Salvaging history-book victory out of battle-field disasters
By Mussie Msghina
Oct 11, 2003

War is inherently ugly. The recent war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was ugly in all senses of the word. The unneccessary war cost Ethiopia more than 120 000 soldiers, Eritrea lost close to 19 000 soldiers. There was no reason for any of this to happen. There was no reason for Meles Zenawi to declare war on Eritrea on the pretext of border dispute. The problem with Ethiopia is that it has huge emotional and psychological needs that nobody can satisfy, and no amount of good-will can gratify. The humiliations Ethiopia suffered and continues to suffer at the cruel hands of nature and mismanagement seem to only make this worse.

Eritrea's independence is also viewed as a huge blow by sectors of Ethiopian society who see their country's recent history as an endless series of humiliations.

The world can help Ethiopia economically, and with transfer of competence and technology. But that is as much as the world can do. Only Ethiopia can help itself with its volatile emotions. Only Ethiopia can make itself realistic about its capacity, and adjust the huge mismatch that exists between its rhetoric and its reality. No amount of aid money can help it balance its emotions.

A century ago war still made sense, at least to the aggressively inclined. Those days there were no international refrees, and one got to keep what one won. In modern times there are only absolute losers no absolute winners in war, because at the end of the day (after much sweat, blood and tears) you'll have to hand back what is not legally yours. By definition, you cannot win a war of acquisition anymore. Ownership is so stable that it always returns to pre-war status.

Why does Meles need Badme?
From the get go the war with Ethiopia made no sense for Eritrea. This was obvious from Eritrea's defensive stance throughout the entire course of the war. Ethiopia, on the other hand, driven by irrational emotions, articulated different objectives with the war, including bringing about regime change in Eritrea, teaching Eritrea a lesson, living up to Ethiopia's 'glorious' history, "repeating the heroism of the Adwa generation", getting sea outlet, occupying Assab, etc. Eritrea's only objective was bringing about a quick end to the senseless war without compromising its sovereingity, and the sooner the better. Hence, Ethiopia's offensive and Eritrea's defensive stances during the war.

Ethiopia lost unfathomable number of soldiers. Even after many trials and huge loses, it was unable to overrun Eritrea in a sustainable way. Every failed attempt and every little advance inside Eritrea entailed unsustainable internal and external bleeding. More importantly, its repeated attempts to capture Assab were crushed with enormous loss of Ethiopian life. Simply put, the war was a disaster for Ethiopia. The war was also a disaster for Eritrea, because there was absolutely nothing Eritrea could possibly gain from the war save for holding its own. Eritrea had no interest in occupying Adi Grat or Entichew. In fact, Eritrea is quite happy these areas are not part of Eritrean territory. Simply put, war was imposed on Eritrea and Eritrea defended itself.

Luckily for both countries, the international community came up with a civilized solution that entailed that both countries leave the matter in the hands of an impartial and competent court of law and accept its ruling as final and binding. After much delibaration, the Hague Court gave its verdict giving Ethiopia and Eritrea the chance to put the past behind them. But once again, Ethiopia's volatile emotions kicked in and the country reacted with unbelievable see-saw of emotions.

The first few weeks, Addis Abeba declared the verdict as total victory and a "repeat of the heroisim of past generations". To commemorate this magnificient thing, a rubble was invited to the streets for mass celebration. To augment the feeling, the Ethiopian legal team said it even got areas it claimed by lying (difficult to believe they'd say this, but it is all there at

Few weeks later, the total victory emotion subsided. The elation died. A different mood kicked in as Ethiopia now declared the ruling as total defeat and a "repeat of the shameful abandonment of Ethiopia by the League of Nations which sided with fascist Mussolini". Ethiopia, it was now being said, "is lifting up its hands to God" for solace and justice.

Badme as fetish object
What is one to do with these unruly emotions? How can one and the same thing be a total victory and total defeat at one and the same time? To placate Ethiopia, the international community is promising it a second Badme on its side of the border. A Badme with running water and light bulbs, much better than the Eritrean Badme!

Of course no amount of Badme cloning will change the fact that the war was a disaster for Ethiopia. No amount of artificial engeneering, running water, or light bulbs can help Ethiopia salvage a history-book victory out of the battle-field and court-room disasters. But if any of these can help Ethiopian leaders learn the difference between irrational emotions and rational interest, much would have been achieved.

Postscript: the trend of multiple realities
The idea of multiple Badmes reminds a lot of the multiple Abba Selamas that existed at one and the same time in northern parts of Abessynia in the last century. Abba Selama was an Egyptian monk brought from Alexandria to be patriarch of the church and help Wub'e Mar'ee become king of Abessynia. On his way to Wub'e, the priest was kidnapped by another crown pretender called Tirso Nugussie (Tirso means toothy, and the nick was given to Nugussie on account of his prominently protruding front teeth).

At one time three crown pretenders, Wub'e Mar'e, Tirso Nugussie and Wag Shum Gobez'e claimed to have the real Abba Selama with them. To make matters worse, Lij Kassa of Quara presented a light-skinned peasant monk and claimed his was the real Abba Selama and not the ones with Wub'e, Tirso Nugussie or Wag Shum Gobez'e. All this was before the days of virtual reality.

It is also possible now that if Huruy Tela does not fully comply with Melese's wishes, Meles could easily raise four or five Hury Telas in no time: one in Stockholm, one in Milan, another one in the Sudan, still another one in Yemen, and the real one always in Addis close to Meles.

For sure, the idea of multiple and parallel realities is a new trend that is here to stay with us.