to cause Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburoconsiderable embarrassment.

The triggers for the Somali invasion:

Between January and September 1974 Ethiopia was plunged into a revolution that led to the downfall of Haile Selassie’s absolutist monarchy, followed by a period of turmoil which ended with the country’s takeover by a clique of military officers, known as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (or the Derg, to use its Amharic name). The new regime was led by Colonel Mengistu, who declared a ‘Red Terror’ against political enemies included fellow officers, rival revolutionary parties and ethnic minority groups who revolted against his regime (most notably the Eritreans). Mengistu instigated a series of purges and executions which wrecked the Ethiopian military, and which also contributed to a nascent civil war within his own country. On 23rd April 1977 he also expelled the US MAAG from Ethiopia, signifying his intention to align with the Soviet bloc.

In the midst of this chaos Barre spotted an opportunity to snatch the Ogaden, initially by supporting the West Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), an insurgent movement that was trained and ultimately augmented by the SNA. The WSLF grew in size to around 30,000 guerrillas by late 1976, reinforced by 6,000 Somali troops, and it provided Barre with a means of waging a proxy war against the Derg. By the summer of 1977 the WSLF had seized control over much of the countryside, leaving the urban areas of the province under Ethiopian control. Its insurgents had also cut Ethiopia’s lines of communication to Djibouti, imposing an additional economic burden on Mengistu’s unstable regime.

On the eve of the Somali invasion of the Ogaden Barre’s forces were outnumbered on paper by their adversaries, having 25,000 troops (in one commando, 9 mechanised and 5 infantry battalions) facing 51,000 soldiers (in 3 infantry divisions, a mechanised battalion and an airborne battalion). However, Ethiopian combat power was dissipated by a series of insurgencies (most notably the Eritrean revolt), while military morale was further undermined by the purges and executions of the officer corps instigated with Mengistu’s ‘Red Terror’. The Ethiopians had a slight advantage with artillery and air power (6 field batteries to 4 Somali ones, and one bomber and three fighter/ground attack (FGA) squadrons to one bomber and 2 FGA squadrons), but were outnumbered in armour, as the SNA had 6 battalions of Soviet-supplied T-54/T-55 tanks to Ethiopia’s two battalions of US-made M-41s and M-60s. The mismatch between the two sides – and the preparatory guerrilla campaign by the WSLF – accounts for the immediate successes of the Somali onslaught in the summer of 1977.

The Somali offensive and its consequences, July 1977-February 1978:

Shortly after the SNA crossed the frontier in force on 13thJuly 1977, both they and the WSLF conquered 90% of Ogaden. The Ethiopians were routed, and on 12thSeptember 1977 the strategically-vital town of Jijiga fell to the invaders. Mengistu’s forces managed to keep a toe-hold on Northern Ogaden, thwarting an SNA/WSLF attack on Dire Dawa on 17thAugust, whilst defending Harar from a series of Somali/insurgent onslaughts from September 1977 to January 1978. Like Josif Stalin in the first months of Operation Barbarossa, Mengistu responded to battlefield setbacks by arraigning and executing both officers and soldiers for cowardice and incompetence. However, the Ethiopian dictator also rallied his people with patriotic appeals to defend the homeland against the Somali aggressors, and like the French Jacobins in the 1790s he raised a militia of ill-trained but fervent fighters who provided the manpower which enabled the professional military to hold Dire Dawa and Harar, and then subsequently reconstitute its depleted ranks. An external attack allowed Mengistu to overcome the internal revolutionary turmoil he had fuelled, temporarily unifying his people against an external enemy.

Meanwhile, Barre undermined himself strategically by mishandling his relations with the superpowers. In June 1977 the Somali dictator was reportedly emboldened by a visit his American physician, Dr Kevin Cahill, paid to Washington DC. Cahill claimed to have received assurances from US officials that the USA was not opposed to a Somali invasion of Ethiopia. However, evidence of US collusion in Somalia’s invasion of the Ogaden remains elusive, and although Brzezinski attempted to push policy in a pro-Somali direction after July 1977 the administration declared its neutrality during this conflict, issuing appeals for a peaceful settlement and calling for the disengagement of all foreign forces from the Horn of Africa. Given the fact that the OAU had overwhelmingly sided with Ethiopia and condemned Somalia as the aggressor, Carter’s decision not to get the USA involved in a fight between a former US ally and a former Soviet one was arguably the only sensible option. The problem was that it had been preceded by months of indecision and drift which, Louise Woodroofe convincingly argues, sent mixed messages to both Mogadishu and Addis Ababa.

Barre’s failure to gain US support was compounded by the rupturing of Somalia’s alliance with the Soviet bloc. Moscow and Havana had hoped that a ‘progressive’ Ethiopia and Somalia could form a Federation with another Marxist-Leninist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and both Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro were infuriated by the Somali dictator’s demands for the secession of the Ogaden as a precondition. Moscow came to the conclusion that in political, economic and demographic terms Ethiopia counted for more than Somalia, and the latter’s isolation from the OAU provided an additional incentive to back Mengistu. Furthermore, the Soviets concluded that after the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s turn towards the West, the USSR needed for reasons of prestige to bolster its newest ally in North-East Africa. In late September 1977 the PDRY sent two battalions of troops to Ethiopia, and two months later the USSR commenced a massive sea and airlift of arms to Mengistu’s regime. Barre responded by denouncing his friendship treaty with the USSR on 13thNovember 1977, and by expelling Soviet and Cuban military advisors from Somalia. This proved to be a catastrophic mistake on his part.

Brezhnev sent a military mission of around 1,500 advisors to Ethiopia, led by the First Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Ground Forces, a decorated veteran of World War II named Vasily Petrov. His command was augmented by Soviet officers who had hitherto been attached to the advisory mission to Somalia, including its head Lieutenant-General Grigori Borisov (who subsequently became General Petrov’s operations officer, and the de factocommander-in-chief of the Ethiopian military). The scale of Soviet bloc military assistance was impressive, with an estimated total of around US$1bn worth of arms being provided either by shipping from Aden, or from the Soviet Air Force’s Air Transport Command flying from air bases in the USSR, or from the then-Warsaw Pact member states of Hungary and Bulgaria. This included at least 400 T-54/T55s, 200 armoured fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, 60 FGA, 300 artillery tubes and 28 Katyushamultiple rocket-launchers.

The qualitative as well as the quantitative dimensions of Soviet aid proved to be significant. Aside from enhanced command and control, Petrov’s mission reported provided important intelligence assistance to the Ethiopians as well. On the day of the airlift the USSR launched a Cosmos-964 satellite, setting it on geosynchronous orbit over the war-zone. The imagery intelligence provided was fed both to a Soviet communications complex in Addis Ababa, and a ground station at Dire Dawa. MiG-21s flown by Soviet pilots also reportedly flew reconnaissance missions, while the Soviet Navy’s Indian Ocean squadron apparently provided SIGINT on the Somalis from its offshore stations. The latter were using Soviet-supplied communications equipment, and even if the USSR’s SIGINT specialists were unable to eavesdrop on and interpret SNA radio chatter, it is reasonable to infer that they could have provided traffic analysis for Petrov’s headquarters.

What also proved to be crucial was the airlift of 15,000 Cuban troops (a total of three brigades) to reinforce the Ethiopians. Contrary to the Cold War image of the Cubans as ‘Moscow’s Ghurkhas’, Castro had a record of instigating expeditionary operations in support of revolutionary movements and regimes. This interventionist trait was demonstrated during the Angolan civil war of 1975-1976, when during the chaos of Portuguese decolonisation he had sent first advisors and then a task force to successfully defend the MPLA regime against two rival national-liberation movements, the FNLA and UNITA, which were backed by Zaire, apartheidSouth Africa and the USA. The Cuban leader regarded himself as a partner, rather than a proxy, for his Soviet allies, and despite outward appearances the relationship between Moscow and Havana was by no means one of superpower dominance and client subservience.

The Cuban contingent sent to Ethiopia in late 1977 was commanded by General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who had fought alongside the MPLA in Angola two years previously. Just over 20 years after the Ogaden war Ochoa Sanchez was to be tried and executed in Cuba on charges (possibly fabricated) of corruption and drug-trafficking. Yet at the time of the Ethiopian-Somali conflict he was evidently trusted for both political and professional reasons to command the expeditionary force Havana sent to the Horn of Africa.

By January 1978 the front-line in the Ogaden had stabilised, and Petrov noted that the Ethiopian regular forces had been badly worsted in its fight against the SNA and WSLF, with two of its three infantry divisions broken by their losses. The Soviet planning cell concentrated its efforts on enabling the Ethiopians to recover the initiative, and to inflict a crushing defeat on the Somalis before potential international mediators could promote a ceasefire. Jijiga became the focus for Petrov’s counter-offensive.

The battle for Jijiga.

This mapillustrates the position of the opposing forces by February-March 1978:

Jijiga 002

As this phase the SNA held the Western end of the Kara Mandeh Pass, on the main supply route which in peacetime had linked Dire Dawa and Harar (still in Ethiopian hands) with Jijiga. To the North lay the Ahmar Mountains, a significant obstacle for any mechanised force to cross. The Soviet resupply effort had, however, provided the Ethiopians with over 30 helicopters, including Mi-6 Hook aircraft which had a payload of up to 70 troops, and sufficient strength to lift artillery pieces and light tanks into battle. From what subsequently transpired it is possible to infer that Barre and his advisors had no idea that their enemy had been reinforced with substantial assets for air mobility and vertical envelopment.

Mengistu set up a Supreme Military Strategic Committee to co-ordinate the counter-offensive, with Petrov as its chair. Borisov commanded the Ethiopian ground forces, and Ochoa Sanchez the Cubans. The plan for Jijiga was a simple one. The Ethiopian 3rdInfantry Division (supported by a Cuban mechanised brigade) would stage a diversionary effort against the SNA front line at Marda, at the foot of the Kara Mandeh. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian 10thInfantry Division (reinforced by another Cuban brigade) would undertake a flank march North of the Ahmar mountains, supported by Soviet rotary lift. The latter would enable the Ethiopians and Cubans to establish a forward operating base North of Jijiga, and then to subsequently recapture the town from its Somali and WSLF garrison, cutting off the Eastern escape route of the SNA formations inside the Kara Mandeh.

To prepare the battlefield the Ethiopian air force – reportedly reinforced by Cuban aircrew – flew close air support strikes against the SNA, and also launched interdiction sorties into Somalia itself which included air-strikes on Hargeisa and the port of Berbera. Ethiopian aircrew benefited from both their experience (their air force had 30 years of corporate service compared to 15 for their Somali foes) and the superiority of their Western training, reportedly shooting down over 30 Somali MiGs in air-to-air combat. Soviet bloc aid served to reinforce Ethiopian air superiority, which helped shape the battle to come.

The Jijiga counter-offensive began with a feint by the 3rdInfantry Division and its supporting Cuban Brigade against SNA positions at Marda, while from 2nd-3rdMarch 1978 Ethiopian and Cuban forces conducted their advance North of the Ahmar Mountains, establishing a forward operating base North of their objective. The 4thMarch proved to be the crucial day. As the flanking force assaulted and captured Jijiga, the diversionary element became the main effort, smashing through an enemy trapped within the Kara Mandeh Pass. The Somalis lost four out of six of their Brigades, and the remnants retreated home in disarray.

Jijiga 003

The Ethiopians quickly recovered control of the Ogaden, and on 23rdMarch Mengistu declared victory, avoiding the temptation to launch a counter-invasion of Somalia that could have provoked a wider war (Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia having reportedly pledged military aid to Barre if Ethiopian forces crossed the frontier).

What was left of the WSLF carried on a doomed insurgency in Southern Ogaden for four more years, but the Ethiopian armed forces conducted a successful counter-insurgency campaign (known as Lash, the Amharic word for ringworm) to secure the province. Ogaden is still the scene of anti-government activity, conducted by the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and Ethiopian security forces stand accused of human rights abuses carried out in an attempt to suppress this latest rebellion against Addis Ababa.

The consequences:

From Brzezinski’s perspective, the Ogaden War soured US-Soviet relations, undermining the attempts made by the US Secretary of State (and rival to the National Security Advisor) Cyrus Vance to ease East-West tensions. The Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko angered Carter during a meeting in the White House on 27th May 1978 by insisting that ‘there was no Soviet Napoleon in Africa’; his hosts were fully aware of the role that Petrov and his staff had played in the Ethiopian victory. The Ethiopian-Somali clash became one of what the National Security Advisor saw as a series of Soviet provocations in an ‘Arc of Crisis’ stretching from the Red Sea to South Asia, culminating in the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan (25th December 1979).  As far as both the Carter administration and its neo-conservative critics were concerned, Soviet meddling in the Horn of Africa was a significant cause in the downfall of détente.

For his part, Barre had gambled that capturing Ogaden and uniting its population with the Somali homeland would bolster his regime. Instead, a month after the Ethiopian victory he was faced with an abortive military putsch, and the survivors of his crackdown formed two rebel armies, the Somali National Movement and the Somali Salvation Front. The civil war against both groups eventually ended in January 1991 with the fall of Mogadishu, Barre’s defeat, and Somalia’s disintegration as a state.

In Ethiopia’s case, Mengistu emerged from his victory in a far from magnanimous mood. Having crushed the Somalis and their Ogadeni proxies (albeit with generous aid from the USSR, Cuba, the PDRY and other Communist powers), the Ethiopian dictator decided that the best means of resolving remaining revolts against the Derginvolved brute force, rather than reconciliation. Despite attempts by the Cubans and East Germans to promote mediation, Mengistu therefore declared  total war against the Eritrean and Tigrean rebels, making no distinction between guerrillas and civilians in either case, and his regime’s efforts to starve out the insurgencies were the primary cause of the horrific famine that shocked world opinion in the mid-1980s. The efforts by ‘Africa’s Stalin’ to crush his foes by a combination of military force and starvation backfired, and in May 1991 he fled Addis Ababa as rebel forces stormed his capital, seeking sanctuary in Zimbabwe from his fellow despot Robert Mugabe. The alignment between the Eritrean and Tigrean rebels who defeated him led to Eritrea’s independence in 1993, although five years later a bitter border war between the two successor states has led to a proxy conflict that continues to destabilise the region.

Of the two tyrants and the two field commanders most intimately involved in Jijiga, Mengistu is still alive and in exile in Harare, perhaps wondering if the post-Mugabe government might deport him to his homeland to face the trial for crimes against humanity that is his due. Barre died in exile in Lagos on 2ndJanuary 1995. Ochoa Sanchez’s execution is referred to above, while Petrov passed away as a nonagenarian Marshal of the Russian Federation on 1stFebruary 2014. For Cold War and military historians, a retrospective analysis of Jijiga allows us to ponder both a classic – if forgotten – example of combined-arms manoeuvre in practice. But it was also a precursor to a series of humanitarian disasters that occurred in both Ethiopia and Somalia, the consequences of which we are still experiencing today.

Image: Cuban artillerymen preparing to fire on Somali forces in the Ogaden, via wikimedia commons.

Maps via the Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection.



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