Conflict in the Horn of Africa

Report Middle East

Conflict in the Horn of Africa

July 13, 1977 19 min read Download Report
Samuel T.
F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
(Archived document, may contain errors)

24 July 13, 1977 CONFLICT IN THE HORN OF AFRICA The Horn of Africa comprises those nations on the north eastern coast of the African continent that border the R ed Sea and its outlet into the Gulf of Aden (and, thence, to the Indian Ocean The most important nations here are Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and most recently, the newly in dependent Republic of Djibouti. Although the area is of little importance economica l ly these nations are among the poorest in the world in recent years interna1.h stability, increasingly strained relations among the Horn nations, a strengthened Soviet presence, and a weakening American role in the area have all contributed to the im port a nce of the Horn in international politics. Despite the poverty and weakness of these countries, their loca tion controls passage from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Further more, political control of these countries permits logis tical access to other countries in both North and Central Africa as well as to the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East.

The importance of the Horn of Africa is, therefore, almost entirely political and strategic the U.S. relations hips with this area include President Carter's decision on February 24 to terminate military assistance to Ethiopia and the expulsion on April 26 of the American military and consular presence by the Ethiopian government. While the President has evidently chosen to pursue a "moralistic" policy in the area, an alternative approach would include a careful examination of the prag matic interests of the U.S. in the Horn of Africa and a Recent developments in I NOTE reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundati o n or as an at tempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily -2 policy designed to defend these interests. Without a knowledge of the recent history of the Horn nations and of their pr o spects for the near future, an intelligent policy cannot be designed FTHI OP IA: I NTFRNAL H I STORY Under the long rule of the Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974 Ethiopia was the strongest U.S. ally in Africa. However, on September 12, 1974, the Emperor w a s overthrown by a military coup. The government which then came to power was the Provi sional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) or, as it has come to be called "The Dergue Junta). Originally, the Dergue consisted of 120 military officers, led by its chairman Lt. General Aman Michael Andom. Soon after the coup, however the Dergue itself was purged, and sixty members, including General Andom, were executed in November 19

74. Thereafter leadership fell upon three officers: the New Chairman, Brig.

Genera l Teferi Bante; the First Deputy Chairman, Major Mengistu Haile Mariam; and the Second Deputy Chairman, LA Colonel Atnafu Abate ended on February 3, 1977, when Bante and Mengistu engaged in a gunfight at the secret headquarters of the Dergue. Bante and si x of his aides were killed. Colonel Abate was not pre sent and so escaped, but since that date, Colonel Mengistu, who was trained in the United States, has been the de facto head of state These three soon fell in-k.0 :rivalry that From the very beginning o f its rule, the Dergue has adopted a strong left-wing course. In the first six months of its regime all land and the major banks and industries were nationalized and the feudal relationships between landlord and tenant abolished. The Dergue also created th e "Ethiopian National Democratic Revolutionary Program providing for -i a transition to socialism. I' This program includes the egtablis-en of peasants' organizations and tenants' commit'tees'to carry through land reforms and punish "exploiters These insti t utions have the power to impose sentences of fi'fteen day hard labor and three m6.1~:&3 imprisonment against those convicted of exploit ation, and there is no appeal from their verdicts. The uni versities have also been closed, and the press and radio so heavily infused with Marxist jargon that the regime issued a special dictionary to help the populace understand it.

These reforms have amounted to a social revolution in Ethiopia.

Not only has the means of production been nationalized, but I -3 also power has essentially been rapidly transferred from the hce- powerful Amhara tribe of the northern parts of Ethiopia to the Galla tribe of the south. The Amharas have traditionally been landowners, and the Gallas shepherds warriors, and nomads.

Internally, the rule of the Dergue has met with armed resis tance, partly because of the massive resentment at its re forms and its brutal regime and partly because it has failed to stabilize its power and defeat its enemies. This resis tance has become intense. Of the f ourteen provinces of Ethiopia, seven now have guerilla insurgency movements. The most significant of these resistance movements has centered on the northeast province of Eritrea, which comprises 10 per cent of the land area of Ethiopia and includes its en tire 540-mile seacoast on the Red Sea.

If the Dergue were to recognize the independence of Eritrea as the rebels demand, the country would become landlocked.

Eritrea was ruled by Italy from 1885 to 1941, when the British occupied it. In 1952, it became pa rt of Ethiopia and in 1962, a formal part of the Ethiopian empire. In 1961 however, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was formed. The ELF originally had a strong Marxist orientation, but has ap parently moved toward a Moslem position. It was not active un til 1965 and the rebellion did not become serious until 1971.

The rebellion was originally a Moslem movement against the Christian government of the Emperor, but more recently it has involved ideological and social conflicts. A splinter group from the E LF is the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF probably more Marxist than the ELF but smaller with 12-15,000 men in the field to the ELF'S 22-25,0

00. Still another group is the Eritrean Liberation Front-Popular Forces, a splinter from the EPLF led by Osman Saleh Sabe, with 2500-3000 troops but with considerable financial support from Arab sources.

All rebel forces deny that they are officially Marxist, and all probably contain diverse elements. But the leadership of both the ELF and the EPLF is Marxi st. The EPLF in particular has relied on Soviet arms the Kalashnikov automatic rifle and Soviet anti-aircraft weaponry though the guerillas in creasingly make use of American arms captured from Ethiopian regulars. The Eritreans also receive some moral and financial support from Arab states, especially Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Sudan, though they sympathize with Eritrean aims, have pro vided only small support and have urged unity and negotiation with the Dergue. Only Sabe'of the new splinter group receives su b stantial financial aid from the Arab states. The EPLF has accused him of having embezzled $20 million from these funds. -4 Despite their disunity, the Eritrean rebels--have made con siderable progress in their war forces of the EPLF captured Nakfa, the ca p ital of the nor thern Sahel district of Eritrea. Earlier they captured Edd on the Red Sea and Tesseni on the Sudanese border; later they took Afabet and, thus, cleared the entire district of l,l.op~~an troops. The siege of Nakfa remains their most im pres s ive military achievement. It lasted six months and included two parachute drops and an action designed to open a road involving 5,400 men and armor support. The Eritreans have the advantage of the Ethiopians in manpower unusual in guerilla warfare but the Ethiopians control the air with American F-86 fighters, C-119 transports, and F-5E ground support jets On Mar'ch.22 1'977;]'the E-tT 2 Given this success, it is not surprising that the Eritreans refuse to compromise with the Dergue.

Lpressures to unify th e- separatist-.rnovemen.t.iand to nggotiate with the Dergue were.'rejected though the ELF, and the EPLF did agree on May 31 to form a National Democratic Front Recent Soviet and Cuban The Dergue has embarked on a determined effort to crush the Eritrean re b ellion. It is currently trying to raise a peasant army of 50-200,000 men and Mengistu has sought Soviet military aid. In late April, the Dergue began a reign of terror. Ac cording to the Ethiopian Herald, 971 "counter-revolutionaries were "liquidated" in Gondar province in the north. Diplomats in Addis Ababa later reported that 500 students and young people were killed in the capital by government forces, which then charged money to the victims' families for return of the bodies.

Eritrea is not the only revolting province. Among the others that are in rebellion is the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Army (EPRA), strong in the urban areas, extreme Marxist in orientation, and popular among academicians. In the southern desert provi n ce of Ogaden, Somalia supports another in surgency movement, the Western Somalia Liberation Front WSLF). However, outside of Eritrea, the most serious insur gencies have developed in the northern provinces of Begemdir and Tigre. In the former, the Ethiopi a n Democraic Union EDU) fielded a force of 4,000 men in 1976 and 1s largely tra ditionalist and non-Marxist. Its members tend to be supporters of Haile Selassie. It was against the EDU's strength in Gondar that the purges of late April were directed. In Ju n e, the government recaptured Humera and Metemma in Gondar from the EDU. In Tigre, the Tigre People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is pro-Marxist. -5 FXTFRNAI RFI ATIONS WITH THF SUPERPOWERS Externally, Ethiopia has moved away from the United States and much cl oser to the Communist bloc. Between 1945 and 1975, the U.S. gave $618 million in military and economic aid to Ethiopia and was virtually the only source of arms.

In 1953, the two countries signed a mutual defense pact.

However, since the anti-imperial cou p, relations have been strained. In July, 1976, three officers of the Dergue were executed on charges of spying for the CIA. Nevertheless in 1976, the Dergue purchased over $150 million worth of military equipment from the U.S. including the M-60 tank the F-5E fighter, long-range artillery, and a radar complex.

U. S. aid to g.thfopia-was s'low and 6n- Februa.ryi.22 1977 the Carter Administration suspended all military aid to Ethiopia on the grounds that the government was violating human rights.

The Dergu e has, from the beginning, pursued a policy of re- jL alignment. Its members have almost all been leftists and Marxists of various ideological persuasions, and the body has described its reforms as "scientific socialism." Though ideologically the Dergue h a s been associated with Maoist doc trines, its acutal policy has- increasingly-turned to the Soviet Union. In December 1976, a military delegation from Ethiopia went to Moscow and obtained a secret agreement for the pur chase of over $100 million in arms. O n May 4, 1976, Colonel Mengistu himself made an official visit to the Soviet Union and held talks with President Podgorny and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Mengistu obtained a $300 million arms agree ment. A report of the arrival in Ethiopia in May of 20-40 T-34 Soviet tanks, an equal number of armored personnel car riers, and artillery and light arms from the USSR was con firmed, and 80 T-54 tanks were reported delivered in June.

On April 23, the Ethiopian government expelled the consulates of six coun tries those of the U.S., Sudan, Italy, France Belgium, and Great Britain. Also included in the expulsion were about 100 civilian and military personnel and their 250 dependents of five other U.S. organizations. These organi zations were the U.S. cultural c enter in Addis Ababa, with .2 six officers; the Kagnew Radio Communications Station and the Consulate in Asmara (in Eritrea with 45 persons; the Naval Medical Research Unit in Addis Ababa with twenty persons: and the Military Assistance Advisory Group, wi t h 46 persons, also in Addi's Ababa. For two months prior to the expulsion, F -6 Ethiopian radio had conducted open attacks o_n the u.,.S the CIA, and on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, whom it accused of "looking for ways and means of r eversing the Ethiopian revolution Mengistu since the explusion, has sought military and economic aid from the USSR as well as from Yugoslavia, Cuba, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, Libya, and Viet Nam. Fidel Castro visited Ethiopia in April and later hailed the Ethiopian revolution as Africa's first truly Marxist revolu tion, and Cuba later announced that it was sending "military advisors" to Ethiopia. At the present time, there are be lieved to be about fifty Cuban advisers in the country thoug h larger numbers have also been reported. A military civilian delegation recently returned to Ethiopia from Viet Nam where, reportedly at the suggestion of the Soviets, it sought American arms captured at the fall of Saigon. Since about 80 percent of the E t hiopian armed forces' military equipment is at present suppl'ied by.-the U. S the government must obtain a supply of spare parts and replacements if its ipresene arsena-1 'is to reg-ain useful EXTFRNA~ RFI ATI ONS ITH ADJACFNT STATFS The 1974 coup in Ethi o pia, and the rebellion and changes in foreign policy which it entailed, is the main reason for the destabilization and uncertainty that now pertain in the Horn of Africa. Aside from the relationship with the U.S. and the USSR, Ethiopian foreign policy has also been affected in its relationship with Somalia and Sudan. As indicated above both countries support, at least tacitly, insurgency move ments in Ethiopia, and Somalia has claims to Ethiopian territory SUDAN Sudan has become generally pro-Western under the leadership of General Mohammed al-Nimeiry, who seized power in 1969.

Though al-Nimeiry originally moved close to the Soviets Communist officers in the army sought to assassinate-him in 19

71. He quelled the rebellion and crushed the Sudanese Communis t party. Since 1973, he has moved closer to the U.S. in the wake of Egypt's similar moves. Relations with Ethiopia have deteriorated since the Dergue's coup, and al-Nimeiry believes Ethiopia aided the brief Libyan invas ion of Sudan in July 1976, when a d i ssident right-wing Moslem sect, the Ansars, rebelled in Khartoum. About 5,000 Ansars are now in Ethiopian refugee camps, and there are said to be 150,000 Eritrean fugitives in Sudan. kl-Nimeiry has re cently expelled about 90 Soviet advisors after Ethiopi a ex pelled the Americans, and he has charged that there are 2,500 Cuban advisors in Ethiopia. Since last summer, Sudan has in creased its aid to the Eritreans. -7 SoMALIA The major conflict in the Horn is that between Somalia and Ethiopia. Somalia, under the leadership of Muhammed Siad Barre, has claims to the Ogaden prov.ince in Ethiopia and has supported insurgents there. It also has a claim to Djibouti, the former French colony of Afars and Issas.

Just as Ethiopia has been dependent on U.S. arms supplie s so Somalia has been dependent on the Soviet Union since 1963, when the USSR became the sole supplier of arms to Somalia. With an army of 25,000 men and a 1974 military budget of $15 million, the Somali armed forces have 200 T-34 tanks, 50 T-54/55 medium tanks, 60 BTR-40 and 250 .

BTR-152 armored personnel carriers. Its artillery includes over 100 76mm. cannon, 80 gun-howitzers of 122mm. which can fire 22 kg. shells at a range of 21,900 meters. It also has about 150 anti-aircraft guns of calibers up to 1OOmm.

The Somali air force consists of about 66 planes: 10 Soviet Ilyushin-28's in a light bomber squadron, 12 MIG-21's in a fighter squadron, and 2 fighter/ground attack squadrons with 44 MIG-17's and MIG-15's. There are 4,000 Soviet ad visors in Somalia and the head of UN operations in the country is also a Soviet, identified by Western intelligence as a member of the KGB. Siad Barre's own internal security forces are dominated by the KGB, which uses them to spy on foreign missions.

In return for this ai d, the USSR has made intensive use of Somalia for its military presence in the Indian Ocean. On June 10, 1975, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger testi fied before the Senate Armed Services Committee and revealed aerial photographs of a large Soviet c o mplex at Berbera on the Indian Ocean coast of Somalia. The complex included a cruise missile facility. Both Somalia and the Soviet Union denied this and some political opponents of Schlesinger sug gested that the Department of Defense had fabricated the p h otographs. However, in July 1975, a delegation of senators led by Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma visited Berbera and con firmed Schlesinger's testimony. They estimated that there were 500-1500 Soviet personnel in Berbera. The Soviets also make use of similar f acilities at Kismayu on the Somali coast. Fidel Castro also visited Somalia on his recent tour of Africa, but his attempt to mediate between Ethiopia and Somalia was not successful. Siad Barre claims that all Cuban advisors in Somalia have now left. -8 Th e principal conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia centers on the Republic of Djibouti. On June 27, 1977, this country gained its independence from France. As the Territory of the Afars and the Issas, it had been the last European colony in Africa. Though E t hiopia has no real claim to the area, the only linkage between Addis Ababa and the sea is through the railroad that connects the Ethiopian capital to the port of Djibouti, which carries about 80 percent of Ethiopia's for eign trade. The security of the po r t is thus of the utmost importance to Ethiopia. In late June, the railroad link was at least temporarily disrupted when Somali-supported guer illas (WSLF) blew it up. The Republic of Djibouti is an al most unbelievably poor country. It is reported to have 90 per cent unemployment, 90 percent illiteracy, no natural resources and only three college graduates in the entire country. Of the two major tribes, the larger is the Issas, which make up 75 per cent of the population and who are Somali-speaking Somalia n claims to the country are based on this fact The smaller tribe, the Afars, were favored by the French and are at pre sent the dominant force. However, the first President of the Republic is Hassan Gouled Aptidon, an Issa, who leads the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Somali Coast. This development could increase the likelihood of war between Somalia and Ethiopia for control of Djibouti, though France has increased its military forces there by 50 percent to pre vent such a contingency.

Conflict wit hin the Horn of Africa thus appears to be profound and chronic and affects both the internal stability of the re gional nations and their external relationships. War is by no means unlikely in the near future. In the last week of June charges of invasions and counter-invasions in the area were exchanged by representatives of the Horn nations at the meet ings of the Organization of African Unity in Libreville e International war in the Horn of Africa could have repercussions far beyond the poor and unimport a nt nations of the area. Three areas that could be affected by such a war are the following 1) Central Africa: Sudan has a precariously hostize relationship to Chad and to Libya. Kenya has been at odds with.Somalia, which has claims to Kenyan as well as to -9 Ethiopian territory. Kenya also has been increasingly hostile to Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin, and it will be recalled that it was from Nairobi that Israeli commandos launched their now famous raid on Entebbe airport in July 19

76. A war between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan, or bey tween any two of the three could easily explode into a gen eral conflagration of north central Africa and lead to major changes in the power balance there 2) The Mideast: Since the occupation of the S i nai by Israel in 1973, the Israelis have had secure access to the Red Sea through the port of Aqaba on the Gulf of Aqaba the passage through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean is con trolled by the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, which can be choked off at Djibout i . The Israeli commercial trading firm, Zim,-y provides about 30 percent of the port's traffic. Since the cutting of the railroad between Djibouti and Addis Ababa Israeli ships have used the Ethiopian port of Assaba on the Eritrean coast. Across the Bab el Mandeb is the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, also under heavy Soviet influ ence and also a threat to Israeli access to the Indian Ocean.

The PDR Yemen has relied on Soviet military aid, including aircraft and tanks, and there are 3000-4000 Cubans there. A bloc of moderate Arab states Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and North Yemen have sought to woo Somalia from its Soviet posture, collaborating with Kuwait and the United Arab terri tories, and the Saudis have exerted similar pressure on the PDR Yemen t hrough an aid program of $400 million But 3) The Indian Ocean: Because of the increasing focus of the U.S USSR rivalry in the Indian Ocean, and because the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa represent one of the major points of entry to the Ocean, the conflic t s in the Horn connect with world politics on a grand scale. Instability in this region presents an uncertainty for the world's major powers that is intolerable, and its importance to the colonial powers of the past underlines its continued importance toda y . Great Bri tain, France, and Italy all had colonies in the Horn in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But if instability is intolerable, so also would be domination of the Horn by a single contemporary power bloc. The route from the Persian Gu l f around the Arabian peninsula and up the Red Sea to Suez is the easiest route of access for Mideast oil to reach Europe and the U.S., which respectively import 60 percent and 30 per cent of their oil from the Persian Gulf. The dominance of the Horn by th e Soviets or their allies and at the present time they virtually do dominate it would allow them to in terdict Western oil supplies and conceivably hold Europe and the United States to ransom 10 The current crisis in the Horn of Africa is largely the pro d u ct of the Ethiopian regime's reversal of alliances, aided and abetted by the Soviet Union. To some extent this rever sal presents a dilemma for the Soviets. Not only are they now supplying arms to Somalia and the Eritrean rebels but also to the Ethiopians . Previously, the Soviet policy had been based on the adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Now with the-Dergue seeking and obtaining friendship from the Soviets, how can they continue to supply Somalia and Eritrea still the enemies of Ethiopia? This dilemma the Soviets tried to resolve in May 1977, with a mediated settlement of the Eritrean dispute, but they failed to do so. In the future the Soviets may be able to contain or settle the conflicts in the Horn, or these conflicts may erupt into larger conflicts that would undermine Soviet influence So far, the Carter Administration has, in the eyes of both Ethiopia and Somalia, failed to construct an adequate policy.

As pointed out above, Ethiopian radio has denounced the U.S and Andrew Young, and the D ergue has been distrustful of Barre has also criticized Ambassador Young in a recent interview Carter's "human rights" rhetoric. Somalian President Siad I met.'Andrew Young in Zanzibar recently, but there k. was .rio:s.p.bstance only..superficial genera'l i ties NEWSWEEK, June 27, 1977, p. 46 So I :don't understand what President Carter means It may not be an unfair assessment to say that all the leaders of the Horn are men of power who have assumed and held leader ship through violence, and who must continu e to do so as long as their internal rivals threaten them with violent overthrow.

It is, therefore, unrealistic to believe that a "moralistic policy based on the assertion of vaguely defined "human rights would impress them or that terminating relations wi th them would contribute to whatever substance the notion of human rights might have. It is more likely that at least some com monly accepted standards of civility would be observed in this region if the U.S. used its influence to stabilize and balance cu rrent conflicts of power.

One alternative policy for the U.S. might, therefore, be to accept the Ethiopian reversal of alliances as a Fait Accompli and seek to promote anti-Marxist elements, Christian or Moslem in the Eritrean rebellion. This option, which could consist in covert military support, could counter Soviet support of pro-Marxist factions and forestall a Soviet domination of 11 Eritrea while continuing to destabilize their new ally Ethiopia. At the same time, the U.S. might align more closely wi t h both Kenya and the moderate Arab bloc in the Mideast to establish (a) a balance 05 power in north cen tral Africa, (b) the security of the Red Sea for both Israeli and Western shipping, and (c) an increased pre sence in the Indian Ocean. The latter two objectives 1 could be achieved through the construction of a naval base on the Sudanese coast (or on the coast of an independent Eritrea) and a base at the Kenyan port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.

An alliance between Sudan, Kenya, and the U.S. would pro bably be very feasible, since both countries now feel them selves to be isolated and threatened by the Soviet's aid to their neighboring enemies and since they have mutual in terests in an alliance. Kenyan Foreign Minister Munya Waiyaki has recently emph a sized the-hafmonious relationship of the two countries and their common dread of Soviet inter ference. Sudan and Kenya have recently concluded an agree ment to construct a 600-mile road that would connect Sudan to Mombasa. Trade between the two countries has increased substantially in recent years and will probably increase further if Sudanese agriculture in the south develops as ex pected and as Arab money is invested in both Sudan and Kenya.

Certain problems with such an alliance exist, however. First th ough Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta has traditionally been pro American, he is 8l;:years old and will probably die in the near future, and his death may destabilize Kenya and promote a re versal of alliances and internal trends. Under Kenyatta, the governmen t has remained almost entirely in the hands of his dominant Kikuyu tribe and opposition leaders such as Tom Mboye a Luo, and others since then have been rather mysteriously killed. Wealth in Kenya has tended to concentrate in the hands of government offici als and this has bred resentment among the out-groups in Kenya. The Soviets, the Somalis, and Kenyatta's own domestic rivals would probably favor a major reversal of internal and external policies and work to en courage it.

Secondly, unless the U.S. takes the initiative in the near future, the Arab moderates could construct their own power bloc independently of the U.S. and exclude or come to threaten American or Western interests. In early June for example al-Nimeiry the Soviets. Thirdly, the-continuance o f the Arab-Israeli split continues to divide the U.S., and the developing Arab power bloc, and some ac-commodation on this-issue must be reached if an enduring relationship is to be constructed traveled to- Peking to- seek-Chinese support -a.gainst 12 CON C I USION I The recent history of the political conflicts in the Horn of Africa shows a strong trend toward alignment with the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc. The strategic importance of the area makes it valuable (in some ways, indispensable) to Weste r n interests and to the Soviets. But the West has suf fered only reverses in this area Parqlleling the'expuIsion of the U.S. from Ethiopia on April 26, are the expulsions of an American naval base in Bahrain, the only base the U.S. had in the Persian Gulf, in mid-May and a coup in the Seychelles on June 5 that moved these strategically located islands much closer to the Soviets. These reverses seriously jeopardiz-e U.S. strength in the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. As the West has withdrawn or been e x pelled, the Soviets have gained strength in these nations, but the U.S. has not yet de signed a viable or realistic policy toward the region. Until it does so, despite the dilemmas of Soviet policy and local resentment and fear of their presence, the Comm unist pene tration and manipulation of the Horn of Africa will probably continue.

By Samuel T. Francis Policy Analyst


Samuel T.

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy