The Horn of Africa in a Bipolar World
The Cold War as the Origin of the Somalia Crisis

Philipp Schulz

Philipps University, Marburg, Germany


Somalia on the Horn of Africa is what we nowadays describe as the “world’s most failed state (Foreign Policy, 2010), characterized as a symbol of UN peacekeeping failure, escalating piracy, and thus a resulting state of anarchy.

A now more twenty years-long lasting civil war has left the country destroyed, which is an irony in a world overcrowded with centrifugal figures, because Somalia has a society as homogenous1 as almost any other post-colonial country. But what lead to the fact that Somalia destroyed itself? Among different specific internal and external historical, political, and social factors, the bipolar system during the Cold War significantly marked the state on the Gulf of Aden.

Although Peter Schwab (1978) defined the general Horn of Africa as “a major geopolitical area of the world” (p. 6), it became evident that Somalia but also Ethiopia had only little chance of escaping the rivalry coming along with the “superpower competition” (Parsons, 1995, p. 198) during the Cold War. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 regional development–especially on the Horn of Africa—has been governed by the performance of the East-West-Conflict’s main players.

Because both states, Somalia and Ethiopia have been dependent on external aid and support to fulfil an existing power-vacuum, the Horn of Africa and in particular Somalia became a match-ball between the United States and the Soviet Union. This essay examines to what extent this caused today’s situation. By analyzing the importance of and political chances in the region, one can see that the Cold War on the Horn has been dominated by the impact of dictatorships, a partner exchange, as well as removable allies in addition to internal political dynamics.

Foreclosing a political radicalization in the relevant era first enabled a large Soviet presence in Somalia and consequential a response by the US administration, fearing its own strategic interests thereby threatened.

Somalia: A Hot Price during the Cold War

The position that the Cold War in general was driven by purely material interests or ideological controversy was arguably a rather difficult one. The Horn of Africa as a strategic location turned it into a pawn during the Cold War (Mohamed, 2009, p. 8).

This geo-strategic importance directly at the southern end of the Red Sea, across the Arabian Peninsula, and thus located close to major oil-lines indeed constitutes a prime spot to project power, control politics, and furthermore provide advanced military support in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 15).

According to this proximity, Washington began to increase its presence on the Horn, which was necessary to support and stabilize pro-Western governments, control the sea route, and ensure the economic security of the West and restrain the possibility of a Soviet blockade of oil lanes. Additionally, the United States intended to keep the Read Sea and Indian Ocean open “for Israeli shipping” (Schwab, 1978, p. 7). These strategic advantages were face to face with Moscow’s attempt to permanently include post-colonial societies politically and militarily into its own communist camp.

Significantly, during the 1950’s and based on the intensified east – west confrontation, political changes on the Horn became apparent. Americas increasing interest of shielding and protecting third world countries of socialist influence lead to explicit financial and military support of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. To further prevent any Soviet enlargement on the Horn, President Kennedy tried to cooperate with the Somali as well. The Eastern bloc issued a similar deal offering what Somalia wanted and needed most: military hardware. In 1963 a Russian military aid agreement was established, including the training and arming of Somalia’s army.

These developments brought us to a point where Ethiopia became a partner with the United States while Somalia was integrated into the Soviet-led communist bloc. This situation was further strengthened when Siad Barre systematically overthrew the democratic elected government of Somalia and established what was known as “scientific/Islamic socialism” (Birnbaum, 2002, p. 59). Furthermore, an official Somali government slogan proclaimed, “Tribalism divides where Socialism unites” (Mohamed, 2009, p. 6).

Actually, this situation perfectly fit into political transformations throughout the African continent in the decade between 1969 and 1979 with socialist-motivated governments, assisted by the Soviet Union. According to Rozoff (2009), states such as Angola, Capo Verde, the Republic of Congo, Mozambique—to name just a few—followed the anti-capitalist path and generated a socialist bloc with the entire developing, non-allied world (p. 2). Moreover, there was a need to emphasize that both Somalia and Ethiopia at any time were anxious to benefit from this international political situation by threatening their allies to change sides in case of inadequate support. Accordingly, the Soviet Union extended its military aid and approximately doubled Somalia’s armed forces. This collaboration grew over the years toward a significant military alliance. On the political level, Somalia was the first African state to sign a Friendship—as well as Cooperation—agreement with the Soviet Union in 1974.

The United States and the Soviet Union in Somalia

American and Soviet foreign policy concerning the Horn of Africa “came more into conflict” (Schwab, 1978, p. 8) in the decade of the 1970’s. This is especially astonishing since the US policy in that era tried to appease the situation and head towards détente.

The larger Soviet presence with highlighted political and military activities occurred at a time when the United States, first under the Nixon-doctrine and then during the Carter-administration, downgraded its efforts and started to retreat from Ethiopia. Summarizing, US foreign policy toward Somalia and especially Ethiopia reflected the international environment together with crucial events and developments like the ongoing growth of the Soviet power, a weakened dollar, and a general “question about American moral legitimacy” (Manzikos, 2010, p. 243) because of the recent Vietnam War. Overall, this policy aimed to deemphasize a direct confrontation and reformulate its global efforts towards détente. Accordingly, it became evident that US policy concerning Ethiopia and its strategic importance began to shift, and thus Washington gradually began to distance itself from its former key country in the region under Haile Selassie, just as the Committee on Foreign Relations (Sub-committee on African Affairs) of the US Senate recognized. 1973 and 1974 turned out to be “key years” (Schwab, 1978, p. 13) on the Horn of Africa for the United States because of the apparent weakness and rising lack of allies.

During these major developments, the administration in Washington clearly underestimated political changes in the region and was increasingly isolated from events in northeast Africa. While the United States had been able to at least maintain presence in the area until 1973, the following year changed the political situation drastically with Haile Selassie being overthrown by a Provisional Military Administrative Committee, lead by Colonel Haile Mariam who favoured a pro-Soviet, socialist policy. Pragmatically, Mariam still requested an estimated 25 million USD in aid from the United States while at the same time declaring a socialist republic. That effect, another irony of the Cold War, occurred when the new socialist power in April 1976 affronted its former major material-supplier as “white imperialists and reactionists” (Spilker, 2008, p. 19). Finally, the United States stopped all military aid in 1977, leaving it without any influence on the strategic important Horn. This significant loss of influence came along with a military aid agreement between Moscow and Ethiopia, resulting in total Soviet control over the Horn that made the situation even more complex.

At that very special point of time, the Soviet Union supported both rivalling states: Somalia and Ethiopia. Concerning this geo-political contest, the socialist bloc had achieved an important outcome.

As mentioned before, the Carter administration in Washington sought to prevent any further confrontation between the eastern and western blocs and aimed to remove any developing third world countries from this contest. The United States intended to prevent regional conflicts of ending up as proxy wars of the Cold War. President Carter believed in “African solutions to African problems” (Jackson, 2007, p. 53). Nevertheless, the reality definitely deviated from the rhetoric as Washington never significantly cut off any support from repressive regimes with whom it had military, political, or diplomatic relations. This became evident by the fact that Carter and his foreign policy advisers around Brzenzinski discussed opportunities of supporting Somalia in order to re-establish influence and counter Soviet dominance on the Horn.

The Ogaden-Battle and its aftermath: Changing allies

Further political changes took place when Siad Barre felt strong enough to invade neighbouring Ethiopia in July 1977. Because America’s Secretary of State ensured military assistance to Somalia, Siad Barre interpreted these intentions as “forthcoming attitudes” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 176). Moscow reached a point where it had to choose either Somalia or Ethiopia as future allies and decided in favour of Ethiopia, especially due to the fact that the regime in the capital Abbis Ababa seemed more committed to the Marxist-Leninists ideology than the Somalis, as Mantzikos (2010) examined earlier (p. 245).

US military aid toward Somalia in 1977 only got advanced under the condition of withdrawing out of the Ogaden region where the border-war with Soviet-backed Ethiopia took place. Although Ethiopia became more and more integrated into the socialist camp, the lost war constituted the beginning of the end for Siad Barre’s perfunctory government. Due to this outcome it was even more remarkable that the United States improved its relationship with Somalia and even signed another military agreement in 1980, which was upgraded in 1982. This was a counterbalance in confronting the Soviet impact, based on the Reagan-doctrine to come, which gave a favourable opinion on active military aid for pro-Western states.

Thus, alliances have systematically changed: after the Soviets switched support to Ethiopia’s new Marxist government, the U.S replaced the Soviet Union as Somali’s new military patron in the early years of the 1980’s. Generally, this once again showed that in a polarized world, a Soviet enemy was by definition a friend of the United States (Mohamed, 2010, p. 7). Built and equipped by the Soviet Union, Somalia joined the Western camp and demonstrated the common stereotype that there are “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

From then on, the US, mainly via Saudia Arabia, provided Somalia with arms while Ethiopia was assisted by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Keeping in mind that Carter’s administration generally aimed to relieve tensions with the USSR, Soviet advances on the Horn was seen as a paradigm case of assertiveness as well as a setback of Washington’s deemphasized efforts. Consequently, with the motivation to harm the Soviet Union not only military but also politically, Brzezinski urged the US to send the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk into the Red Sea and then to support Somalia with more arms. He went even as far as arguing that Moscow’s behaviour in the Horn had been a grotesque intention and thus linked to the negotiations of that time, “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden,” implying a crisis for détente. In the following 1980’s, Washington “sent millions in military assistance to the Somali regime” (Woods, 1993) to establish a balance to the large Soviet presence.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did the polarization of the world. From then on, the United States did not have any real need of or interest in Somalia any more. What had been a contest between the two superpowers for more than 30 years was dropped because its former strategic importance systematically vanished. When the United States finally suspended all financial aid, the Somali regime’s full vulnerability surfaced and it swiftly collapsed. At any point, Somalia did not have the chance or ability to establish a functional political system because it benefited from the ideological rivalry for a long time. Due to huge amounts of both Soviet and American military hardware, Somalia “became the most militarized state per capita in the Horn of Africa” (Parsons, 1995, p. 1). Needless to say, that was more than welcome to the Somali warlords who saw their chance to step into the huge vacuum of power. Certainly, those huge amounts of military hardware from Somalia’s former sponsors during the Cold War guaranteed and ensured a long-term destabilization of the country, leaving the situation almost hopeless today.

By taking into consideration the situation described above, it is clear that the rivalry between the superpowers had its affect on today’s conflict because the states around the Horn were systematically thrown into a Cold War that has been raging in spite of assumed détente. When the Soviet Union and the United States started to internationalize regional conflicts on the Horn of Africa, the whole region automatically turned into a serious flashpoint (Schwab, 1978, p. 20).

1  Somalia, which gained independence in 1960, has a vast majority that share a common language, religion, ethnic origin, and nomadic tradition (Woods, 1997, p. 1).



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