Why Ethiopia will be forever indebted to Fidel Castro

Wednesday December 21st 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

Throngs of people converged on Addis Ababa’s “Cuba Adebabaye,” literally Cuba square a couple of weeks ago as Ethiopians held a memorial for the founding father of revolutionary Cuba, Fidel Castro. Thousands made their way to the square, located on the road between Legare and the district of Piassa, just next to the city’s immigration office. The highlight of the square, a giant 50 meter high monument known as the Tiglachin monument, honouring the sacrifices paid and losses suffered by Cubans in Ethiopia during the 1977-78 Ogaden war.  It is ornamented with a red communist star on top of it, visible for miles across Addis Ababa. Inaugurated in 1984, it is one of the last landmarks testifying to the country’s socialist past and diplomatic links with Cuba. A week or so after Castro’s death, Ethiopians, including according to state media, many of the Ethiopians sent on full scholarships to Cuba, gathered in commemoration of Fidel Castro, a man who they unanimously believe did more than his fair share for the betterment of the country.

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The Tiglachin monument in Addis Ababa (Image: Belachere)

Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s passing away at the age of 90 nearly a month ago now made global headlines. One of the most renowned, influential men of the 20th century made such an impact on the world during his time as leader that his doings are arguably still visible in his country’s and even Central America’s current geopolitical situations.

While the Cuban nation mourns the loss of their ironman, a leader viewed as a staunch defender of Cuban interests and policies from takeover by hostile foreign elements, his legacy is being fervently discussed by his masses of admirers and detractors around the world. Unlike in Ethiopia, the topic of Fidel Castro’s legacy elsewhere is an extremely divisive one, with factors such as geographic location and political stance coming into play. In general he is viewed favourably among communist and/or former communist countries. Diplomats and leaders hailing from most capitalist western states however, tend to frown upon the lionizing of their long-time foe, a foe which according to Cuban secret service sources, the Americans failed to assassinate despite attempting to do so on over nine hundred different occasions!

The communist dogma preaches that a friend in need is a friend indeed. The cold war jostling and diplomatic clout of having “friends” in all four corners of the world is what motivated the stalwarts of communism to use all at their disposal to spread its influence to all four corners of the globe. Hence the direct and indirect presence of actors such as the Soviet Union in decision making and in conflicts all around the world. Before the collapse of the USSR and other ideologically aligned leaderships in the early nineties, the Soviets had their proxy tentacles everywhere, including in the Horn of Africa.

While the Soviet Union and its relationship with Ethiopia requires deep analysis before one can develop an outlook of sorts on the sincerity of the players involved, in the case of Cuba, Ethiopians can look to their recent history to be reminded of the lengths Fidel Castro was willing to go to cement a friendship between the two countries and safeguard the interests of their then communist allies in Ethiopia, and thus the country as a whole. The conflicts between Ethiopia and Somalia will forever highlight the diplomatic and military roles played by the man who despite his larger than life status, would go by no other title than “comrade.”

Mogadishu 1964. After gaining independence from Britain and Italy, the newly created Somali republic listed the conquering of majority ethnic Somali inhabited territories within Ethiopia and Kenya as a national priority. In 1964, a mere four years after their recognition was globally recognized, elements of the Somalia army invaded the Somali state region of Ethiopia with the goal of encompassing it as part of the planned “Greater Somalia,” a country which would include the entirety of the current Somalia, as well nearly a third of Ethiopia and parts of Kenya and Djibouti. The Ethiopian army at the command of Emperor Haileselassie and army chief General Mikael Aman Andom, beat back the incursion, and penetrated deep into Somalia’s territory. Three months later in April of 1964, the two parties reached a diplomatic solution thanks to the mediation of Sudan. Ethiopian troops would eventually withdraw from Somalia.

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Somalia’s military chief General Siad Barre (left), shaking the hand of Emperor Haileselassie (right) years after a truce agreed was agreed to when the latter’s troops routed the former’s in the initial conflict that came some fourteen years before the breakout of all out war (Image: Wikipedia)

In 1969, a new leader came to the fore in Somalia, a man whose staunch nationalist stance would rock the foundations of the Horn of Africa. A week after the assassination of the country’s civilian Prime Minister Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, the head of the army General Siad Barre would assume responsibilities as the country’s third President.

General Barre was in charge of Somalia’s armed forces when they suffered defeats at the hands of their Ethiopian enemies five years earlier. He had not forgotten this nor had he dropped the military vanquishing of the likes of Ethiopia and Kenya from the to do list for the then newly established “Somali Democratic Republic.” In an attempt to learn from previous battle field mistakes, he chose to bide his time, building diplomatic relations with powers he calculated would give him the tactical edge over Ethiopia. In 1974, Somalia joined the Arab League and strengthened relations with Egypt. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat pursued the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state to prevent the loosening of his country’s grip on the rights to all of the Nile River’s waters. He’d later even openly threaten to attack Ethiopia if Addis Ababa did anything that would even remotely threaten Egypt’s complete dominance of Nile River resources. Egypt started training and arming Somalia’s army for the planned second attempt at invading Ethiopia. But above all, it was General Barre’s signing of the 1974 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow that really aided his military ambitions. General Barre had long resented the US for their joint supplying of both his country and Ethiopia. In order to supplant whatever military assistance Ethiopia was receiving, he began courting the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union began delivering top grade sophisticated weapons and equipment to Mogadishu. Somalia received everything from tanks, aircraft and armaments and even refurbished a naval base for the Somalian navy. Besides this, Somalia’s diplomatic teams sent to the annual African Union summits would spend time attempting to garner support for their claim of the Ogaden region among African leaders. Their efforts were met among African diplomats with mixed reactions.

Banking on support from the Soviet Union and Arab League allies, General Barre’s planning of all out war with Ethiopia was an open secret that he made no attempt to hide. It is within the tense atmosphere just prior to the conflict that the Horn of Africa saw Fidel Castro attempt to make a major diplomatic move to prevent the breakout of war.

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Somalia President Siad Barre planned an all out invasion of Ethiopia (Image: Tesionline)

In March of 1977, four months before the impending Second Ogaden war, Castro called for a secret gathering to be held in the then South Yemeni capital, Aden. At the meeting in the presence of Ethiopia’s military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, General Barre, diplomats from both countries, as well as representatives of the  South Yemeni and Soviet governments, Fidel Castro tried to get all parties to find common ground and avoid conflict. In his eyes, war between budding communist leaderships wasn’t necessary and the Cuban leader proposed solutions to avoid the outbreak of war in East Africa.

Among Castro’s proposals, the creation of an East African socialist confederation. The planned entity would have included Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and parts of South Yemen. The confederation would have strengthened the diplomatic ties of millions of Africans and yet preserve a certain degree of autonomy and self rule. Castro’s believed that inner fighting among the African socialist states would see what he described as the revolutionary processes in both countries be curtailed and the region’s being hijacked by imperial elements.

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Fidel Castro meeting with Siad Barre. Castro used diplomacy to try to convince Barre to put off invading Ethiopia (Image: Somalimind)

Ultimately, the meeting bore no fruit as the planned confederation mapped out the Ogaden region as an autonomous entity within Ethiopia. This was fiercely opposed by the Somalians. General Barre blamed the collapse of the discussions on what he described as the “colonial era mentality” of the Ethiopian negotiating team. Fidel Castro believed the aggressive tone of the Somalis at the Aden meeting was a sign that Siad Barre was somewhat willing to turn their back on socialist ideology and ally themselves with the “imperialist” forces of the United States and Saudi Arabia, for the sake of their war effort. He also felt that the reversal of the imperial regime of Haileselassie in Ethiopia was something to be supported, and that the assault on post revolution Ethiopia was an affront to everything he stood for.

“We felt that under no pretext could Somalia carry out military operations against Ethiopia, especially when the revolutionary process in that country is being attacked from all directions,” Fidel stated in a 1977 interview with a French television network. “This, we consider, will put Mogadishu on the side of imperialism and the Arab reactionary regimes.”

By “all directions,” Fidel was referring to the struggles of various separatist rebel groups, primarily the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), who he described as an imperialist funded effort to undermine the territorial integrity of revolutionary Ethiopia. In many ways, Fidel Castro’s words could be mistaken for those of an Ethiopian leader.

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Fidel Castro in Addis Ababa with Mengistu Hailemariam in 1977, just prior to the start of the Ogaden war

Despite Castro’s condemnation, Somalia wouldn’t budge on its claim to Ethiopian territory. Despite agreeing to the principle of unity, Siad Barre’s team argued in favour of Somalia governing all territories inhabited by ethnic Somali peoples. “We told (Castro) that this is about the self determination of people, and if his federation is going to unite ethnic Somalis, we are up for it,” Somali’s then Deputy Defense Minister Mohamed Nur Galal said at the time.

Castro, who sought the broader brotherhood of peoples linked by ideology, was frustrated by Siad Barre’s insistence of unity based on kinship. When Siad Barre showed him a map of “Greater Somalia,” Castro scoffed at him. He’d later describe Barre as a chauvinist. “Chauvinism is the most important factor in Barre,” said Castro at a meeting in East Germany. “Socialism is just an outer shell that is supposed to be make him more attractive…Siad Barre really thinks that he is at the summit of wisdom.”

 

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Pink marks the territory encompassed by Siad Barre’s “Greater Somalia.” Greater Somalia would have included about a third of Ethiopia’s territory, including many areas beyond the Ogaden that are not inhabited by native Somali speakers

 

Castro came to the conclusion that Ethiopia had to be aided in all capacities to prevent the reversal of what he described as that country’s revolutionary process. Somalia was in the wrong here.

Despite full knowledge that his verbal sabre rattling had provoked the ire of the world’s major socialist powers, Siad Barre proceeded with plans to invade Ethiopia. On July 13th, the armed forces of Somalia, backed by the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), a Barre funded Ogaden region based guerrilla group, started attacking Ethiopian infantry positions within Ethiopia, launching from two directions, including from a base in the city of Beledweyne Somalia. Ironically, in 2016, Beledweyne is where Ethiopian and AMISOM troops use to launch attacks against Al Shabab positions in the country.

With superior armaments and ample preparation time, the Somalians, despite incurring losses along the way, bulldozed their way into Ethiopia. The Ethiopian army, already stretched thin thanks to domestic conflicts and without the leadership of many key military leaders, executed as imperial regime collaborators by Mengistu’s henchmen, put up a fierce defense, but couldn’t stop Somalian advances. By September, Siad Barre’s troops controlled 90% of Ethiopia’s Somali region. Their biggest coup was the capture of Jijiga, today the capital city of the Ethiopian Somali state. The Ethiopian military collapsed in its ill-fated attempt to hold the region and suffered tens of thousands of casualties. Despite this, Ethiopia’s air force remained intact. The Ethiopian aerial fighters maintained air supremacy, putting most of the Somalian air force out of action and keeping them from attacking the key cities of Harar and Dire Dawa, which were the next targets after the successful occupation of Jijiga.

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Somalia parading its might ahead of the Ogaden war (Image: Getty Images)

In the midst of the brutal war, Somalia’s lost any remaining diplomatic support it once had among former communist allies. All deliveries of weapons from the Soviet Union were halted. Weapons and vehicles were instead sent to Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops, reinforced by the increase in aid were able to inflict defeats upon the Somalians who were at the doorsteps of the cities of Harar and Dire Dawa. Upon encroaching city limits, invading troops would be met by volleys of firepower from increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the city’s defenders who managed to key them at bay. Barre’s troops had not encountered such a defense during their initial assault on Ethiopia and accused the USSR and Cuba of siding with Ethiopia. On November 13th, after an emergency session of Somalia’s governing central committee, Siad Barre declared the 1974 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow null and void. He gave all Soviet citizens in the country a week to leave Somalia.

At the turn of the year, the military stalemate would be no more, as the tables would turn on Somalia. Just as Fidel Castro had predicted nearly a year earlier, Siad Barre’s socialist rhetoric was a facade for his expansionist dreams, as he was now openly courting the United States for aid in its now stunted war effort. This was the green card for all communist forces to throw their weight behind Mengistu Haile Mariam and his army. The Soviet Union contributed in weapons, tanks, jets alongside their sending of about a thousand military advisors. But Fidel Castro usurped this with his deploying of nearly twenty thousand troops and advisors to Ethiopia. The country’s defence minister now President, Raul Castro, flew into Addis to help commandeer the war effort.

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An anti Soviet rally in Mogadishu held after it became evident the communist powers wouldn’t back Somalia’s military ambitions
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A column of Cuban soldiers in Ethiopia

In February of 1978, Cuban troops at the command of General Arnaldo Ochoa (also mistakenly referred to as General Orlando Ochoa by some Ethiopian historians), were directly inserted into the thick fog of the Ethiopian war effort as the counterattack commenced. With most of the Ogaden region still under occupation, the Ethiopian Cuban offensive was tasked with wiping out the firmly entrenched WSLF/Somalia army garrisons, some seven months after their arrival in Ethiopia. The city of Jijiga, the stronghold of the Somalian army presence of Ethiopia, was attacked from three directions in some of the fiercest fighting in the war to date. After a nearly month long onslaught, Siad Barre’s troops in the city of Jijiga sustained heavy casualties in their vain attempt to hold on to the key city. Demoralized Somalian reinforcements from the surrounding areas started retreating towards Somalia, leaving the towns they had once occupied free for the Ethiopians and Cubans to retake. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Troop morale dropped. According to Ethiopian ethnographer Afendi Muteki, Siad Barre’s fleeing forces massacred the local population as retaliation, especially targeting the region’s non Somali population, in addition to the looting and destruction of properties. By March 6th, Ethiopia had full control of Jijiga. The battle of Jijiga was an irreversible defeat for Barre’s army. Reeling from the loss, Barre ordered the immediate exodus of his troops from Ethiopia. Weeks later, Mengistu Haile Mariam declared victory, the Ogaden region was back in Ethiopian hands, and the war was over.

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Members of a newly created Ethiopian peasant militia that would take part in the Ogaden war
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Castro, Mengistu and a consortium of Ethiopian and Cuban officials during the Ogaden war (Image: Steve Aust)
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An Ethiopian soldier taking part in the Ogaden war (Image: Getty Images)
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15,000 Cuban soldiers, like these ones took part in the Ogaden war

Afendi Muteki lists Somalia’s military casualties to be at around 16,000 soldiers dead and 26,000 wounded, while Ethiopia suffered 18,000 dead and 29,000 injured servicemen. Ethiopian historian Gebru Tareke meanwhile has much smaller figures, putting the combined dead of both armies at around 15,000. He bases his findings on documented Ethiopian military communiqués.

According to Gebru Tareke, the Ethiopian embassy in Havana told him the Cubans lost around 400 soldiers in the Ogaden war, the majority of the casualties inflicted upon them during their joint effort to liberate Jijiga.

Fidel Castro’s sending of troops into Ethiopia not only turned the tide of the 1977-78 Ogaden war, it also forever dented Somalia’s expansionist dreams into Ethiopia. The Greater Somalia or “Somaliweyn” project, which involved the forced incorporation of nearly a third of Ethiopian territory into Somalia, would be confined to the dustbins of history. A permanent solution was administered to what was an almost two decades old headache. In 1989, after Ethiopia and Somalia signed a deal recognizing each other’s territorial limits, the last Cuban soldiers withdrew from the region, some twelve years after they first arrived

.

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Mengistu Hailemariam (right) celebrating the Ogaden war victory with Fidel Castro (center) and Raul Castro (left)
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At a ceremony for wounded Ogaden war veterans sit in wheelchairs decorated with Ethiopian and Cuban flags (Image: Steve Aust)

Long after hostilities had ended, the Cuban government took steps to ensure that the ties between the two states went beyond military cooperation. A year after the last troops left Somalia, Ethiopia sent 2,400 war orphans, many of them from the just concluded Ogaden war, to Cuba. Aged between seven and seventeen, the Castro government enrolled them in schools and financed their education and upbringings. By all accounts, they were all generously cared for and provided for by the Cuban government. Many of them remain in Cuba, while others have immigrated to Spain, the United States or returned to Ethiopia.

Recently, Yibrah Mehari, a Cuban educated Ethiopian spoke to Voice of America (VOA) about his experiences in Cuba. Yibrah is the son of a fallen Ethiopian soldier and was sent at age fourteen to Cuba. He completed his studies and became an architect. He told the VOA that he and his fellow Ethiopians sent to Cuba had nothing but “tremendous love” for Castro. Today, Yibrah is the chairman of the Ethio-Cuban Friendship Association.

“Like a father, he used to come to visit our school and encourage us to do well. We felt at home in Cuba, never isolated or felt like outsiders.”

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A group of Ethiopian youths in Cuba
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Ethiopian teenage girls in Cuba

Today, Cuba maintains a presence of professionals mostly in the medical field active in Ethiopia, long after the fall of communism in the country. It was after an agreement signed in May 2001 that Cuban doctors, globally renowned for their expertise and proficiency, were deployed to hospitals and clinics across rural and urban Ethiopia to instruct and guide Ethiopian medical graduates. By this time, Cuba had no longer any proxy presence in the region, nor much to gain diplomatically. The bloodthirsty communists who had run rampant across East Africa in the seventies and eighties, had been replaced by murderous kleptocrats, products of political systems abhorred by the Cuban government. Despite this, Cuba’s continuous goodwill role in the refurbishing of some of Africa’s battle scarred nations saw Ethiopia and other states lobby to create the Regional African Conference in Solidarity with Cuba, an annual gathering of African states and the Cuban government to discuss their burgeoning ties. The fourth conference was hosted by Ethiopia in 2012. When asked about the conference taking place in Ethiopia, former Cuban ambassador to Ethiopia Clara Polio said that above all selection criteria, the abundance of friends and allies in Ethiopia, as well as the over four thousand Ethiopian professionals who graduated from Cuban institutions made examining the country’s bid a no brainer.

Indeed few would argue against Fidel Castro’s policy towards Africa as a whole proving beneficial to the continent (notable exception being Somalia for obvious reasons). Hence the moments of silence and respects paid at parliament and governing authority buildings across the African continent. The revolutionary giant has been mourned in Africa.

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Thousands in Addis attended the Fidel Castro memorial at Cuba square (Image: EBC)

At the memorial in Addis, Ethiopians paid glowing tributes to El Commandant.

“I wasn’t old enough to remember my own father’s passing,” one woman told state television, flanked by two others, all three clad in black T-shirts bearing Castro’s image. “But today I feel like I am mourning a father,” she said this between huffs and puffs, unable to control her tears.

Another woman, better composed was philosophical in her approach. “The fact is that he fought to secure Cuba’s sovereignty when it was under assault by so many, he led Cuba the way Cubans wanted. He was empowering and inspiring as a leader.”

Did Fidel Castro know of his legacy among Ethiopians today?

In a tribute to Castro, former Ethiopian diplomat Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni described an encounter he had with Fidel Castro in 2003 at an international meeting of the Non Allied Movement states in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When Birhanemeskel identified himself, Castro asked him if Ethiopians nowadays know of the sacrifices paid by Cubans to safeguard Ethiopian sovereignty decades earlier.

Birhanemeskel explained that during the Ogaden war, the Somalian army brutally murdered thousands and plundered villages, including the one inhabited by his own relatives, in the Seru district of Arsi, Oromia state. Those who were identified as Christians were especially game to beheadings and all sorts of atrocities committed by Siad Barre’s invading forces. Birhanemeskel recalls Oromo folk songs sung in honour of the victorious Ethiopian generals after Cuban soldiers joined the Ethiopian war effort which culminated in the Somalians being rooted out the Ogaden region and Ethiopian soil.

“When I told President Fidel Castro what I know of that war, and that our own family’s lives were saved in part thanks to the involvement of Cuban Soldiers, I could still vividly remember seeing his face brightened with joy and tears coming to his eyes in that Malaysian Conference Hall. He took time and spoke with me about ten minutes while some very senior foreign dignitaries were lining up behind me to greet and speak with him.”

 

Communism was a failure in Ethiopia, and the Red Terror era of Mengistu Haile Mariam ended up killing more Ethiopians than Siad Barre’s invasion and subsequent occupation could ever claim. The debate over Cuba’s political, economical and social past and future rages on among those who both despise and loathe Fidel Castro. But when it comes to his place in Ethiopian history, one has to cast the domestic political situation in Cuba aside. Ethiopia can hardly claim to have had a diplomatic relationship more fruitful than the one it enjoyed with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Decades on, history, and a giant obelisk in the center of Addis Ababa will forever testify of the great lengths Cuba went to ensure Ethiopia’s revolution wasn’t backtracked upon.

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Fidel Castro in 2014 (Image: NBC)

Ethiopia today isn’t shaped in the image of a country he would be proud to rule. Nor was it so during the era of the Derg regime, a regime whose bloody track record resulted in a civil war and the dismembering of the former province of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Nevertheless, had it not been for the insertion of a Robin Hood-esque force of thousands of Cuban soldiers at the command of Fidel Castro, Ethiopia wouldn’t have been able to hold the 2013 Ethiopian Nations and Nationalities festivities in Jijiga, capital city of Somali State, Ethiopia.

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Plundered and destroyed by the invading Somalians, the city of Jijiga has now been rebuilt as the capital city of Ethiopia’s Somali region
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A political rally in Jijiga, Ethiopia 2016 (Image: City of Jijiga Administration)

The legacy of Castro in Ethiopia is that of a man unwilling to compromise on the nation’s dignity. Hence Ethiopia’s paying tribute to Fidel Castro as it would a fallen patriot being more than fitting.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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