Ogaden War Between Somalia and Ethiopia

The Somali government attempted to capitalize on political and social unrest in neighboring Ethiopia by invading and capturing the Ogaden region. Ethiopian patriotism and massive Soviet and Cuban intervention proved to be decisive in defeating Somalia. The Ethiopian victory caused many Somali refugees to flee the Ogaden region and eventually created a humanitarian crisis.

Summary of Event

The 1970’s were a period of intense military and political strife throughout Africa. Cold War politics complicated issues as Cubans, Soviets, and Americans supported their allies with foreign aid, weapons, and troops. The Soviet bloc supported leftist independence movements fighting against Portuguese colonial regimes in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. Ogaden War (1977-1978)
Ethiopia-Somalia War (1977-1978)[Ethiopia Somalia War]
Somalia;invasion of Ethiopia
[kw]Ogaden War Between Somalia and Ethiopia (July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978)
[kw]War Between Somalia and Ethiopia, Ogaden (July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978)
[kw]Somalia and Ethiopia, Ogaden War Between (July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978)
[kw]Ethiopia, Ogaden War Between Somalia and (July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978)
Ogaden War (1977-1978)
Ethiopia-Somalia War (1977-1978)[Ethiopia Somalia War]
Somalia;invasion of Ethiopia
[g]Africa;July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978: Ogaden War Between Somalia and Ethiopia[02870]
[g]Somalia;July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978: Ogaden War Between Somalia and Ethiopia[02870]
[g]Ethiopia;July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978: Ogaden War Between Somalia and Ethiopia[02870]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 23, 1977-Mar. 15, 1978: Ogaden War Between Somalia and Ethiopia[02870]
Mengistu Haile Mariam
Haile Selassie I
Siad Barre, Muhammad
Castro, Fidel
Brezhnev, Leonid
[p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Ethiopia-Somali War[Ethiopia Somalia War]

White minority governments in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa were also embroiled in wars with Africans seeking majority rule. South Africa invaded Angola in 1975 to defeat the new Marxist government. Cuban president Fidel Castro sent soldiers to assist the Angolan government in repelling the invasion.

South Africa also entered into an intense period of domestic struggle that eventually resulted in diplomatic isolation and the overthrow of the apartheid regime. The American government walked an ideological and racial tightrope while trying to wean African governments from leftist tendencies.

Ethiopia was also the scene of protracted military and social conflict. Emperor Haile Selassie was a longtime American ally, and Ethiopia was the largest recipient of American aid in sub-Saharan Africa. The United States expended more than $180 million in military assistance between 1946 and 1972. It also maintained a major communications base in the Red Sea port of Asmara. More than twenty-five hundred Ethiopian military men had received advanced training in the United States.

In addition, the Americans were extensively involved in Ethiopia’s education and communications infrastructure. However, the aging Selassie presided over an autocratic and increasingly out-of-touch regime. A devastating famine in 1973 and extensive government corruption undermined his authority. A wave of student and worker strikes shook the country as the Ethiopian people sought greater freedom to address their problems.

Selassie’s fate was sealed when the military became disloyal. The army began to take control of the country after organizing a coordinating committee known as the Dergue (also spelled Derg or Darg). The armed forces imprisoned many members of the government and aristocracy. Selassie himself was removed from the palace on September 12, 1974. The former emperor died in 1975 under mysterious circumstances.

The military junta also adopted Marxism as its philosophy. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam was beginning to emerge as the dominant figure in the Dergue. This ideological shift and a long chain of human rights abuses eventually forced the Americans to reduce their military aid to their longtime ally. Mengistu went to Moscow in a December, 1976, trip, during which he arranged for a $385 million arms agreement. The Carter administration ended all arms sales to the military government, and in retaliation the Dergue dramatically scaled back its diplomatic relations with the United States.

The Somalis, on the other hand, had accepted Soviet aid in 1962, when their army began to be trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. General Muhammad Siad Barre became president in 1969 via a military coup, and the Soviets increased their aid program. The Soviet Union countered the American bases in Ethiopia with an air force base near the Somali capital of Mogadishu, a naval base in Berbera, and a communications facility in Kismayu. The Soviets and Somalia signed a friendship treaty in 1974.

The turmoil in Ethiopia encouraged General Siad Barre to take advantage of perceived Ethiopian weakness. Siad Barre had long wanted to incorporate the Ogaden into Greater Somalia. In order to facilitate these plans, the Somali government trained and armed a guerrilla group called the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), which became very active among the ethnic Somali population in the Ogaden. The group staged hit-and-run attacks against the Ethiopian army and other symbols of government authority.

Siad Barre believed that a guerrilla struggle would wear down the Ethiopian army. After this initial phase, an invasion by regular Somali army troops would then be able to defeat the Ethiopians quickly. Siad Barre also counted on the international community to intervene and ratify his conquest because of the disarray in Ethiopia.

Regular Somali troops crossed the border in July, 1977, and quickly won several victories. Political turmoil, military purges, poor supplies, and the lack of a clear strategy seemingly demoralized the Ethiopians. Some units of the Ethiopian army even mutinied as they retreated. Jijiga, a major city, fell to the invaders before overextended supply lines and stiffening Ethiopian resolve halted the Somali army. A stalemate ensued throughout the rest of 1977.

The Ethiopian government appealed to the patriotism of the populace, and a vast militia (variously estimated at between 100,000 and 300,000) was recruited to fight alongside the regular military. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev saw an opportunity to extend his influence and began overtures to the Ethiopians. This gambit infuriated the Somalis, who had been allies with the Soviet Union for fifteen years. Soviet-supplied jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery, rockets, armored personnel carriers, and other munitions rejuvenated the Ethiopian war effort. Siad Barre retaliated by evicting the Soviet military mission in November, 1977. Many of these advisers traveled to Ethiopia and lent their expertise to the Dergue.

Their knowledge of the Somali military proved invaluable in future operations. Cuban president Fidel Castro also supplied eighteen thousand soldiers to Ethiopia. Half of these men were fresh from the Angolan battlefields, where they had helped to defeat the South African army. Ethiopian, Cuban, and Soviet officers formed a unified command to oversee operations.

The Ethiopian army and its allies began a successful counterattack in early 1978. The Somalis, despite fighting bravely, were overwhelmed. A patriotic population, better arms and mobility, superior tactics, overwhelming firepower, and poor Somali planning all combined to defeat the invading army by March, 1978.


The Ethiopian government’s success in the Ogaden encouraged it to believe that a similar military solution would work against secessionist movements in Eritrea and other provinces. The military refused to negotiate with its opponents and instead embarked on costly and ultimately unsuccessful military campaigns. Mengistu was eventually overthrown in 1991 and fled into exile in Zimbabwe.

The war also destabilized the Somali government and bankrupted the country’s economy. Siad Barre’s ability to rule was seriously undermined. Matters became worse when a regional drought intensified and brought starvation to the hard-pressed population. Somalia became a ward of international aid agencies in order to feed its people. Siad Barre increasingly relied on brute force to stay in office. His regime was mired in nepotism and corruption.

Like Mengistu, Siad Barre too was overthrown in 1991, and he fled to Nigeria. He died in 1995. A power vacuum ensued in the failed state. Warlords and Islamic militants strove for power in an increasingly chaotic situation that continued unresolved well into the twenty-first century. Ogaden War (1977-1978)
Ethiopia-Somalia War (1977-1978)[Ethiopia Somalia War]
Somalia;invasion of Ethiopia

Further Reading

  • David, Steven. “Realignment in the Horn: The Soviet Advantage.” International Security 4 (Fall, 1979): 69-90. Posits the theory that Soviet diplomacy and weaponry caused the United States to suffer a major political defeat in the Horn. Concludes that U.S. foreign policy was unable to do anything to change this outcome.
  • “Echoes of Operation Oscar X-Ray.” Africa 76 (December, 1977): 34-36. Covers how the Somalis permitted West German commandos to recapture a hijacked Lufthansa jet in Mogadishu. The Somalis then tried to turn the goodwill engendered by their cooperation into financial support for their beleaguered government.
  • “Gains and Losses in the Ogaden War.” Africa 74 (October, 1977): 41-44. Gives some historical background on the Ogaden and analyzes Soviet, Arab, and Chinese interests in the conflict. Discusses the Western Somali Liberation Front and the recruitment of the Ethiopian workers’ militia.
  • Lewis, I. M. A Modern History of the Somali. 4th ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002. Discusses the foundation of modern Somalia, why the Somalis viewed their actions as liberating the Ogaden, and the consequences of the war for the Horn of Africa.
  • Matatu, Godwin. “Ethiopia’s Finest Hour.” Africa 79 (March, 1978): 17-26. Discusses how improved morale and better equipment in the Ethiopian army turned around the war effort. Explores how the Somali government made several miscalculations before launching the invasion.
  • Tareke, Gebru. “The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977 Revisited.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 33, no. 3 (2000): 635-667. Provides a blow-by-blow account of the military campaign, highlighting Somalia’s lack of preparedness for a long conflict and its underestimation of Ethiopian patriotism.
  • Tokutu, Miss. “Cuban Presence in Africa: An African Perspective.” Afriscope 8 (June, 1978): 5-8. Discusses the historical background of African struggles for self-determination. Blames Western hypocrisy and colonialism for Cuban intervention in Africa. Presents the view that the Western powers chose economic profits in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa over majority rule.
  • Uwechue, Raph. “Our Fight Is with Those Opposed to the Masses.” Africa 79 (March, 1978): 12-16. Interview with Mengistu shortly before the successful counteroffensive. Mengistu is upbeat about the war effort and strongly disputes reports of human rights abuses.
  • Zewde, Bahru. A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1991. 2d ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. Provides necessary background information about modern Ethiopia, the 1974 revolution, the 1977-1978 war, and subsequent events.

Military Junta Comes to Power in Ethiopia

Dispute over the Western Sahara Erupts in the Green March

Sudanese Civil War Resumes

Evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel

U.S. Marines Enter Somalia

Eritrea Secedes from Ethiopia