Civil War: Ethiopia (1976-1985)

Raúl C González. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


During the early morning hours of July 13, 1977, a Somali army of 34,000 soldiers in unmarked uniforms crossed the dry expanse of the eastern Ethiopian border. In a bid to “liberate” the indigenous clans of the Ogaden region and reclaim “unredeemed” territory, the Somali army deployed the largest contingent of mechanized infantry the African continent had seen since World War II. However, by March 1978, following months of brutal tank warfare, a combined force of Ethiopian and Cuban troops equipped with sophisticated Soviet weaponry repulsed an exhausted Somali army. In addition to the 25,000 casualties, hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes, and the interstate power arrangement in the Horn of Africa was forever altered.

However, as significant as its impact was, this nine-month war was but one of many armed disputes in a bitter, 100-year conflict between the Ethiopian government and the nomadic Somali clans inhabiting the Ogaden. Since its occupation in the late nineteenth century, the Ogaden has been in an almost constant state of unrest as insurgents have harassed the Ethiopian authorities using a variety of tactics ranging from simple hit-and-run maneuvers to full-scale offensives.

On the surface, the Ogaden insurgency appears to be similar to many insurgencies taking place in the third world during this time. First, the conflict displayed a mixture of irredentist fervor, with a “sons-of-the-soil” dynamic in which the primary combatants were the government regime and paramilitary groups representing minority populations. As we see in Ethiopia, a combination of nationalistic sentiments and repressive policies of taxation and land redistribution drove the Ogaden insurgents to rebel against the government in Addis Ababa. Second, a strong undertone of anticolonialism existed in some form or another in many of these third-world insurgencies; with the Ogaden conflict, Ethiopia is seen as a colonial aggressor conspiring with the West against the Somali people. In fact, Somalis have claimed that the British cession of the Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1948 was both illegal and illegitimate. Finally, most of these insurgencies occurred within the context of Cold War competition; that is, in jockeying for greater global influence, the Soviet Union and the United States each spent significant resources to provide military and financial aid to erect and influence friendly regimes. Although the U.S. presence in the Horn of Africa declined in the latter half of the Cold War, the USSR certainly played an important role in deciding the course of the Ogaden insurgency: Within a matter of months, the USSR airlifted into war-wracked Ethiopia nearly $1 billion in military hardware; following this, it was only a matter of months before the Ethiopians were able to push the invading Somalis out.

And yet, even with all its similarities to other contemporary insurgencies, the Ogaden conflict was different in the particular nature of its rebel movement. What distinguished the rebel movements in the Ogaden from most other “ … contemporary liberation movements was their lack of autonomy; both organizationally and logistically they were under the grip of a foreign authority” (Tareke 2000, 64). Since the establishment of the Somali Republic in 1960, the foreign policy of its governments had been driven by the doctrine of pan-Somalism; that is, the belief that it was the responsibility of the republic to reunite the various Somali clans scattered throughout the Horn of Africa into one Somali state. Its primary enemy in this effort was Ethiopia, which had actively engaged in its partition. Having few resources of their own, the Ogaden insurgents received all their training, equipment, and support exclusively from the Somali regime in Mogadishu; in exchange for such patronage, the insurgents ostensibly were to serve as auxiliary units of the Somali military. And yet, although such groups as the Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF) and the Somali and Abo Liberation Front (SALF) took their cues directly from Mogadishu in working toward Somali reunification, it would be inaccurate to say that they did not also have their own agendas and initiatives to follow. This is best illustrated by the continued efforts of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) to engage Ethiopian authorities well into the 1990s, despite the absence of explicit Somali support.

In short, the Ogaden insurgency should not be considered a civil conflict in the traditional sense, for not only was the insurgency unable to sustain itself without large infusions of outside aid, but it also was firmly under the control of a foreign power. Then again, neither can it be said that the insurgency was entirely an extension of another state’s foreign policy. Instead, this conflict simultaneously occurs at both the interstate and the intrastate levels of interaction: Harassed by Ethiopian authorities for almost seventy years, the Somali nomads living in the Ogaden perceived that they had no other recourse but to resist and fight back, even under the threat of death. Interpreting this as an opportunity to reclaim lost territory, Somalia provided full support to the insurgents so long as its own pan-Somalist interests took priority. For a period of time, the interests of the Ogadeni nomads and those of the Somali government intersected, thus forcing Ethiopia to defend itself at the risk of being torn apart from within. However, even when it was no longer in Somalia’s interest to pursue an irredentist policy, the insurgency still continued its hit-and-run tactics, eventually evolving into a potent political party.

Country Background

As the oldest independent country on the African continent, Ethiopia has been inhabited by humans longer than almost any other region in the world; in fact, Homo sapiens sapiens (modern man) is believed to have originated there. Since the midnineteenth century, however, Ethiopia has been an imperial state under the rule of a single individual. Although one could not consider the country to be a free, democratic society, under Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia underwent a series of economic, social, and political reforms in an effort to modernize the state. In 1972, Ethiopia scored a -9 on the Polity scale and was classified as “not free” relative to the rest of the world by Freedom House; more specifically, Ethiopia scored 5 on the Freedom House Political Rights scale and 6 on the Civil Liberties scale. In other words, Ethiopians, ruled by an unelected autocrat, enjoyed few political rights and even fewer civil liberties (Freedom House 2004 ; Marshall and Jaggers 2002). Among the more notable reforms was the adoption of a new constitution in 1955 expanding the powers of the parliament, the establishment of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the creation of a modern army, and the improvement of diplomatic relations with neighboring states via the emperor’s involvement in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 (Tiruneh 1993, 10; Haile-Selassie 1997, 55).

However, in the three years before the onset of Ogadeni hostilities in July 1977, the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa had undergone a radical change in its composition and its ideological stance. Under pressure from a wide coalition of socialist activists, teachers, students, and the military protesting the poor state of affairs, Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed on September 12, 1974 (Haile-Selassie 1997, 127). The regime was initially replaced by a provisional administrative council of several hundred soldiers, known as the Derg; but by the early months of 1977 the government was firmly under the control of a military junta headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Meriam. Mengistu ruled for the next fourteen years, only to be run out of the country in 1991.

Conflict Background

Prior to the 1880s, the Ogaden region had had limited interaction with the Ethiopian territories to its north and west. A desert inhabited by Somali nomads and livestock, the region offered little economic benefit. However, as European powers pushed farther into the Horn of Africa, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia initiated a large-scale thrust southward that included the barren Ogaden. As Andargachew Tiruneh argues, Menelik “was not going to be an independent spectator” to the Horn’s partition (1993, 4).

Although some tension existed over Ethiopian dominion, there was initially relatively little resistance on the part of the Somali nomads; with very low levels of trade and a relative lack of development, the Ogaden maintained a degree of autonomy, leaving indigenous social structures intact; that is, the chiefs and tribal elders remained the legitimate representatives of the Ogadeni people (Markakis 1987, 56). This is not to say that relations between the Ethiopians and the Somali clans of the Ogaden were entirely peaceful. Low-level violent encounters between the two have been recorded, such as the pillaging of herds of Ogadeni livestock by rogue Ethiopian officials (Markakis 1987, 172). It was not until the late 1940s, however, that signs of unrest began to manifest themselves; since the expulsion of the Italians from their Somali holdings during World War II, the indigenous people had been rather restive about the immediate establishment of their own independent Somali state. From this arose the pan-Somali movement, in which the aim was not only to bring together the former colonial holdings but also to unify into a sovereign state all territories throughout the Horn of Africa inhabited by Somali clans, irrespective of the current arrangement of borders.

Acknowledging the threat to the territorial integrity of Ethiopia, Emperor Selassie’s government took preventive steps against pan-Somalism by promising schools and development projects; not only would this improve the living conditions of the Ogadeni, this would also place a more significant administrative and security presence in the region. When the first school opened in 1957, hopes for further integration were high in Addis Ababa (Markakis 1987, 173).

This all changed, however, when the Republic of Somalia was established in 1960; encouraged by pan-Somalist groups dominating the new government, the new republic now served as an excellent staging ground from which irredentists could launch attacks against countries such as Ethiopia. Emperor Selassie was thus forced to devote greater resources to integrating and defending the Ogaden, with several military bases established in the latter half of 1960 (de Waal 1991, 71). Although the increased presence of the Ethiopian military was not well received by the inhabitants of the Ogaden, it was not until the systematic imposition of head taxes on the population that the nomads found a casus belli for engaging in the first round of violent rebellion. Requiring revenue to pay for the new developments in the region, the emperor could not rely on Ogaden trade and markets to supply the necessary funds and so levied on the nomads a head tax, in which each individual is taxed a fixed amount of money (Markakis 1987, 177). Such an exercise of government power, however, was diametrically opposed to the roaming lifestyle of the Ogadeni.

The rebellion was launched on June 16, 1963, at Hodayo, a watering hole just north of Warder, where 300 men picked Makhtal Dahir to lead the overall insurgency, later dubbed the Western Somalia Liberation Front. (The term Western Somalia refers to the claim that the Ogaden is merely a western extension of Greater Somalia, rather than a separate entity; this played into the hands of President Barre of Somalia as he exerted greater control over the insurgency in the 1970s.) A former public official, Makhtal Dahir was almost larger than life. Standing at a then-abnormal height of six feet four inches with a bright-red beard, he was near-fanatical in his intent, vowing to continue with the rebellion with or without Somali involvement. However, no permanent organizational structure to coordinate a widespread insurgent movement was ever established in the Ogaden; Makhtal was so noticeable a target that he was forced to flee to Mogadishu, capital of the Somali Republic, and lead the insurgency as best he could from afar (Markakis 1987, 178). As is described in more detail in the following paragraphs, Somalia helped to fund, equip, and train these first leaders of the insurgent movement, even though they were hundreds of miles from the battlefields of the rebellion.

Nevertheless, the insurgency carried on for another nine months as an estimated 12,000 insurgents, equipped and trained by the Somali government, fought against the Ethiopian army. At one point, nearly 70 percent of the region was occupied by the WSLF. By August, however, the Ethiopians had regrouped and directed their assault against Somali border positions, a push that included an eight-week-long bombing campaign against targets in both the Ogaden and Somalia (New York Times 1963, 18). With one last major offensive in November 1963, the Ethiopians were able to secure a cease-fire with the Somalis by March 1964; negotiated by the newly-formed OAU, a demilitarized zone between six and ten miles deep on either side of the border was demarcated (Tiruneh 1993, 22).

Following this brief but destructive war, Somalia and Ethiopia began a process of détente: In 1967, the election of a moderate Somali government, headed by President Shemarke and Prime Minister Igal, lessened the importance of pan-Somalism and emphasized pan-Africanism. Détente between the two countries reached a high point with the official dissolution of the WSLF by President Siyaad Barre of Ethiopia in 1969; it is thus no surprise that support for the Ogaden insurgency was also at its lowest at this time (Tiruneh 1993, 23).

Although the cessation of hostilities meant the scaling back of Somali aid for the insurgents, this did not mean that the WSLF was inactive. Three months after the cease-fire, Makhtal Dahir was quoted as saying, “My people are under no one’s jurisdiction and take orders from no one but me. We have no intention of observing any cease-fire. Our fight with Ethiopia has nothing to do with Somalia. We are indifferent to the government position, though we still expect and hope our movement will be recognized both by Somali and Ethiopia” (New York Times 1964, 4). This assertion that the Ogaden resistance is independent of any Somali intervention will continue for the next three decades, regardless of how accurate the claim may be.

As relations between Ethiopia and Somalia warmed, Emperor Selassie’s government undertook harsh economic policies to punish the Ogaden nomads. In addition to the head taxes, the Ethiopian military actually began targeting livestock; in May and July 1964, more than 22,000 domestic animals were either killed or confiscated by troops, thus striking directly at the nomads’ precious source of income. Furthermore, a new policy of land registration encouraged Amhara farmers from the north to resettle in the valuable pasturelands in and around the Ogaden that were used by nomads’ herds as grazing areas. Under the new rules, the nomads had no recognized claim to this territory and were consequently harassed by the army. Anti-smuggling measures were also instituted, preventing the nomads from using age-old trade routes that necessarily crossed over from Ethiopia into Somalia. Last, existing water wells frequented by the nomads were poisoned, while new ones were dug for the incoming migration of northern farmers (de Waal 1991, 71-72). In short, such economic warfare aimed to deconstruct the nomads’ way of life.

Between 1973 and 1974, the region experienced massive drought, in which more than 28,000 were affected; unfortunately, the nomads were particularly vulnerable to the disaster, as land regulations prevented them from using the fertile pastoral lands, and the restriction of movement by antismuggling measures prevented them from finding better locales. As such, the Ethiopian government established the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) to provide some famine relief and medical treatment. Ultimately, however, the RRC proved only to further strain the nomadic social structure and allow the government to increase its control over the region (de Waal 1991, 73). Not only was movement in and out of the relief shelters severely restricted, administrators also greatly limited the number of domestic animals each family could keep (de Waal 1991, 73). By 1975, approximately 80,000 Ogadenis lived in eighteen relief shelters. Although the northern Amhara farmers repopulated the Ogaden with loyal settlers, the RRC sought to recondition the nomads by converting these shelters into government-controlled permanent settlements. Though the WSLF insurgency was relatively inactive during this time period, the operation was renewed as many Ogadeni men stayed away from the RRC relief camps. Believing this was a direct Ethiopian assault on their way of life, many turned back to armed opposition.

And yet, without Somali support, where would they go? Following the October revolution in Somalia, which saw the fall of the moderate Shemarke-Igal government, army commander Siyaad Barre rose to power and became president in late 1969. Concerned with consolidating his power base, Barre wanted to limit the possibility of an attack by a foreign power by seeking further rapprochement with Ethiopia; he did so by officially disbanding the WSLF in late 1969 and early 1970. However, in light of the domestic support his regime required, Barre was forced to reassess the utility of this Somali insurgency.

Although a multitude of clans held influence over the political landscape of the Somali republic, only a few needed to support him in order to maintain his hold over the national government. Among them was the Ogadeni clan, ethnic relatives of the same nomads that comprised much of the Ethiopian-held Ogaden region. In exchange for their support of his regime, President Barre would provide military and financial aid to the insurgents (de Waal 1991, 74). By 1975, Barre had begun to fulfill his promise by secretly opening three training camps near the Ethiopian border. Interestingly enough, no deal was made with any representatives of the Ogadeni people in Ethiopia; the decision was made entirely by the clan elite in Mogadishu.

Alongside the developments in Somalia, Ethiopia was also experiencing massive sociopolitical change. Beginning in February 1974, the Selassie regime was drawing fire from many sectors of society: Ranging from socialist activists and unions, teachers, and taxi drivers to the military, this wide coalition provided the momentum necessary to uproot the ancien regime of imperial Ethiopia. With the deposition of Emperor Selassie later that September and the subsequent creation of a socialist state under military rule, the strength to subdue insurgencies as had been done in 1964 was no longer certain. This is clearly illustrated by the rise of several insurgencies and liberation movements throughout the entire country. In the northern half of the country were the Afar, the Tigray, and the Eritrean rebels, whereas in the south was the Oromo movement and patches of Ogaden resistance, all of whom sought some degree of autonomous control over their respective regions. In addition to these separatists movements, the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) arose as a conservative counterforce to Mengistu’s military junta. Backed by Arab states, the EDU represented the most viable challenger of the military’s dominance of the Addis Ababa government.

By 1976, the Ethiopian government was in disarray, attacked from all sides by a variety of liberation and resistance groups; combine this with Barre’s commitment to domestic supporters to provide aid for the various Somali insurgences, and we find a situation primed for an encounter between not only the WSLF and the Ethiopian government but also between the two powers of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia.

In March 1976, the WSLF war against the Ethiopian government began in full earnest as guerrilla units struck targets in the Ogaden from their Somali positions; by early 1977, mixed units of Somali regulars and guerrillas were active in the region, harassing Ethiopian military positions. Achieving limited success with these mixed units, Addis Ababa finally authorized the full invasion of the Ogaden by the Somali army in July 1977.

The Insurgents

The nature of the insurgent movement distinguishes the Ogaden conflict from so many of its contemporaries. In most instances, the insurgency is the result of some domestic unrest; that is, the idea for rebellion, its organization, and its sources of aid were usually found initially within the country itself, precluding the need for foreign support. However, for the Western Somalia Liberation Front and its associated organizations, such as the SALF, it has proven difficult to separate out the Ogadeni insurgency from the military activities and sabotage of the Somali government (Tiruneh 1993, 24). And although the intersection of interests—the grievances of the Ogadeni nomads against the Ethiopian government and the pan-Somalist policies of Mogadishu—may have at times produced a mutual benefit for both parties, it was usually the case that the they simply could not agree on the course of the insurgency. The rest of this section seeks to explain this.

Sources: De Waal 1991; Marshall and Jaggers 2002; Sarkees 2000 ; World Bank 2001.
War: WSLF vs. government
Dates: March 1976-January 1985
Casualties: 40,000
Regime type prior to war: -7 (Polity 2 variable in polity 4 data, ranging from -10 to 10)
Regime type after war: -8 (Polity 2 variable in polity 4 data, ranging from -10 to 10)
GDP per capita year war began: US $99.50 (constant 1995 US dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $100 (constant 1995 US dollars)
Insurgents: Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF)
Issue: “Sons of the soil” dynamic; Somali irredentism
Rebel funding: Somali aid and training
Role of geography: Desert and sparse pasturelands left insurgents vulnerable to air and ground attacks by conventional Ethiopian forces.
Role of resources: Large, undeveloped petroleum deposits increased the strategic and economic value of the region; however, the presence of these deposits did not directly benefit either side during the conflict.
Immediate outcome: WSLF insurgents continued to harass Ethiopian military units following the Somali defeat in 1978 until the mid-1980s.
Outcome after 5 years: Somalia renounced its claim to the Ogaden, with the Ethiopian government granting the region limited autonomy. Sporadic fighting between the WSLF/ONLF and the Ethiopian military, however, still occurs.
Role of UN: Facilitated peace talks; provided humanitarian aid for refugees.
Role of regional organization: OAU was active in both mediating peace talks and providing humanitarian aid.
Refugees: 800,000; 65 percent repatriated after 5 years
Prospects for peace: Favorable, although a real possibility of future intermittent conflict exists.
Table 1: Civil War in Ethiopia

The nomadic peoples of the Ogaden region have long viewed themselves as relatively independent of the bureaucratic rule of distant governments, regardless of whether that meant Addis Ababa or Mogadishu. As pastoralists, the nomads were primarily concerned with tending to their herds of livestock; as noted earlier, they traded very little with those outside of the Ogaden, thus yielding little economic benefit for any overarching authority. When Ethiopian rule was established in the early twentieth century and reaffirmed in 1948, the nomads were by no means content with the situation; however, since the Ogadeni had had such little contact with Addis Ababa in the first place, there was not much reason for mass resistance. Certainly, there were conflicts between the two peoples, but these encounters did not usually extend beyond the jurisdiction of the local police force.

Begun in 1963, the WSLF was initially a response to a dual threat to the nomadic way of life: the imposition of head taxes and the redistribution of valuable pasturelands. Although it has been said that the insurgency was directed against the Ethiopians in the name of a Greater Somalia, this was initially not the case; before considering secession and annexation to the Somali Republic, the insurgents were first interested in having the taxes and new land policies repealed. Before one can speak of nationalism and ethnic pride, one must first be able to acquire food and shelter. The nomads were obviously concerned with expelling the Ethiopians from the Ogaden, but given how little the two interacted, one could say the nomads would have been content at that point in the insurgency just to be left alone. In other words, rather than classifying the initial stages of the conflict as being a conflict over irredentist rights, one could instead liken it to one with a “sons of the soil,” dynamic in which a minority population of a certain region attempts to expel from their land migrants sponsored or encouraged to move there by the state government.

However, the irredentist message eventually began to take hold as pan-Somalists in Mogadishu eyed the Ogaden. Although there was certainly a lull in Somali aid following the 1963 insurgency, by the time Siyaad Barre was able to consolidate his power base in Mogadishu, the Ogaden groups, particularly the WSLF, were once again receiving significant support. As explained earlier, without the support of the Ogaden clan in Somalia, Barre would not have been able to assert himself as the undisputed leader of the country. Once he had secured that support, Barre was committed to aiding the insurgency in Ethiopia for as long as it was in the interest of the Somali state to do so. It is again worth noting that the initial agreement Barre made was with the Ogaden living within Somalia, not with the insurgents who would later engage in the actual fighting. They were excluded from these high-level discussions (de Waal 1991, 74). The Ogaden with whom Barre had allied had their own plans: To absorb a region inhabited by one million nomads, the majority of whom are part of the Ogaden clan itself, would greatly increase the strength of the clan in the Mogadishu regime; the concerns of the nomads were considered secondary to this political objective.

In exchange for Somali funding of the various irredentist movement—such as the construction of training camps and the provision of Soviet-made weapons—groups such as the WSLF could only operate if their initiatives did not interfere with Somali interests. Until March 1978, with the defeat of Somali forces by the Ethiopian and Cuban troops, Mogadishu was in complete control of the insurgency. The WSLF itself had been reorganized in 1976 and placed under the direct control of President Barre and his Ministry of Defense. When nomadic insurgents actively disagreed with him, Barre would simply have them imprisoned. Furthermore, following the Somali invasion in July 1977, Barre was intent on limiting the influence of the WSLF in the now Somali-held Ogaden. Behind the Somali front, Barre ordered the army to remove any apparatus the WSLF had for civil governance by having them sent back to Mogadishu and arrested. Barre wanted the WSLF to have as much authority in the region as possible. Given the rebellious history of the Ogaden region and the independent-minded nomads, to share power with the WSLF only would have opened the door to later pushes for greater autonomy. Barre further limited the influence of the WSLF by also prohibiting the Front’s leadership, the Central Committee, from entering the Ogaden; those leaders of the WSLF who were needed on the battlefield were scattered throughout the entire front of the war, intermixed with the military, and thus their command was diluted (Markakis 1987, 230). When it suited him, Barre would frequently purge the WSLF leadership to ensure that no one would acquire too much power (Markakis 1987, 232). Even relations within the fighting forces were strained; not only were the Somali regulars better equipped, they were also paid, unlike the WSLF fighters. This prompted many insurgents to abandon their positions and return home without permission.

This relationship between the Somalis and the insurgents continued on well into the 1980s. Though there was a steep dropoff in Somali aid following the Ethiopian victory in 1978, Mogadishu continued to fund the low-level guerrilla attacks by the WSLF and other insurgent groups. It was not until April 1988 that Somalia finally agreed to stop funding these movements, although by then the WSLF had effectively run its course as a guerrilla force.

Although Somali aid had definitely helped the WSLF and the other Ogaden fighters to maintain a viable insurgency, such external involvement also seemed to have had a deleterious effect on the overall success of the insurgency. The 1977 Somali invasion had not been well received by the international community; since its creation in 1963, the OAU had been committed to preserving the borders of the colonial holdings. The rationale for such a policy was to prevent nationalist and secessionist forces from tearing apart the emerging African state system. It was widely believed that to disregard the agreed-upon borders of one state to satisfy the demands of a minority group would work against continental stability. This OAU commitment to the previous borders was echoed in the United Nations and among the Western powers. Thus, the perception of Somali expansionism and the complete identification of the Ogadeni cause with the Somali state precluded any further regional or international support for the insurgency (Markakis 1987, 231). Even with the cessation of Somali aid, the WSLF and others still suffered the stigma of association.


The Ogaden region has a total area of 125,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) and is mostly desert. Dominated by thorny vegetation, underground water is the main source of life. Except for the fertile belts along river basins where limited sedentary life exists, it is a barren and bleak landscape of flat-topped hills and sloping plains. It is in the Haud pastures along these river basins that the nomads are able to make their living. Directly to the northwest of the Ogaden lies the fertile Harargh plateau (Markakis 1987, 171). In addition to the major cities of Harar, Jigjiga, and Dire Dawa, the Harargh is also home to “rolling plains and lush valleys that are watered by numerous rivers and ample seasonal rains; [it] is one of Ethiopia’s richest agricultural regions,” where some of the country’s staple crops (e.g., teff, barley, wheat, and coffee) are cultivated (Tareke 2000, 638).

Strategically speaking, the Ogaden was an important region to hold despite the fact that it is a barren desert. The region juts out into Somalia, effectively cutting the country in half. With an Ethiopian army occupying the region, Somali interaction between the northern and southern halves proved extremely difficult. Furthermore, the Ogaden allowed Ethiopia a buffer zone between the more prosperous regions of the Hararghe in the north and Somalia. Although maintaining the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state was a major factor inciting the Ogaden conflict, it makes more economic sense to see the region as a way to protect more profitable areas of production.

Regarding the actual insurgency, the barren desert offered little cover for the WSLF fighters; this was especially the case when the Ethiopian Air Force, arguably the best in Africa at the time, was deployed to attack insurgent positions. The terrain also lent itself to the use of mechanized units in combat; with little impediment, tanks were used heavily by Somalis and Ethiopians alike during the 1977-1978 phase of the insurgency. What was of help to the insurgents was the lack of development in the region; with few roads and long distances between settlements, WSLF fighters were able to conduct an effective guerrilla war against Ethiopian positions for a significant amount of time. At one point during the months following the Somali retreat in March 1978, the insurgency controlled more than 70 percent of the region, with Ethiopian forces relegated to the major administrative centers. Overall, however, geography was not a crucial factor in determining the outcome of the conflict.


As with many insurgencies, the WSLF and the other Ogaden fighters concentrated on using guerrilla hit-and-run tactics against Ethiopian positions; this also included the mining of major roads, railways, and bridges (Kaufman 1978, All). In addition, the insurgents used radio and other media to push forward anti-Ethiopian propaganda. As late as 1976, all this had been accomplished with little or no coordination between the various insurgent units; in fact, these units would actually compete with each other for territory, men, and booty, only to be kept in check by Mogadishu (de Waal 1991, 74). As stated previously, all weapons were supplied by the Somali army and were used by as many as 20,000 insurgents.

In combating the insurgents directly, the Ethiopian government used several tactics. First, they were primarily concerned with defending the major administrative centers, such as Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jigjiga, to preserve some semblance of Ethiopian rule. By 1979, however, the Ethiopian army undertook a far more active campaign against the insurgents not only by attacking the guerrillas themselves but also by directing their attacks at the populations’ means of survival—for example, livestock, water wells, pasturelands, and trade routes. The approach was fourfold:

  1. Much of the population was forcibly displaced into RRC shelters and protected villages.
  2. Military offensives were directed at all people and assets remaining outside the shelters.
  3. Settlers from other parts of Ethiopia were relocated to the region.
  4. Addis Ababa itself helped fund several Somali insurgent groups that opposed the regime of President Barre (de Waal 1991, 94).

Although the first three approaches were certainly effective in curbing armed WSLF opposition, it was the fourth approach that effectively ended the civil conflict. The first three not only weakened the social structure of the Ogadeni nomads, they also created a major humanitarian disaster as nearly 800,000 refugees fled the region, many crossing into Somalia. It was not until the fall of the Barre regime and the ensuing conflicts between the Somali warlords that this refugee tide reversed its course.

Just as Ethiopia experienced civil unrest, so did Somalia. As mentioned earlier, President Barre relied mainly on the support of three major clans, effectively ignoring the rest. Dissatisfied with the amount of influence these three had, other clans such as the Isaaqs formed small paramilitary units to gain power. When Somalia suffered its major defeat in March 1978, these other clans, in conjunction with the some disgruntled members of the military, officially launched an insurgent movement directed against the Barre regime. The two most notable were the Somali National Movement (SNM), consisting of clans from northern and central Somalia, and the Somali Salvation Front, a separate group composed of former soldiers. Eventually, the two would combine to form the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). Just as the Somalis had begun to do in the 1960s and 1970s, the Ethiopians now used insurgent forces to combat the WSLF and Somali units (Darnton 1978 ). In conjunction with the Ethiopian military, the SSDF was able to drastically reduce the effectiveness of Ogaden fighters; by 1985, neither the WSLF nor any other insurgent group in the Ogaden posed a viable threat to Addis Ababa.

Causes of the War

Any conflict has a variety of causes. In the case of the Ogaden insurgency, the three main causes were these:

  1. Ogadeni frustration with oppressive taxation and the redistribution of land created a “sons of the soil” dynamic.
  2. The foreign policy of Somalia was driven by the idea of pan-Somalism, of which Somalia’s involvement in the Ogaden was an application.
  3. The weakened state of the Ethiopian government following the 1974 coup d’état and the subsequent insurrections in all parts of the country contributed to the perception that the Ogaden was open to further attacks from abroad.

However, it is the opinion of this analysis that the insurgency was driven primarily by the first cause.


Conflict Status

The Ogaden insurgency, as it was referred to until 1985, no longer exists. As Somali aid dried up in the 1980s, so did enthusiasm for the WSLF. Rightly interpreted as a puppet of Mogadishu, former leaders of the WSLF, most notably Makhtal Dahir, split off and formed the Ogaden National Liberation Front. Officially merging with the WSLF in 1991, the ONLF was transformed from a paramilitary organization into a political one. With the Ogaden receiving some autonomy in 1987, the ONLF shifted its priorities and became much more involved in the political organization and mobilization of the Ogadeni people. Although the Ethiopian government has effectively eliminated the insurgency, sporadic attacks by the army against the ONLF have been reported.

Duration Tactics

There are several reasons why the Ogaden insurgency lasted so long. The first and most important is the extensive Somali aid. Without it, the Ogadenis would have had little chance against the Ethiopians, especially when Addis Ababa began to receive military aid from the Soviet Union in 1978. Another reason for the insurgency’s long duration was the remoteness of the region. At the time, because the Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa was also involved in battling a number of other insurgent groups— such as the Oromo Liberation Front in the south, Afar rebels in the northeast, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the north— it could not devote the bulk of its military wholly to defeating the Ogadeni fighters. Finally, the fact that the nomads were fighting for their right to live in their ancestral home—that is, a “sons of the soil” dynamic—helps to explain in part why the Ogadeni were willing to fight for so long. As a matter of both survival and pride, the nomads were not going to allow themselves to be pushed off their ancestral lands.

External Military Intervention

Although the United States had little involvement with either Somalia or Ethiopia during the high point of the Ogaden insurgency, both the Soviet Union and Cuba were particularly active in the region. Prior to 1977, Somalia had been a client state of the Soviet Union, who supplied Somalia with large shipments of military equipment, training, and advisors. Located between the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa is an attractive location to control. In exchange for the support, the Soviet Union was guaranteed access to the Somali port of Berbera.

Yet despite these good relations, an uneasy relationship existed between President Barre/ Somalia and the Soviet Union (Laitin 1979, 99). Barre assumed that the Soviet Union would be willing to support the irredentist policies of pan-Somalism; however, just as the rest of the international community had done, the Soviet Union also frowned upon the rewriting of African borders, especially when the instrument for doing so was invasion. Not receiving the support he required from the Soviet Union to undertake the massive offensive in 1977, Barre expelled all Soviet advisors and cut off all aid. Barre had wrongly calculated that if he cut his ties with the Soviet bloc, the West would be more willing to aid the Somalis’ venture into the Ogaden. Given international opinion, it is not surprising that neither the United States nor any other Western power provided support.

After its expulsion from Somalia in the summer of 1977, the Soviet Union simply turned around and allied itself with Ethiopia. Not only was the regime in Ethiopia less demanding than that of President Barre, there were other considerations: Mengistu’s regime in Addis Ababa, though a military junta, had demonstrated willingness to echo the rhetoric of the civilian left and act upon it. Ethiopia was also strategically significant, especially with the recent discovery of oil fields in the Ogaden. And Ethiopia was the second-largest nation in black Africa, with 26.5 million people (Tiruneh 1993, 222).

Because the Soviet Union made its switch in the middle of the war between the two African countries, it was able to heavily influence the outcome of the conflict. By August 1977, the Soviet Union had airlifted nearly $1 billion in military hardware—MiG fighter planes, armored personnel carriers, and thousands of light and heavy arms. In addition to this massive infusion of weapons, the Soviets also provided the Ethiopian military with 1,500 advisors, many of whom had been stationed in Somalia only a few months previously; Cuba, under Soviet direction, also contributed by providing a force of 18,000 fully equipped Cuban troops.

Conflict Management Efforts

Although both the OAU and the United Nations tried to negotiate a settlement between the insurgents and the Ethiopian government, it was the OAU that was eventually able to secure the various cease-fires between the combatants. The UN was involved primarily with the humanitarian work with the Ogadeni refugees.


It is important to remember from this discussion that domestic forces are not always the most influential determinants of the course of a civil war. In fact, as can be seen from the Ogaden insurgency, one must also strongly consider how a state’s external environment can shape internal processes of domestic unrest.

Clearly, the insurgency followed a “son of the soil” dynamic in which the WSLF initially responded to a harsh tax policy and an even more brutal redistribution of land that jeopardized the Ogadeni way of life. And yet, as motivated as the insurgents were by these threats to their livelihood, it was not enough to sustain a large-scale guerrilla campaign against the better-equipped, better-trained Ethiopian army. It was only when Somalia intervened on the side of the Ogadeni that the insurgency had a real possibility of becoming a viable and effective threat to the Ethiopian grip on the region. Driven by a combination of irredentist tendencies and tribal politics, the Barre regime not only supplied and trained the insurgents for sustained combat but also enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the decision-making apparatus of the insurgency.

Although the Barre regime preached Somali solidarity, once it was obvious that it could not defeat the combined forces of the Ethiopian and Soviet militaries, the regime quickly folded on its commitment and left the insurgents to fend for themselves. Ultimately, the Ogadeni were able to continue fighting for a number of years following the 1976 war by using hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, but to say that they were still a credible force would be to greatly overstate their strength. The Ogadeni insurgency is a prime example of how actors, given that their interests coincide, can drive a domestic conflict regardless of national borders.