Ethiopia – Somalia: a history of conflict

Ethiopian troops face Somali forces

This rather grainy picture has an historic significance. Entitled “Somewhere on the Ethiopia – Somali Border” it is dated 16th February 1964. It marks – as far as I can tell – the beginning of the modern era of conflict between the two countries.

It is not, by any means, the start of the differences between Ethiopia and Somalia, as we will see shortly. But I am keen to try to clarify this complex history and would welcome any comments or corrections.

A very long history

The origin of this troubled relationship goes back at least 500 years.

In 1531 Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi invaded Ethiopia, ending Emperor Lebna Dengel’s ability to resist at the Battle of Amba Sel on October 28.

The Imam, known to Somalis as “Axmed gurey” was seen as avenging Ethiopian repression.

The army of Imam Ahmad then marched northward to loot the island monastery of Lake Hayq and the stone churches of Lalibela.

When the Imam entered the province of Tigray, he defeated an Ethiopian army that confronted him there. On reaching Axum, he destroyed the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in which the Ethiopian emperors had for centuries been crowned.

The Ethiopians were forced to ask for help from the Portuguese, who landed at the port of Massawa on 10 February 1541.

The Imam too turned to foreign allies, bringing 2000 musketeers from Arabia, as well as artillery and 900 Ottoman troops.

Iman Ahmad was  only finally defeated on 21 February 1543 in when 9,000 Portuguese troops managed to vanquish the 15,000 soldiers under Imam Ahmad, who was killed in the battle.

Paul Henze maintains that the damage inflicted by the Imam’s troops have never been forgotten by Ethiopians.

The modern era

Piecing together the modern era is complex: sources are contradictory and incomplete.

In 1948, according to Wikipedia, under pressure from their World War II allies and to the dismay of the Somalis the British “returned” the Haud (an important Somali grazing area that was presumably ‘protected’ by British treaties with the Somalis in 1884 and 1886) and the Ogaden to Ethiopia.

This was based on a treaty they signed in 1897 in which the British ceded Somali territory to the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik in exchange for his help against plundering by Somali clans.

This left Somalis living in the Ogaden stranded in Ethiopia – a situation that persists to this day.

For the Somali nation the whole of the area in which their nation lives should, by rights, be part of their country.

A chronology of conflict

Here is a shot at a brief chronology of the cross-border disputes it set off, drawn from the BBC and Wikipedia

  • 1960-1964 – Border Dispute. This is where the photograph at the start of this story comes in.
  •  1977-1978 – Ogaden War (see below)
  •  1982 – August Border Clash
  •  1998-2000 – Cross-border warfare during the chaotic warlord-led era.
  • 2006  June-July – Militias loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts take control of Mogadishu and other parts of the south after defeating clan warlords. Ethiopian troops reported in Somalia.
  •  2006 December 28 – Joint Ethiopian and Somali government force captures Mogadishu.
  • 2007 March – African Union peacekeepers land at Mogadishu amid pitched battles between insurgents and government forces backed by Ethiopian troops.
  • 2007 October – Ethiopian forces fire on demonstrators in Mogadishu protesting at the presence of what they call foreign invaders.
  • 2008 May – Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says he will keep troops inside Somalia until “jihadists” are defeated.
  •  2008 June – Government signs three-month ceasefire pact with opposition Alliance for Re-Liberation of Somalia. The deal, which provides for Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia within 120 days, is rejected by Islamist leader Hassan Dahir Aweys, who says Union of Islamic Courts will not stop fighting until all foreign troops have left country.
  •  2009 January – Ethiopia completes the withdrawal of its troops. Fighters from the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia take control of the town of Baidoa, formerly a key stronghold of the transitional government.
  •  2011 November – Ethiopian troops are spotted in the central town of Guriel. Since then the Ethiopians have maintained a constant presence in Western Somalia.

1977-1978 Ogaden War

This was probably the most significant of the modern conflicts between the two states.

Not only can the burnt out tanks still be seen littering the Ogaden, the war brought the superpowers – the USA and the Soviet Union into the picture.

This is not the place for a full description, but in Odd Arne Westad’s excellent book, “The Global Cold War” he traces the importance of the war to the global community.

The Soviets brought in 11,600 Cuban troops and 6,000 advisers.

Moscow established an air-bridge in September 1977 that delivered $1 billion worth of weapons to Ethiopia.

Two South Yemeni armoured brigades were also brought to reinforce Addis Ababa.

This turned the course of the war – but at a cost.

Professor Westad quotes President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski as saying: “detente (between Washington and Moscow) lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.”

It would not be the last time that fighting in the Horn would take on a global dimension, as the current war against al-Shabaab indicates.

25 thoughts on “Ethiopia – Somalia: a history of conflict

  1. Although most of this short summary is indeed correct. You need to mention teh fact that Imam “Axmed gurey” (He is called that in Somali) was fighting ethiopian oppression. This was no spontanius jihad for the sake of hate & destruction. Secondly Ethiopia has always been a weak centralised state. You mentioned they called the portugese for the assistance. Well the did the same in the Ogaden war (russian & cuban communists). 500 years ago, its was Christian solidarity forthe portugese, now it was communist atheist ideal for the russians & cubans. In both instanses Somali forces manage to retrieve the land that was lost, and sadly in both instanses Somalis finally get destroyed by non-African foreigners.

    The third point i was going to make is that Al shabab can in no way be compared to those times. Al shabab are hated by Somalis themselves, they are Al qaeda inspired terrorists that hate Nationalism & even punish Somalis for expressing love for the nations flag.

    Other then that, yes you are right. And this issue wont die until Somalia corrects the mistakes of colonialism, and finally achieves an ethnic Somali state with her TRUE borders. Not fake borders written by outsiders.


  2. Martin, with all due respect, if you were keen to include the portugese involvement you should have given due attention to Ahmad Gragn’s Ottoman allies, and how the Gragn wars coincide with Ottoman expansionism. Otherwise, you are just tapping into selective reading of history to amp somali nationalism… Problems should be solved by Ethiopians and Somalis and sometimes well meaning people like you just end up muddying the dialogue!

    • What is ethiopian I ask Ethopian means Cushtic, 2 my understanding habesha people are not Cushtic. .. but are Absynian

  3. The thing is though, historically nothing is known about Ahmed’s ethnicity. Although many people elude that he was Somali, it might seem otherwise. Ahmed’s quote in the book written by his companion “Futuh al-Ahbash (Conquest of Ethiopia) doubts his ethnicity being Somali. Although his ethnicity is never mentioned, the book narrates how when two Somali clans came with an argument to be heard by Imam Ahmed, he referred to them as ‘These Somalis’. Another thing that might lead to him actually being Ethiopian was the title “Gragn” in Amharic or “Guray” in Somali. Both words mean “the Left Handed” and is a derogatory term used to insult someone who is left handed. Somalis called him Guray to Somali-ize his name, which means that the Ethiopians were first to give him that title. Ofcourse though, it doesn’t make sense that Imam Ahmed wasn’t Somali because both the Somali who were the most populous in his army and the Christian Ethiopians both agree that he was Somali. But this reflects on centuries-long oppression and degradation upon the Muslims in Ethiopia. Muslims who are ethnically Ethiopian have always been regarded as ‘traitors’ and ‘foreigners’. It makes sense that the Ethiopian Orthodox Empire would want its people to believe that a foreigner lead an army against them and not a Muslim from their own land. And ofcourse the Somalis would love to have Imam Ahmed be known as a Somali, so that they could be proud of having dealt a blow to Ethiopia as a nationalist army. But the truth was it was more of an army of East African Muslims rather than Somalis plus a few Ethiopians, Arabs and Turks. But at the end of the day God knows best, and this is all speculation hahaa.

  4. There are so many mistakes it is embarrassing. Please consult a basic history. The number of Portugese was about 400 not 9,000. Gragn was supported by a company of Yemeni/Ottoman musketeers (new technology at the time). Gragn was almost certainly not Somali but Harari. Somali clans joined his army but there was no Somalia at this time. Arabs controlled coastal Somali cities and ran plantations in the south… anyway it is pointless to correct… It must be totally rewritten…or better yet, just erase it.

    • Ahmed Gurey was Somali not Harari he born in Zeila the capital of Adel empire in northern Somalia he was Somali muslim Imam there is several books and poems he written that proves he was Somali he belonged to Gadabursi Somali tribe that occupies northern Somalia. ofcourse Ethiopians never accept him as a Somali simply because he occupied their country but fact remains always that he was Somali Imam most of his army 3/4 were Somalis , rest Oromos whom he converted and after Abbysinia ( Ethiopia ) got help by the Portuguese he also got help from Ottoman Turks .so I dont get where you got this claim

      • Ahmed Gurey was Somali not Harari he born in Zeila the capital of Adel empire in northern Somalia he was Somali muslim Imam there is several books and poems he written that proves he was Somali he belonged to Gadabursi Somali tribe that occupies northern Somalia. ofcourse Ethiopians never accept him as a Somali simply because he occupied their country but fact remains always that he was Somali Imam most of his army half were Somalis , rest Oromos whom he converted and after Abbysinia ( Ethiopia ) got help by the Portuguese he also got help from Ottoman Turks .so I dont get where you got this claim

  5. The invasion of Gragn was nothing else but Jihad. Almost always Islamic forces are behind Somalian forces. What mesmerize me is the absence of Egypt in this confused piece, whether ancient or modern, direct or indirect Egyptian and Islamic hands are at work with the aim of destroying Ethiopia.

    • no one helped Somalia in any battle with Ethiopia not even in Ogaden war where the world came to your resque so I dont get why you blame Egyptians and about this war of Ahmed Gurey well, Ethiopia has always been greedy country with kindoms which were expanding and claiming neighboring countries lands and this what caused Ahmed Gurey to invade ans stop them. lol even once Abbysinia kindom claimed whole Somalia and Somali-lands as being lost Ethiopian terrory which was madness and this carried to rising tensions between the two countries even centuaries later.

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  21. In 1977or1978-1982 Ethiopian calandre One of my brother was an army I’m still looking him If I find him Can you help me to get him .
    My name is Hulentenaye Asefa Alemaw
    My brother name is Firdawoka Asefa Alemaw

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