GOLDEN OLDIE: Lions, Hyenas, And A ‘Village Dictator’; Images From The Ethiopia-Eritrea War

Adapted from the “Ear To The Ground” column in The Monitor newspaper, Uganda, April 28, 1999 by my good self, Charles Onyango-Obbo

A party of Ethiopia remained sunny and happy despite the war.

A party of Ethiopia remained sunny and happy despite the war.

EVEN though the price Ethiopia paid for victory in its recent bloody war with neighbour Eritrea was high, the mood in the capital Addis Ababa is decidedly upbeat.

In an interesting twist of history, the lion, once the symbol of Emperor Haile Selassie (he was called the “Lion of Judah”), is very much in fashion. Selassie was ousted in a bloody military coup by the diminutive and cruel Mengistu Haile Mariam, and murdered by the Dirge (the ruling Ethiopian junta then).

The victorious Ethiopian troops are frequently referred to in the press as the “mighty lions”. It seems nature has also conspired to enrich the tale of Ethiopian military exploits in the battle against Eritrea. By coincidence, in recent weeks the Addis Ababa papers have been abuzz with a bizarre, and apparently true, story about a war for territory between lions and hyenas in some Ethiopian jungle.

The lions won.

The war of the beasts was equal in ferocity to the battles of tanks and mortar that Ethiopia and Eritrea fought.

The Ethiopian media was quick to notice the symbolic value of the lions’

Emperor and his pet lion: Ethiopia was presented as the lion, and Eritrea as the hyena

Emperor Selaisse and his pet lion: Ethiopia was presented as the lion, and Eritrea the hyena.

victory and has been inspired to render dramatic accounts of the animal feud.

An outsider who wasn’t aware of the Ethiopia-Eritrea would miss the significance of the story. Not the Ethiopians or, for that the matter, the Eritreans.

The most dramatic rendering was in The Addis Tribune, which wrote:

“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 eyewitnesses to be the ‘rarest and most notorious in recent history’, led to the death of six lions, and 36 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 fury. One spectator noted, ‘It was ferocious violence. Quite a few hyenas died in an orgy of fighting…it is the scene of terrible carnage.’

“The [surrounding] rocky desert is currently controlled by the deadly felines

Badme, the slither of land of over ever which thousands died.

Badme, the slither of land of over ever which thousands died.

[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 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 Addis Tribune summed up, “has now returned to normal after all the excitement, according to local villagers and the police.”

It is the same Addis Tribune that dumped defeat on Eritrea president Issayas Afeworki, saying “the village dictator” had been bloodied in Sawa.

In Addis Ababa, one hardly notices signs that Ethiopia has just fought a vicious war, and that its troops and the Eritreans are still facing off at the front.

The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been described as the “most

The patriotic sections of the Ethiopian press love to hate and call Eritrea's strongman Aferworki names. Here Tigraionline.com presents himself as cracking up. In 1999 they called him a "village dictator".

The patriotic sections of the Ethiopian press love to hate and call Eritrea’s strongman Aferworki names. Here Tigraionline.com presents himself as cracking up. In 1999 they called him a “village dictator”.

senseless” conflict of recent times. Nonsense. There were serious political and economic disagreements between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and they were well worth a war – if you care for one.

Still one can’t help but be struck by the level of casualties in this war. In just one weekend of fighting in mid-March (1999), the Eritreans claimed they killed over 10,000 Ethiopians. It is believe Eritrea lost up to 15,000 men. In all, about 40,000 fighters have died in just the last six months.

In March when the Ethiopians retook the disputed Badme border strip, they threw thousands and thousands of men, and hundreds of tanks at heavily fortified Eritrean positions, and overwhelmed Afeworki’s army.

The willingness of Addis Ababa to take such high casualties puzzled many observers of war. The Economist of London reports that to this day in Tsorona (an area controlled by Eritreans) the bodies of dead Ethiopians have not been buried.

Why? you may ask. Well, because Eritrean expects that the Ethiopians might press on with the war (toward their capital Asmara, as they eventually did), they would be forced to step over the bodies of their comrades to reach the Eritrean trenches.

Secondly, did Ethiopia have to lose so many men to retake Badme? No, but the casualties were a powerful psychological weapon against the Eritreans.

Eritrea is a small nation of about 3.5 million people. Ethiopia is several times bigger, nearly 60 million. Some analysts reason that Addis Ababa was sending the message to Afeworki that it was not stand for any loss of its territory, and it was ready to throw in 3.5 million Ethiopians, one for every Eritrean. In the end, there wouldn’t be a single Eritrean left, but there would still be Ethiopia and Ethiopians – 55 million of them!

After all, Ethiopia is a country where the dead have a way of showing when they are least expected. The biggest show in Ethiopia today is at its national museum.

A reconstruction of "Lucy". The fossil inspired colourful story-telling in Ethipia (Chicago Field Museum)

A reconstruction of “Lucy”. The fossil inspired colourful story-telling in Ethipia (Chicago Field Museum)

Not too long ago, archeologists were digging around in an Ethiopian desert patch. The lead archeologist was playing was playing The Beatles’ Love Song To Lucy on his Sony Walkman as they ransacked the earth.

Then the team hit a little skeleton. It looked old. But exactly how old, they couldn’t even begin to guess. When they carbon-dated it, they found it was 25 million years old; the oldest human fossil that had ever been found.[1]

The named it Lucy, after the Beatles song that was playing on the Walkman when the team found it.

I didn’t go to view Lucy, but those who have say it’s awe-inspiring…especially if one listens to the guide, who is famous for his colourful style in Addis, tell her story. Seems not only The Addis Tribune has a flair for the dramatic.

[1] In 2009 an older human skeleton was found in Ethiopia.

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