From the March 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
The fighting now taking place in Ethiopia is a tragic testimony to the cynicism and ambition of the major capitalist powers, including Russia. The strategic plotting of the Russian ruling class has led to a situation where destitute African peasants, exhorted to sacrifice themselves for nationalist ends, use Russian-supplied weapons to murder each other. It is the policies of the governments of Somalia and Ethiopia, plus those of the superpowers, which explain how this has come to happen.
In 1969 a military coup took place in Somalia, and Major-General Mohammed Barre became head of state. The new rulers claimed to be revolutionaries, and spoke loftily of establishing “Scientific Socialism”. The only legal political party is the so-called Somali Socialist Revolutionary Party, of which Barre is the Secretary-General. In fact, Barre’s government pursued a policy of as rapid as possible a development of capitalism in what was and remains a very backward country, with subsistence wages and almost no health service. The method was that of state capitalism, with the land and many companies being nationalized. Their revolutionary rhetoric did not however prevent them from accepting American financial aid, which was used to build a port at Kismayu in the south of the country. But the greatest support came from Russia, which supplied Somalia with weapons and helped to make the city of Berbera a well-equipped port and naval base which could be used by the Russian navy. Missile storage facilities were also built, again for Russian use —an ironic priority in a country without a single mile of railway track. It was clear that Russia was hoping to make Somalia into a Russian military base on the Indian Ocean, and a counter in Eastern Africa to Ethiopia, then ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie’s savage Christian dictatorship.
Then in 1974 the Ethiopian army deposed Selassie. A murderous struggle for power among various political and military factions ensued, but again the new rulers, the Dergue, claimed to be revolutionary Marxists. In December of the same year, Ethiopia was officially declared to be a “Socialist” state. As in Somalia, the government actually pursued a policy of state capitalism, nationalizing the land and various branches of industry, as the quickest way to develop the forces of production. The Russians saw their chance again, and supplied arms to Ethiopia. As the Somali- supported separatist guerrilla war in the northern province of Eritrea (which was only fully incorporated into Ethiopia in 1962) spread and the separatists occupied large parts of Eritrea, Russian and Cuban advisors were sent to help the Ethiopian government. Meanwhile a Somali-backed revolt was taking place in Ogaden, in the western part of Ethiopia.
For a while the Russians were able to back both sides in this way. But in November last year, the Somali government expelled their Russian “advisers”, and asked the Americans to supply more arms. The Russians thus lost access to the port facilities at Berbera, and are now defending the Ethiopian government against alleged Somali aggression. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, as it is called, is just the kind of “national liberation movement” that the Russians have supported in some parts of the world — and fought in others — when it suited them to do so. In Eritrea, now, Russian planes and rockets are used against the guerrillas. Eritrea contains Ethiopia’s main Red Sea port, Massawa, a prize that would help compensate the Russians for the loss of Berbera. The Russians may have decided that Eritrea is not viable—or sufficiently useful to them—as an independent state, and so are concentrating their efforts on keeping Ethiopia intact and friendly to Moscow.
The Dergue, the present military government of Ethiopia, operates with the usual brutality of a dictatorship. Since 1974 thousands of people have been imprisoned, and hundreds executed, for political activity hostile to the government. The Ethiopian air force’s tactics in Eritrea include the bombing of civilians in towns captured by the guerrillas. Peasants who refuse to be conscripted into the Ethiopian army are said to be killed in front of their families. Flour given by the Red Cross to relieve a famine in Ogaden has been commandeered by the army. The Dergue is no more than an old-fashioned military dictatorship.
Reports that the Russians have been actually involved in the fighting on behalf of Ethiopia have not been independently confirmed. No doubt the Russians would prefer not to risk their own troops in pursuit of their ambitions, but to let the Ethiopians and Somalis shoot it out between themselves. Their economic policies show that the Somali and Ethiopian governments have a great deal in common, though both may have something to gain by invading the other. The ones with nothing to gain in any of this are the workers and peasants, the ones who do the actual fighting and dying. In order to defend their own military bases and gain control of strategic routes, the Russian ruling class are quite prepared to foster and support wars between other nations, where the real losers are the ordinary people concerned, who face death, hunger and homelessness in a cause not their own.