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Yes, That is a Lion Biting the Minister...

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RICHARD SOBOL/AP

HARGEISA, Somalia — I've been more frightened before. And laughed harder. But never have I experienced the same intense combination of fear and amusement that I did during a recent visit with Somaliland's minister of information. You probably haven't heard of Somaliland — it's a would-be country in the north-western bit of Somalia, a nation state that ceased to function as such a decade ago. But while the south has been torn apart by incessant violence ever since and is only now attempting to move beyond government by the ubiquitous warlords, Somaliland has forged a more peaceful path. It has created its own government, and issued currency and passports. Not that a Somaliland passport will get you anywhere — although a declaration of independence from Somalia was supported by 90 percent of voters in a recent referendum, no other country recognizes the move. The Somalilanders maintain they were always separate from, and different to, their southern cousins. Moreover, they insist they'll never reunite with the southern Somalis, or at least not before they get their house in order. In the mean time, the Somaliland government struggles on slowly rebuilding its part of the country. And before a recent livestock ban by Saudi Arabia, trade had been booming.

His countryĺs unrecognized status was the primary concern of Ali Warande, Somaliland's minister of information, on a recent afternoon. "Recognize us," he urged. "Look how well we are doing compared to the rest of Somalia." I was interviewing Warande, along with a BBC TV journalist, in the sitting room of his modest house in Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway republic. After a brief discussion, we asked him if we could see his pets, which include four cheetahs and a lion. Sure, said the minister, "I'll show you how I play with them." Outside he let the lion off the leash and began wrestling with it on a small patch of grass. An aide fetched a plastic chair and placed it in the middle of the lawn so the minister could sit and be interviewed while playing with the lion.

It was a big lion. Only one year and four months old, but at least three feet tall at the shoulder. The minister assured us that it was friendly, but the fact that it did have all its teeth and claws intact made us a bit wary. The lion's name was Chi Chi, and it loved jumping up onto the minister and wrestling with him. At the start of the resumed interview, Chi Chi bit into the minister's crotch, which brought a small shout, a few seconds of pain and then a whack over the nose to prompt the lion to let go. A little later, it took an interest in the BBC cameraman, pummeling him to the ground as he was filming. When the lion handler — who, we were rather disconcerted to notice, only had one eye — grabbed the chain around the lion's neck to pull it off, it swiped at the cameraman's arm, shredding his shirtsleeve.

Could the minister of information walk the lion around the garden, asked the TV crew. "Why not?" The minister led the lion up the driveway whereupon it dove into our four-wheel drive and started spinning around on the back seat. The minister grabbed a black sun hat and used it to encourage the lion out. It jumped at the hat and tore it to shreds. By this stage we were all getting very nervous. The lion ran into a thicket of bamboo and the minister shouted something at the lion handler who disappeared for a few moments before reappearing with, tucked under his arm in the manner of a surfboard, a dead, stuffed lion. This is the one that didn't make it, the minister told us. In fact, the live lion had more than a little to do with the dead one's demise. Upon seeing his late sibling (stuffed with straw and mud by the looks of it — not exactly a prizewinning taxidermy job) the live lion went crazy and started pulling it this way and that, like a kid with a new toy.

So there you have the minister of information in a country recognized by no other, engaged in a vicious tug-of-war with a live lion over a dead, stuffed-with-straw lion that appeared ready to come apart at any moment. Pretty much like Somalia itself.