Because of its strategic location near the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa—currently composed of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti—witnessed some of the most intense and violent geopolitical maneuvering during the cold war. Both the United States and the Soviet Union poured vast sums of money and weapons toward their allies in the region. The effects of the cold war in the region were often grave: The meddling of the superpowers disrupted the decolonization and modernization processes, intensified local rivalries, heightened resulting violence, and contributed to the deaths of many Africans.
Although the Horn of Africa had long had global strategic value because of its location near the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, where the Red Sea narrows before opening into the Indian Ocean, its significance grew tremendously after World War II. This was because of two factors: The growing importance of the Middle East and its vast petroleum resources, and the increasing intensity of the zero-sum competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for influence around the world.
The United States first established a presence in the Horn during World War II. In 1943 the United States constructed a radio communications station—called Radio Marina—near the town of Asmara in Eritrea, then under British control. The Horn and Radio Marina took on increasing importance as the contours of the oil-based postwar world and cold war rivalries took shape. The United States worried that losing influence in the Horn would destabilize the governments of allies in the region, interrupt shipping lanes, and possibly staunch the supply of Middle East oil to the West.
The strategic significance of Radio Marina changed the course of both Eritrean and Ethiopian history. During the middle decades of the 20th century, Ethiopia was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, an autocrat who had first gained power in 1917. In the name of mod- ernizing Ethiopia, Selassie had dismantled the aristocracy and used the revenues gained from taxing coffee exports to centralize power. With aid from the United States Selassie continued to modernize Ethiopia and tighten his grip on power, which he would not yield until he was deposed in a coup in 1973.
During the early postwar years the United States viewed the mostly Christian Ethiopia as the most stable and influential state in the entire Horn. Before World War II, however, the small, mostly Muslim sliver of land along the Red Sea known as Eritrea had not been part of the Ethiopian state. Unlike Ethiopia it had been colonized by Italy in the early 20th century and was controlled by the British during World War II. Despite this, after the war Eritrea found an unfavorable environment for independence. Two studies by the U.S.dominated United Nations (UN) found that Eritrea lacked national consciousness as well as the basis for a stable economy. In 1953 the UN established a federation in which Eritrea and Ethiopia were conjoined. In May 1953, five months after the Ethiopia-Eritrea federation was established, Ethiopia and the United States signed a 25-year arms-for-bases accord. In 1962 Selassie dissolved the federal system and absorbed Eritrea into Ethiopia. The result was a 30-year war between Eritrean nationalists and Addis Ababa, which ended with an Eritrean victory in 1991 and the establishment of an independent Eritrea in 1993.
The 1953 deal became the foundation of a 25-year relationship between Washington and Selassie. Between 1953 and 1974 the United States gave more aid to Ethiopia than to any other country in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1958 the United States helped fund a modern air force; in 1960 it agreed to train and equip an army of 40,000; in 1966 it provided Ethiopia with a squadron of F-5 fighters. U.S. support strengthened Selassie’s hand against the numerous opposition groups that criticized his increasingly autocratic and corrupt administration. It also helped Salassie meet his nation’s top geopolitical interest, maintaining access to the Red Sea.
In the 1970s the cold war landscape in the Horn changed dramatically. Several factors came together to end Selassie’s rule: a devastating famine mostly mishandled by the government, severe economic problems caused by the oil crisis, and Selassie’s own senility. The United States was trying to improve relations with Arab nations in the Middle East, many of whom opposed Christian-led Ethiopia. In 1973 a group of junior and noncommissioned army officers overthrew Selassie. Swayed by the radical thinking of the intelligentsia, this group, known as the Dergue (which means “committee”), pursued a Marxist agenda. After a transitory phase, in 1977 Mengistu Haile-Mariam, a hard-line radical, emerged as the leader of the new Ethiopia. Haile-Mariam nationalized many businesses and implemented a sweeping land reform program to undermine the power of the old ruling class, mercilessly repressed his political opponents, and cultivated closer ties with the Soviet Union.
In 1975, taking advantage of the instability and immaturity of the regime in Addis Ababa, the Somalian government launched a military offensive against Ethiopia. A mostly pastoral society, Somalia had not fared well in a modern world organized by agricultural and industrial nation-states. In 1960, after the newly independent British Somaliland merged with Italian Somaliland to become the Somali Republic, many within the new nation hoped to reunite with Somalis across the border in Ethiopia. In 1969 a coup organized by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre replaced the parliamentary system with a Soviet-style democratic republic run by a Supreme Revolutionary Council. Fueled by a massive arms buildup funded by the Soviet Union, Siad Barre maintained the long-standing hope of bringing together all Somalis under one government. Siad Barre’s government spearheaded the mid-1970s war with Ethiopia, which ended when Somalia withdrew in 1978.
A reshuffling of cold war alliances accompanied internal political changes during the 1970s. In response to the radicalism of Mengistu Haile-Mariam, newly elected U.S. president Jimmy Carter suspended U.S. aid to Ethiopia, hoping that the situation would soon change, but, offered Somalia “defensive” weapons and incorporated the country into the U.S. security network. U.S. assistance to Somalia in the 1980s totaled $37 million. Similar political gymnastics occurred in Moscow. Although an ally of the Siad Barre government in Somalia, Moscow labeled its attack on Ethiopia aggression and began to support the new regime in Addis Ababa.
During the early 1990s, as the cold war ended, the Horn of Africa underwent yet another round of sweeping political changes. In Ethiopia severe economic problems and sustained rebellions in various parts of the country brought about the collapse of the Dergue. In May 1991, after a final push by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopia came into the hands of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Meanwhile, in Eritrea, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) seized control. Two years later they formalized independence with a referendum. The late 1980s found Somalia in a state of instability as numerous factions competed for state control without any clear victor. After Siad Barre was toppled in 1991, Mogadishu fell into a state of civil war.
During the second half of the 20th century the people living in the Horn of Africa witnessed repeated changes in the political configuration ruling Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. The intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union shaped these changes in profound ways. Such external influence sharpened divisions within the Horn and intensified the conflicts. International rivalries also combined with local dynamics—such as the long-standing imperial relationship of Ethiopia with its neighbors, the legacy of previous European colonialism in the area, and the personal and ideological agendas of local leaders such as Haile Salassie, Haile-Mariam, and Siad Barre—to shape the fate of this important region.