From Ally to Enemy: The Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa, a Failed Intervention , by Gaim Kibreab

In: Journal of African Military History
Quentin Holbert University of Calgary Canada Calgary, AB

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Gaim Kibreab, From Ally to Enemy: The Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa, a Failed Intervention . Trenton, New Jersey: The Red Sea Press. 274 pages. $ 29.95. ISBN: 978-1-5690275-2-3.

Revolutionary movements inspire and fuel great emotions, and their participants radiate an infectious passion. Professor of Refugee Studies Gaim Kibreab, who himself was a participant in the Eritrean student protests in the 1970s, embodies this energy in this work. From Ally to Enemy: The Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa, a Failed Intervention is primarily about the Soviet alignment with Derg-era Ethiopia, with a central focus on the Kremlin’s opposition to the Eritrean liberation movements. Kibreab argues that the Soviet Union and its allies supported the Derg government out of strategic interests over any ideological alignment. The book distinguishes itself with its use of East German archival records; something that scholars writing about the Horn of Africa almost universally ignore.

The book is comprised of ten chapters excluding the introduction and conclusion. The first four chapters contextualize Soviet involvement in the Horn of Africa up to and including the Ogaden War (1977–1978). Egypt’s expulsion of Soviet military advisors in 1972 prompted increased friendly relations between Somalia and the USSR due to the importance of the Red Sea in international trade. However, Somalia proved a problematic ally because of Islamic groups’ influence within the country and on President Siad Barre’s vision of Scientific Socialism. Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1977 ultimately resulted in the Soviet Union switching allegiance to Ethiopia; a country that had greater economic influence in the region, a stronger military, and its own Red Sea ports via Eritrea. The Soviet intervention here was strictly strategic, with ideology having little-to-no impact on policy. The Soviet Union and Cuba supplied Ethiopia with both military advisors and modern equipment as a part of their new alliance.

This alignment with the Derg raises a “vexed” (p. 108) question: if control over Eritrea’s ports was the main reason behind Ethiopia’s value as an ally, why didn’t the Soviet Union support the socialist, anti-imperialist liberation movements like the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF)? The remainder of the book grapples with this query as the author discusses the Eastern Bloc’s dealings with both the Derg and the EPLF. There is not really a single clear answer, but a few ideas are present. Kibreab suggests that the Soviet Union and East Germany sought a peaceful resolution to the Ethiopia-Eritrea problem but had little substantive influence over Mengistu, who sought the complete annihilation of any separatist movements. (p. 172) The EPLF was similarly adamant about having national autonomy. Of the two factions, the Soviets and East Germans believed that Mengistu was more likely to retain control long-term and that they already invested in him too much to switch sides. The socialist bloc was also reluctant to place political pressure on Mengistu, much less oppose him outright, concerning his hardline stance against Eritrean nationalism because they could not risk alienating their principal ally in the Horn of Africa. For Kibreab, this was one of the primary reasons for the Soviet Union’s failures in the Horn of Africa.

The argument that the Soviet Union acted in accordance with strategic interests in the Horn of Africa is well-represented among historians, with perhaps Radoslav Yordanov emphasizing this point the most eloquently among other historians. What distinguishes Kibreab, besides focusing on Eritrean liberation movements, is his usage of East German archives. East German diplomats were involved in the discussions between the Derg and the Eritrean liberation movements, especially the EPLF and Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). Specific incidents, like Vice-Secretary General Isaias Afewerki’s Isaias’ misrepresentation of Soviet terms of negotiation in 1977–1978 or the Eritrean Liberation Front’s attempts to depict themselves as the most anti-imperialist faction, are only fully apparent with the East German documents. Scholars specializing in the Horn of Africa have not used these sources previously, and it is exciting seeing them employed in a unique way.

The section entitled “Weaponizing Semantics: Advocates of Greater Ethiopia attack” in Chapter Seven is the hidden gem of From Ally to Enemy. A major development in recent Ethiopian historiography concerns its status as a colonizing power in the Horn of Africa, and this section provides a good glimpse into some of the debates surrounding Ethiopian-Eritrean relations within this imperial context. This is a welcome inclusion that adds much-needed context behind the Eritrean liberation movements.

Kibreab’s writing, while sometimes repetitive and ineloquent, is enthusiastic, consistent with his previous work and is often effective at catching the reader’s attention. Outrage is present as observation when the author describes the Derg as “fascist” (p. 152) and the Soviet Union as having betrayed socialist ideals in lieu of strategic interests. The author does not hesitate eviscerating Isaias’s misrepresentation of the eastern bloc’s offers to the EPLF. To this end, the book exerts a passion that certainly captures the reader’s attention.

Chapter Ten treats Mengistu’s defeat at the Battle of Afabet in March 1988 as the central reason for the Soviet’s withdrawal, claiming that the Soviets “began to seriously question the wisdom of continuing its military involvement in Ethiopia.” (p. 205) Kibreab correctly notes that the Soviet Union withdrew military support from the Derg in the late 1980s, significantly weakening them and a key factor in the regime’s collapse in 1991. Unfortunately, From Ally to Enemy does not provide a source showing that it was specifically Afabet that prompted this reappraisal of Soviet policy. There are plenty of citations for how others, including journalists and the EPLF itself, reacted to the battle but the Soviet and Eastern Bloc attitudes are absent. Considering that there were multiple crises afflicting the USSR in the late 1980s resulting in decreased involvement in foreign conflicts, a source clarifying Afabet’s role in this broader pattern would strengthen the author’s argument.

There are some concerns with the quality of copyediting in the reviewed edition. Editing notes are still leftover throughout the manuscript, as indicated by grey text. These notes mostly indicate added material, but in one case, lists a pre-publication title of the reviewed book. (p. 9) The citation of a comment in the r/AskHistorians subreddit is erroneously dated as “accessed 28 Seo, 1918.” (p. 89) It is unclear why entire quotes, and not just a few key words, occasionally receive additional emphasis via italicization. (pp. 30, 123) Issues like these are a disservice to the author, and hopefully are resolved in future printings.

From Ally to Enemy is a welcome addition to the historiography of both the Horn of Africa and of Cold War Africa. Kibreab’s discussion of the Eastern Bloc’s response to the Eritrean liberation movements is quite valuable, especially considering the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. Kibreab largely succeeds in highlighting the strategic factors behind Soviet intervention and his analysis of negotiations between East German and Eritrean independence fighters is welcome. From Ally to Enemy is most suitable for specialists as some prerequisite knowledge of Cold War African history is required to fully follow along with Kibreab’s arguments. Familiarity with the Derg regime in Ethiopia and of Soviet aid to African states is especially recommended to make the most out of this book.

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