Ethiopian troops face Somali forces

This rather grainy picture has an historic significance. Entitled “Somewhere on the Ethiopia – Somali Border” it is dated 16th February 1964. It marks – as far as I can tell – the beginning of the modern era of conflict between the two countries.

It is not, by any means, the start of the differences between Ethiopia and Somalia, as we will see shortly. But I am keen to try to clarify this complex history and would welcome any comments or corrections.

A very long history

The origin of this troubled relationship goes back at least 500 years.

In 1531 Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi invaded Ethiopia, ending Emperor Lebna Dengel’s ability to resist at the Battle of Amba Sel on October 28.

The Imam, known to Somalis as “Axmed gurey” was seen as avenging Ethiopian repression.

The army of Imam Ahmad then marched northward to loot the island monastery of Lake Hayq and the stone churches of Lalibela.

When the Imam entered the province of Tigray, he defeated an Ethiopian army that confronted him there. On reaching Axum, he destroyed the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in which the Ethiopian emperors had for centuries been crowned.

The Ethiopians were forced to ask for help from the Portuguese, who landed at the port of Massawa on 10 February 1541.

The Imam too turned to foreign allies, bringing 2000 musketeers from Arabia, as well as artillery and 900 Ottoman troops.

Iman Ahmad was  only finally defeated on 21 February 1543 in when 9,000 Portuguese troops managed to vanquish the 15,000 soldiers under Imam Ahmad, who was killed in the battle.

Paul Henze maintains that the damage inflicted by the Imam’s troops have never been forgotten by Ethiopians.

The modern era

Piecing together the modern era is complex: sources are contradictory and incomplete.

In 1948, according to Wikipedia, under pressure from their World War II allies and to the dismay of the Somalis the British “returned” the Haud (an important Somali grazing area that was presumably ‘protected’ by British treaties with the Somalis in 1884 and 1886) and the Ogaden to Ethiopia.

This was based on a treaty they signed in 1897 in which the British ceded Somali territory to the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik in exchange for his help against plundering by Somali clans.

This left Somalis living in the Ogaden stranded in Ethiopia – a situation that persists to this day.

For the Somali nation the whole of the area in which their nation lives should, by rights, be part of their country.

A chronology of conflict

Here is a shot at a brief chronology of the cross-border disputes it set off, drawn from the BBC and Wikipedia

  • 1960-1964 – Border Dispute. This is where the photograph at the start of this story comes in.
  •  1977-1978 – Ogaden War (see below)
  •  1982 – August Border Clash
  •  1998-2000 – Cross-border warfare during the chaotic warlord-led era.
  • 2006  June-July – Militias loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts take control of Mogadishu and other parts of the south after defeating clan warlords. Ethiopian troops reported in Somalia.
  •  2006 December 28 – Joint Ethiopian and Somali government force captures Mogadishu.
  • 2007 March – African Union peacekeepers land at Mogadishu amid pitched battles between insurgents and government forces backed by Ethiopian troops.
  • 2007 October – Ethiopian forces fire on demonstrators in Mogadishu protesting at the presence of what they call foreign invaders.
  • 2008 May – Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he will keep troops inside Somalia until “jihadists” are defeated.
  •  2008 June – Government signs three-month ceasefire pact with opposition Alliance for Re-Liberation of Somalia. The deal, which provides for Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia within 120 days, is rejected by Islamist leader Hassan Dahir Aweys, who says Union of Islamic Courts will not stop fighting until all foreign troops have left country.
  •  2009 January – Ethiopia completes the withdrawal of its troops. Fighters from the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia take control of the town of Baidoa, formerly a key stronghold of the transitional government.
  •  2011 November – Ethiopian troops are spotted in the central town of Guriel. Since then the Ethiopians have maintained a constant presence in Western Somalia.

1977-1978 Ogaden War

This was probably the most significant of the modern conflicts between the two states.

Not only can the burnt out tanks still be seen littering the Ogaden, the war brought the superpowers – the USA and the Soviet Union into the picture.

This is not the place for a full description, but in Odd Arne Westad’s excellent book, “The Global Cold War” he traces the importance of the war to the global community.

The Soviets brought in 11,600 Cuban troops and 6,000 advisers.

Moscow established an air-bridge in September 1977 that delivered $1 billion worth of weapons to Ethiopia.

Two South Yemeni armoured brigades were also brought to reinforce Addis Ababa.

This turned the course of the war – but at a cost.

Professor Westad quotes President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski as saying: “detente (between Washington and Moscow) lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.”

It would not be the last time that fighting in the Horn would take on a global dimension, as the current war against al-Shabaab indicates.