The United States, Ethiopia and the 1963 Somali–Soviet arms deal: containment and the balance of power dilemma in the Horn of Africa
The early years of the East–West Cold War in sub-Saharan Africa are remembered for the violence surrounding the 1960–1 Congo crisis. While the crisis in the Congo threatened to spin out of control, on 6 January 1961 Nikita Khrushchev delivered his secret ‘sacred wars of national liberation’ speech, which suggested that Moscow intended to undermine Western influence in the region by fanning war and subversion. Despite the nasty turn of events in the Congo and Khrushchev's blustery rhetoric, Soviet activities in sub-Saharan African remained limited in scope and within the bounds of ‘peaceful coexistence’. Moscow sought to challenge Western hegemony in the region by offering economic and military assistance to developing countries, ‘free from any political or military obligations’. Although Moscow first targeted the radical West African governments in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, as part of his break with Stalinist orthodoxy Khrushchev was also willing to extend Moscow's ‘friendly hand’ to moderate African countries.
Moscow achieved an important strategic breakthrough within the moderate African camp in November 1963, when the Republic of Somalia announced that it would accept a $30 million military aid offer from the Soviet Union, thereby foiling an attempt by the West to preclude Soviet military aid to Somalia. During 1962–3, a consortium of Western powers, led by the United States, had presented a series of arms packages of increasing value to Mogadishu. This was done over the strong protests of Washington's long-time ally in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopian Emperor Haile-Selassie. But in the end, Moscow won the bidding war for Somalia by raising the arms ‘ante’ to a level which the Western powers were unwilling to match, owing to Washington's fear that to do so would jeopardise strategically vital US base rights in Ethiopia and provoke Haile-Selassie to adopt a less moderate voice in African affairs.
Although students of the Cold War in Africa are familiar with this general outline of the 1963 Soviet–Somali arms deal, scant attention has been paid to the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres and bureaucratic conflicts arising over the efforts of the Kennedy administration to dissuade Somalia from accepting military assistance from the Eastern bloc. A more probing analysis of this event is instructive in furthering our understanding of future developments in the Horn of Africa.
1 The author is grateful to the JFK Library Foundation for providing a grant to conduct research at the John F. Kennedy Library.