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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 upbeat.
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 fashion.

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 hyenas.

"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 terrible.'

"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 Eritrean soldiers.

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 for one.

Without being bogged down by the details, one is struck by the levels of casualties in the border war.

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.


�1999Charles Onyango-Obbo & Worldwide EP.