Lions, Hyenas, And A `Village Dictator'
>From The Monitor, April 28, 1999
By Charles Onyango-Obbo
LABABA - Even though the price Ethiopia paid for its "victory" in the recent
bloody war with neighbour Eritrea was very high, the mood in Addis Ababa is decidedly
In a little ironical twist of history, the lion, once the icon of the Emperor Haile
Selassie, who was ousted in a bloody military "revolution" by the diminutive and
cruel Mengistu Haile Mariam and later murdered by the Dirge (the junta), is very much in
The Ethiopian troops are frequently referred to in the press as the "mighty
lions". Nature has also conspired to enrich the Ethiopian tale. In recent weeks, in
the Ethiopian jungles, there has been a bizarre battle for territory between lions and
hyenas. The war was equal in its ferocity to the battle of tanks and mortars that Ethiopia
and Eritrea fought. The lions won.
The Ethiopian media has been quick to notice the symbolic value of this victory by the
lions, and been inspired to render dramatic accounts of this animal feud. The top honours
belong to the Addis Tribune which told us:
"After a fierce battle that lasted more than a week in the Gobele jungles in
southeastern Ethiopia, a group of lions successfully drove off a predacious army of
"The fight, claimed by witnesses to be the `rarest and most notorious in recent
history', led to the death of six lions, and thirty-six hyenas.
"The local police and villagers noted that the two warring animal parties spent the
day in their respective dens and emerged at night, howling and fighting with such fury.
One spectator noted, `It was ferocious violence. Quite a number of hyenas died in an orgy
of fighting...It is the scene of terrible carnage'.
"The rocky desert is currently controlled by the deadly felines [lions], having
killed or imposed exile on their rivals.
"According to a villager, `now that the hyenas are gone, there are no animals to
scavenge for the remains that litter our streets. The stench from these carcasses is
"Forty-five years ago, it is rumoured, a single lion from the palace in Harar
individually cleared the area of hyenas.
"The hyenas lost the battle yet again, proving yet again that the lion remains king
of the beasts. Without even having the chance to howl their funeral tributes to their dead
comrades, the hyenas left the area, with their proverbial tails between their legs."
"The Golebe desert", the Tribune summed up gamely, "has now returned to
normal, after all the excitement, according to local villagers and the police".
It is the same Tribune which dumped defeat on Issayas Afeworki, saying "the village
dictator" had been bloodied in Sawa.
In Addis, one hardly notices signs that Ethiopia has just fought a vicious war, and
thousands of its troops are still facing off possibly an equal or bigger number of
The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been dubbed the "most senseless"
conflict of recent times. Nonsense. There were serious political and economic
disagreements between Ethiopia and Eritrea - and they were well worth a war, if you care
Without being bogged down by the details, one is struck by the levels of casualties in the
In just one weekend of fighting in mid-March, the Eritreans claim they killed over 10,000
Ethiopians. It is believed the conflict has also cost Eritrea up to 15,000 men. In all,
about 40,000 fighters were killed in these six months.
In March when Ethiopia retook Badme, they threw thousands and thousands of men and
hundreds of tanks at heavily fortified Eritrean positions, and overwhelmed Afeworki's men.
The willingness of Addis to take such high casualties puzzled nearly all observers of war.
The Economist of London reports that to this day in Tsorona, the bodies of dead Ethiopians
have not been buried. Because Eritrea believes that Addis Ababa will press on with the
war, they are leaving the bodies out so that the Ethiopians will have to step over the
corpses of their dead comrades to reach the Eritrean trenches.
Did Ethiopia have to lose so many men to retake Badme? Eritrea is a small nation of about
3.5 million people. Ethiopia is several times larger; nearly 60 million. Some analysts
reason that Addis was sending the message to Afeworki that it will not stand for any loss
of its land, and it was ready to throw in as many as 3.5 million Ethiopians, one for every
Eritrean. At the end, there would not be a single Eritrean left, but there would be
Ethiopia, and Ethiopians...between 50-55 million of them!
Afterall, this is a country where the dead have a way of turning up when no one really
expects them to. The biggest show in Ethiopia is at its national museum. Recently
archeologists were digging around in an Ethiopian desert patch. A lead archeologist was
playing the Beatle's love song to Lucy on his walkman as they ransacked the earth. Then
they hit upon a little skeleton. It looked old. But they didn't know how old. When they
carbon-dated it, they found it was about 2.5 million years old! They named it Lucy, in
tribute to the song that was playing on the walkman when it was found.
I didn't go to view the skeleton, but those who did say it is awe-inspiring listening to
the guide tell the story.
But life would never be complete without the small things. One can forgive a Ugandan who
has lived with mobile phones for years, for being amused that yesterday the big story in
the Ethiopian newspapers was that the country was getting its first mobile phone service.
And most Ugandans would be surprised that the service is being launched by the
government-owned Telecommunications Corporation, not a private investor like CelTel or MTN
because the privatisation of the sector is still a long way off.
The biggest surprise though, given the corruption and incompetence that has plagued
Uganda's privatisation programme, is the amount of money the Ethiopian privatisation
agency has collected after selling just over half of the enterprises it will put on the
market - $333m (about UShs 500bn!). Very unUgandan.
It's not difficult, after all is said and done, to understand why they are laughing all
the way to the bank in Addis.
ï¿½1999Charles Onyango-Obbo & Worldwide EP.