Somali Apocalypse - AFRICA - Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence - Christian Parenti (2011)


Chapter 7. Somali Apocalypse

The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.


IN 1969 A LEFT-WING military coup brought an end to newly independent Somalia’s experiment with electoral democracy. The new strong man was Mohammed Siad Barre, who the following year proclaimed “scientific socialism” to be the official ideology, insisting it was “fully compatible with Islam and the reality of the nomadic society.” All political opposition and any public mention of clans were strictly forbidden.

However, the early Siad Barre regime also brought some important social reforms. As I. M. Lewis, the preeminent scholar of Somali history, has explained, the new regime provided community health programs, rural education, and literacy campaigns and encouraged local communities to build schools, hospitals, and dispensaries. Cooperatives and tree planting were encouraged, and the roman script was adapted for the Somali language.1

Alas, Siad Barre was a virulent nationalist and irredentist. The Somali national space had been fragmented into five pieces by European and Ethiopian colonialism. Somali independence in 1960 reunited only the Italian (southern) and British (northern) controlled parts of Somalia. And, for Siad Barre, that was not enough. In Mogadishu, nationalist intellectuals and political elites seethed with resentment as they coveted the Somali-speaking regions of Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. In particular, they wanted the Ogaden, a poor, dry, rugged, Somali-populated wedge of Ethiopia that juts into Somalia, giving that country its boomerang shape. Siad Barre pledged to reunite the fragments of the Somali nation, and when in the mid-1970s Ethiopia entered a period of political instability, he saw an opportunity to begin his project.

The story of Somalia’s implosion is a parable of how the Cold War’s grand ideas and noble alliances too often left only suffering and disorder. More broadly, that dynamic is a constitutive element in the catastrophic convergence.

Fall of the Lion

The pampered, autocratic Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie—though feted by western elites and, bizarrely, worshipped by impoverished, ganja-smoking Rastafarians in Jamaica—was increasingly hated at home. His pet lions ate meat while the people went hungry. Labor organizing of any sort was banned until 1962.2 The emperor enjoyed warm relations with Washington and even sent a battalion of his best troops to aid the United States during the Korean War. The American military had a communication outpost at Kagnew Station and trained Ethiopian troops. From 1953 to 1973, half of all US military aid to sub-Saharan Africa went to imperial Ethiopia.3

By 1974, the emperor’s rule was in trouble. The Sahelian drought was decimating Ethiopian farmers, oil prices were quadrupling, and the global economy was in the doldrums; inflation and fuel price hikes led to riots in Addis Ababa. The emperor sent out his military to restore order—but the troops mutinied. Chaos gripped the nation, and amidst this arose a leftist revolutionary junta of lower-ranking officers called the Dergue, or “Committee.” The new regime moved fast, implementing the largest land reform in Africa, nationalizing all industry, and establishing workers’ committees down to the local level. But for all its high-minded radicalism, the Dergue was beset by vicious, internecine struggles. Meanwhile in the countryside, there was resistance from landlords and multiple obscurantist revolts.4

Across the border, Siad Barre saw the chaos as an opportunity to seize the Ogaden. Never mind that both Ethiopia and Somalia were socialist states, both claiming to put economic development, solidarity, and the well-being of the masses above all else. Nationalism ruled the day.

Paved with Outside Help

In a pattern familiar around the world, Siad Barre began his war covertly, by training and arming Ethiopian-based Somali clans who became the Western Somalia Liberation Front. But, as these things so often go, the covert action soon escalated out of control.

At the same time this very local conflict was heating up, Cold War tensions across the region were also rising. The superpowers’ grand strategy machinations found each competing for influence in the Horn of Africa, primarily by means of lavishing military aid on local allies. For its part, the Soviet Union sought to create a pro-Soviet alliance of four socialist states—Somalia, South Yemen, Ethiopia (which then included Eritria), and possibly the soon-to-be-independent Djibouti. This alliance was important to the socialist camp, in part, because in 1972 Egypt had ejected Soviet troops and essentially switched to the US-led Cold War camp.5 A socialist alliance in the Horn of Africa would allow the USSR to project power into the Middle East and out over the shipping lanes of the Red and Arabian seas and the Indian Ocean. Consider the strategic importance of this region: the Red Sea, passageway for so much of the West’s oil, linked to the Mediterranean by the Suez Canal; Yemen, sharing a huge border with Saudi Arabia; Somalia, pointing out toward the mouth of the Gulf.6

This “Pax Sovietica” in the Horn of Africa, as worried Western observers called it, was championed in large part by Fidel Castro. In fact, it was Castro who first dragged the USSR into Africa—without asking them, it should be added—by dispatching Cuban troops to aid Angola’s MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola-Partido do Trabalho ), after South African forces, mercenaries, and CIA advisors invaded in 1975. The astounding facts of this strange dynamic were revealed in historian Piero Gleijeses’s Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976.7 After victory in Angola, Cuba prodded the USSR to engage more fully with Africa. Castro took Africa so seriously for several reasons: one was his ideological commitment. Throughout the CIA and State Department documents quoted by Gleijeses, Castro is described as “first of all a revolutionary” and as “a compulsive revolutionary” with a “fanatical devotion to his cause,” motivated by “a messianic sense of mission” and “engaged in a great crusade.” There was also the matter of deep cultural ties between Cuba and Africa. As President Carter’s UN ambassador, the former civil rights activist Andrew Young, told Newsweek, “There is no doubt that Cuba perceives itself as an Afro-Latin nation… . I don’t believe that Cuba is in Africa because it was ordered there by the Russians. I believe that Cuba is in Africa because it really has a shared sense of colonial oppression and domination.” It should be pointed out that Young was not championing armed socialist revolution in Africa and ultimately criticized the Cuban crusade as “contributing to destruction.”8

Finally, there was the issue of survival. As one of the first Marxist-Leninist states in the Third World, Cuba needed friends. It needed a balance of power, a swarming of small states to the Red Banner. Just as he had in Angola, so too in the Horn did Castro play a leading role in the architecture and diplomacy of the Soviet strategy. He spoke of “a common anti-imperialist front” on the Red Sea. When the new government of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam, head of the Dergue, embraced socialism, it expelled US military advisors and turned to the Warsaw Pact nations for aid. Soon the Soviet Union was aiding both Somalia and Ethiopia. This infuriated Siad Barre and his clique. The Soviets and Cubans tried to solve the Ogaden question and build unity between all the East African neighbors. Castro personally shuttled back and forth between Somalian and Ethiopian leaders trying to mend fences.

It was not to be. In Mogadishu, world socialism meant less than Greater Somalia. Local agendas derailed the grand plan, and when the strategic vision fell apart, so too did much of the region.

Ogaden War Forever

In the summer of 1977, the secret little war in the Ogaden boiled over. On June 13, about five thousand regular Somali troops, their insignia removed and working closely with the guerrillas of the Western Somalia Liberation Front, crossed into Ethiopia and went on the offensive.9 By July, they had taken the towns of Jijiga and Harar, destroyed several important bridges, and severed the rail link between Addis Ababa and the Red Sea port of Djibouti. With that, over 40 percent of Ethiopia’s exports and 50 percent of its imports were stalled.10 All the while, Soviet and Cuban advisors and officers were in both Ethiopia and Somalia.

By November 1977, Somalia had confirmed that Cuban combat forces were not only in Ethiopia but fighting on Ethiopia’s side! With that Siad Barre expelled the four thousand Soviet advisers who had been training his forces and maintaining his aircraft. Most of the departing advisors went straight to Ethiopia.11 In February 1978, Somalia’s military dropped all pretense of distance from the fight and formally joined the Western Somali Liberation Front in an “all-out bitter war with Ethiopia.” The new offensive took huge swaths of the Ogaden.12

In Ethiopia, the Dergeu faced calamity: the loss of nearly one-third of the Committee’s territory threatened national collapse. To stanch the bleeding, Soviet and Cuban aid came pouring into Ethiopia. The Soviets airlifted in millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated military hardware, while Cuba sent more infantry and pilots—twenty-four thousand troops in all.13 Ethiopia’s foreign-led counterattack crushed the invading Somali army and even pushed the air war into northern Somalia.14

Now, Siad Barre was on the ropes. Needing weapons to counter the Russian and Cuban forces, he went to the teetering shah of Iran, then called on the United States to “fulfill its moral responsibility” to help Somalia. President Carter had said he would “aggressively challenge” the Soviet Union for influence, and the fighting between two socialist states gave the United States an opportunity to do that. With its regional allies, the United States now pulled Marxist Somalia into the so-called moderate Arab camp, though Siad Barre was neither.15 US military aid during the short war totaled more than $200 million, while economic assistance exceeded $500 million.16 With much of this assistance, Somalia bought weapons in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan.

By 1980, Siad Barre had abandoned scientific socialism, which, though it had led to some wealth redistribution, did not yield economic growth commensurate with population growth. By the mid-1980s, the Siad Barre regime was implementing International Monetary Fund-inspired economic liberalization. This led to a substantial increase in banana exports, with most of the benefits accruing to the main exporter and regime insiders. Siad Barre’s wife and daughter both became plantation owners.17

Though US grand strategy was ultimately concerned with protecting market economies worldwide, the specific American interest in Somalia was not economic. Somalia’s importance came not from the modest profits a few international firms might make there but rather because the country offered a political and military salient overlooking East Africa and the Indian Ocean. In addition, taking the Somalia Paladin broke up that developing “Pax Sovietica” in East Africa. American involvement was about the US versus Soviet balance of power internationally, as fought through regional proxies.


Officially, the Ogaden War wrapped up in 1978 with tens of thousands dead. Yet, all through the 1980s Ethiopia and Somalia continued a low-intensity conflict, and the Western Somalia Liberation Front fights on to this day. The US Army maintained at least two training teams in Somalia, and Moscow poured $5 billion into Ethiopia over the 1980s, creating sub-Saharan Africa’s largest army. The Cubans stayed in Ethiopia; and during the 1980s, Ethiopian troops would occasionally cross into Somalia or send planes to bomb towns.18

Somalia never recovered from its stunning defeat in the Ogaden, and that cataclysm set off the country’s national disintegration. Foreign Affairs summarized war’s the impact: “Soviet support enabled [Ethiopian] Mengistu to crush Somali aggression, humiliate Siad Barre and send half a million refugees and guerrillas back across the Somali border, many carrying the next wave of modern weapons in a rising tide. The Ogaden disaster would unleash serious domestic discontent against Siad Barre’s increasingly brutal and discriminatory regime, leading to a 1978 coup attempt and the formation in 1981 of the Somali National Movement among northern Isaaq clans.”19

The cost of war had crushed Somalia’s small, agriculturally based economy. External debt tripled from $95 million in 1976 to $288 million in 1979.20 The government’s macroeconomic policy was described as “erratic, inconsistent,” and often moving “from one set of objectives to another, thereby confusing the domestic market.” By 1990, as the Somali state began its final descent into chaos, its external debt to Western lenders was $1.9 billion, or 360 percent of its GDP. The crisis had originated in the military expenditures of the Ogaden war.21

Into the Abyss

Siad Barre held on to Mogadishu until January 1991, when three loosely coordinated rebel groups forced him to flee. The dictator’s military crumbled along clan lines, and his abandoned arsenals released a new wave of guns into Somalia, northern Kenya, and the whole Horn of Africa. As Terence Lyonses and Ahmed I. Samatar put it, “The demise of a state is inherently linked to a breakdown of social coherence on an extensive level as civil society can no longer create, aggregate, and articulate the supports and demands that are the foundations of the state. Without the state, society breaks down and without social structure, the state cannot survive.”22 A long-rotting structure came crashing down, and Somalia has not had a functioning government since. Worse yet, its war and constant instability have infected the entire region. The flow of weapons, ammunition, contraband, and armed men across borders has created a lawless zone that, increasingly, includes Kenya.

The Ogaden War, like the Ugandan invasion of Tanzania, was not initiated by the Cold War superpowers, but their compulsion to arm proxies badly exacerbated the conflicts. Put simply: imported weapons have brought Africa to its knees. Though it is not immediately obvious, all of this history came to bear when those Pokot raiders gunned down the Turkana herder, Ekaru Loruman, in a fight over cattle and water in the drought-stricken badlands of Kenya.