The current intermittent fighting in the disputed Ogaden Desert region is a liability which Somalia can ill afford. Despite its continued moral support of ethnic Somali insurgents fighting for "self-determination" in Ethiopia, the massive influx of refugees from the area over the past two years is throwing Somalia's thinly based economy into disarray.
Government estimates in Mogadishu now put the number of refugees at more than 2 million. Unable to continue its own development programs, Somalia must rely on foreign humanitarian aid, mainly from the West, to keep abreast of the situation.
But with little likelihood of a settlement in Ethiopia in the near future, Somalis are facing the grim fact of having to accommodate the refugees for years to come. Despite its lack of resources, this semi-arid nation of 3.8 million has refused to turn any back and has willingly provided help.
But to make things worse, international relief officials are wondering just how long donor countries will tolerate the situation and continue to send urgently needed aid.
Somali President Muhammad Siad Barre appears long since to have realized the need for a political rather than a military solution to the Ogaden conflict. Analysts believe that overwhelming public opinion forced him, against his own judgment, to launch a calamitous offensive against Ethiopia in 1977 in support of the West Somali Liberation Front (WSLF).
As a result, the Ethiopians, backed by Cuban advisers and more than $1 billion worth of Soviet military assistance, routed the Somali Army at Jijiga in March 1978.
"Although the Somalis are good, tough fighters, their arsenals have never fully recovered from the defeat, and they have no effective army to speak of," a Western diplomat told this reporter.
Since its retreat from Ethiopia, Somalia claims no longer to be assisting the insurgents militarily. In an interview with a group of foreign journalists, President Barre dismissed recent reports of Somali troops fighting side by side with the WSLF as "totally unfounded."
The Somali President insisted, however, that his country fully supports the right of self-determination for West Somalia (as the Ogaden is called by the insurgents and the Mogadishu government).
In recent years, the Mogadishu government appears to have abandoned its dream of a greater Somalia, which would include the ethnic Somalis of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. The term "reunification" has been replaced by self-determination" in all official pronouncements.
President Barre emphasized that he would prefer to see a peaceful solution to the fighting in Ethiopia. "I don't think a military solution is a good one," he said. "But the difficulties are not between Ethiopia and Somalia. They have always been foreign."
The gray-haired Somali leader pointed out that whenever the superpowers are involved, "situations always become complicated." He said that although it was really a matter between the WSLF and Addis Ababa, he was quite prepared to negotiate with Ethiopian strongman Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam for a "lasting and just settlement."
Analaysts feel, however, that Ethiopia will never concede to a solution that will permit "self-determination," as the Somalis demand."
Despite President Barre's desire for a peaceful settlement, security has become his country's main concern. Having placed more than 30,000 defenseive troops along the Ethiopian border in northwest Somalia, Mr. Barre considers the threat of an outside attack as very real.
President Barre, an experienced general, has tried not to shut the door completely on the Russians, despite his present overtures with the United States for a new defense relationship. Some of his most bitter criticism has been of the Cubans, who have an estimated 13,000 "advisers" in Ethiopia.
He particularly chastised the Cubans for being responsible for air attacks against refugees in the Ogaden. "We know that they are involved because we have monitored their radio talk," Mr. Barre said. "And have you ever heard Ethiopians speaking Spanish?"