Ethiopia's Border Politics

Ethiopia Table of Contents

As the Mengistu regime attempted to consolidate its rule, it had to cope with serious border problems, particularly with Somalia and Sudan. The point at issue with Somalia was the Ogaden region, an area that Mogadishu claimed as part of the historical Somali nation that had been seized by the Ethiopians during the colonial partition of the Horn of Africa. In fact, Ethiopia's only undefined boundary was the border it shared with the former Italian Somaliland. On maps drawn after 1950, this boundary is termed "Administrative Line". Upon gaining independence from European colonial rule in 1960, the inhabitants of the Republic of Somalia nurtured the hope that all Somali eventually would be united in a modern nation-state. Somali claims to the Ogaden, Djibouti, and parts of Kenya, however, had been consistently rejected by the UN, the OAU, and most of the world's sovereign states. Still, Somalia's leadership remained unwilling to forsake these claims publicly.

In 1961, less than a year after Somalia gained independence, its troops clashed with Ethiopian soldiers along their common border. In 1964 renewed tensions erupted into a minor regional war. In both cases, Somalia was defeated. Ethnic Somali in Kenya's northeast also unsuccessfully challenged that country's new government in the early 1960s. Pan-Somalism, then, served as a basis for the continuance of cooperative relations between Nairobi and Addis Ababa, despite the change of regime in Ethiopia. The two countries first signed a mutual defense agreement in 1964 that resulted in the creation of the Ethiopia-Kenya Border Administration Commission.

The Ogaden War (1977-78) was the most serious border conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. Beginning in the early summer of 1977, SNA units and WSLF guerrillas, a movement of ethnic Somali opposed to incorporation in Ethiopia, occupied vast tracts of the Ogaden and forced the Ethiopian army into fortresses at Jijiga, Harer, and Dire Dawa for almost eight months. The intention was to separate the Ogaden from Ethiopia to set the stage for ethnic Somali in the region to decide their own future.

It was only with Soviet and Cuban assistance that the Derg regained control over the region by early 1978. The Soviet Union not only provided massive amounts of military equipment but also advisers, who trained Ethiopian soldiers and pilots. Moreover, Cuban troops spearheaded the counteroffensive that began in March 1978. Cuban and Ethiopian troops quickly defeated the SNA and WSLF once the counteroffensive began. Many WSLF fighters returned to their villages or took refuge inside Somalia. In addition, some 650,000 Somali and Oromo fled from southeastern Ethiopia into Somalia by early 1978 to escape unsettled local conditions and repression by Ethiopian armed forces. After the defeat, Somali opposition reverted to sporadic guerrilla ambushes and occasional acts of sabotage.

On April 4, 1988, after several preparatory meetings, Ethiopia and Somalia signed a joint communiqué that supposedly ended the Ogaden conflict. According to the communiqué's terms, the two countries committed themselves to withdrawing their military forces fifteen kilometers from the border, exchanging prisoners of war, restoring diplomatic relations, and refraining from supporting each other's antigovernment guerrilla groups. Reportedly, a separate secret accord contained a Somali renunciation of all claims to the Ogaden region. From Mengistu's point of view, the joint communiqué secured Ethiopia's southeastern border, thereby enabling Addis Ababa to devote more resources to the struggle against the EPLF and TPLF in northern Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, by 1991 it had become evident that Ethiopia had failed to honor the provisions of the joint communiqué. The Mengistu regime allowed the anti-Siad Barre Somali National Movement (SNM) to maintain offices in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa and to operate five training camps near Dire Dawa. Additionally, the Ethiopian government still provided matériel and logistical support to the SNM. Despite these violations, Somalia refrained from reinitiating hostilities with Ethiopia.

Relations between Ethiopia and Sudan were generally good until the mid-1980s, when the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) emerged to challenge the hegemony of Khartoum. Emperor Haile Selassie had been instrumental in mediating an end to the Sudanese civil war in 1972. However, Ethiopia regularly expressed disappointment that the Sudanese government had not prevented Eritrean guerrillas from operating out of its territory. Sudan attempted to negotiate an end to the Eritrean conflict in 1975 but was unsuccessful. When Ethiopia turned to the Soviet Union and away from the United States, Sudan's government became concerned. Sudanese president Jaafar an Nimeiri had accused the Soviet Union of having inspired coup attempts against his regime in 1971 and 1976. Sudan recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia in January 1977, and for several years serious border tensions existed between the two countries.

Ethiopia's turn toward the Soviet Union caused Sudan to seek the support of new allies in preparing for the possibility of external invasions sponsored by Khartoum's regional enemies. Nimeiri decided to openly support certain Eritrean liberation movements. In addition, he supported Somalia during the Ogaden War. Nimeiri claimed that he wanted to build a "high wall against communism" in the Horn of Africa and agreed to participate with the United States, Kenya, Egypt, Somalia, and Oman in the development of the RDF. By 1980 the tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia had abated, however, with the signing of a peace treaty calling for the mutual respect of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the two countries.

The 1981 tripartite agreement among Ethiopia, Libya, and South Yemen undermined relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. For some time, the Libyan government had been trying to overthrow Nimeiri. Now Ethiopia appeared to be joining the Libyan effort. Border tensions between the two countries also increased after Ethiopia started supporting the SPLA.

After Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, Sadiq al Mahdi's regime made it clear that it wanted to improve relations with Ethiopia and Libya. Supposedly, this was the first step in the resolution of Sudan's civil war. The change in regimes in Sudan also prompted a deterioration in United States-Sudanese relations, manifested by Khartoum's cancellation of the agreement calling for the participation of Sudanese troops in the Operation Bright Star exercises. Despite Sudan's estrangement from the United States and Mahdi's growing closeness to Libya after 1985, there was no substantive improvement in Ethiopian-Sudanese relations. The problem continued to center on Sudan's support for Eritrean rebels and Mengistu's continued support of the SPLA. By 1989, following the overthrow of Sadiq al Mahdi, Khartoum and Addis Ababa had offered to negotiate their respective internal conflicts, but nothing tangible came of this.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress