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Ethiopia, Somalia: each want other to concede first

By Edward GirardetSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The writer has just returned from visits to both Somalia and Ethiopia, including the disputed Ethiopian provinces of Ogaden and Eritrea. / March 17, 1981



Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Despite a winding-down of the Ogaden conflict, both Somalia and Ethiopia are as far from a peaceful settlement as ever. Each side virtuously maintains that it has always been open to negotiation, but that it is up to the other to take a positive step forward. Nearly bankrupt , and hampered as they are by drought, war, and refugees, the two countries could only benefit from a mutually satisfactory solution that would permit them to direct their energies to more constructive matters such as rural development. Yet neither nation will budge.

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Ethiopia steadfastly insists that Somalia must first respect the Organization of African Unity's cardinal rule that no African state be allowed to violate the territorial integrity of another. The Ogaden issue, say the Ethiopians, is an internal affair to be dealt with by Ethopians alone.

Somalia, on the other hand, asserts that it has no intention of leaving the issue alone. The ethnic Somalis of the semiarid Ogaden, (estimated by the Ethiopian officials in Washington to number at least 600,000, with Somalia claiming there to be many more than that) should be given the choice of determining whether they wish to remain part of Ethiopia, become independent, or join Somalia. Whatever they decide, the Mogadishu regime says, will be respected just as it today respects the decision of the ethnic Somali former French colony of Djibouti to opt for full independence.

Western diplomats in Mogadishu suggest that although basic official policy has not shifted, the government has now realistically come to terms with the fact that the full incorporation of Ogaden into Somalia is no longer feasible. Ethiopia would never permit its own dismemberment.

Instead the government of Somali President Muhammad Siad Barre has hinted that without dropping its public demands for selfdetermination, it might be satisfied with an overall improvement in ethnic Somali rights in the Ogaden such as regional autonomy. Somali pride and political considerations, however, have so far prevented the government from offically adopting such a position.

But whatever the semantics, the fact of the matter remains that Somalia and Ethiopia are still at an impasse, and the OAU has so far proved incapable of bringing the two parties together. So has the United Nations.

Some Western diplomats in the two capitals suggest that economic pressure should be brought to bear on both countries in order to force them to sit down and settle their differences.

Somalia and Ethiopia desperately require international assistance not only to feed their drought, war, and famine victims, but also to prop up their tottering economies. Yet relief officials complain that both sides, confident that foreign governments will continue to bail them out, go on unabashedly manipulating their refugees, displaced persons, and drought victims as political pawns.

Relief officials warn that no real long-term development such as well-drilling, reforestation, and subsistance agricultural programs can progress without a political solution. "It is bit pointless to construct an agricultural community when there is always the danger that a group of guerrillas will come along and blow it all up," said an European aid official.

The United States says that it favors negotiations between the two sides, but some observers feel that the august 1980 defense agreement with Somalia may have aggravated the situation. In return for the use of facilities in Mogadishu and at the port of Berbera in the Gulf of Aden, the United States has promised to provide $42 million worth of military defense assistance, mainly radar and anti-aircraft equipment, over a two-year period.

The Addis Ababa regime has warned that it considers the agreement a direct threat to Ethiopean independence because it would only contribute toward internationalizing the conflict.

The Americans have sought to impose safeguards on the Somalis requiring them to keep their military forces out of the Ogaden, but this has done little to alleviate Ethiopian fears. Kenya has likewise expressed concern at the American agreement. Western Somali Liberation Front guerillas operating in the Ogaden are still trained and equipped by the Somalis -- and probably have Somali officers as well.

For the moment, there are no US military personnel stationed in Somalia and the Reagan administration has still to decide what to do with Berbera. A number of diplomatic sources have questioned whether Berbera is worth the risk of creating an East-West conflict in the Horn of Africa.

"If the United State is intent on establishing an encompassing military presence in the Indian Ocean," noted one European analyst, "it would be more advisable to concentrate on Oman and Mombasa [Kenya]."

Several government officials interviewed by this reporter made it clear that Ethiopia, which would prefer complete nonalignment, had little choice but to accept Soviet assistance.

"Once peace comes to this country, it will be a different story, I assure you ," said one official. Some also fell that the Soviet Union would prefer a continued war situation in Ogaden and Eritrea.