Beloved, and behind bars – by Nancy Macdonald (MACLEANS)

June 4th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Birtukan Mideksa, the country’s main opposition leader, has been in jail for 18 months. (more…)

Birtukan Mideksa, the country’s main opposition leader, has been in jail for 18 months.

Two months ago, Halle Mideksa celebrated her fifth birthday. For the fourth time, the bubbly little girl—dressed, to meet Maclean’s, in pink and purple, hopping on one foot, a yellow sucker gripped between her teeth—had to celebrate without her mom, Birtukan Mideksa. The 36-year-old former judge is Ethiopia’s most famous opposition politician. But she was forced to miss Ethiopia’s state elections on May 23—along with the party for her only child. Mideksa, the only female leader of a main opposition party in Africa, is being held in a two-by-two-metre cell she shares with two other prisoners. She’s been at Kaliti jail for 18 months—her second stay in the hot, crowded maze of sheet-metal shacks at the southern edge of Addis Ababa, the capital. She is accused of violating the terms of a pardon under which she was released in 2007.

Mideksa was initially jailed on treason charges after elections in 2005 in which her opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice party—widely popular in cosmopolitan Addis—fell curiously short of expectations. Many took to the streets to protest results observers deemed fraudulent; 30,000 were jailed, including hundreds of journalists and human rights activists; 200 unarmed protesters were shot dead and 70 opposition politicians were tried en masse, Mideksa among them.

The crackdown by Meles Zenawi’s government—which took 99.9 per cent of seats in last year’s local elections—hasn’t slowed. Four months ago, the newspaper Addis Neger, one of the country’s lone remaining independent voices, was shuttered after intimidation and harassment by government. Tsion Girima, one of the country’s only female political journalists, was jailed for misidentifying a judge in the high-profile trial of singer Teddy Afro, whose songs compare the government to a brutal junta. Ahead of these elections, the government jammed broadcasts from Voice of America, a move Zenawi defended by likening VOA to Radio Mille Collines: hate media that stoked Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

All this as the West, Ottawa included, lavishes record amounts of aid on Ethiopia, subsidizing a government now ranked among Africa’s most repressive and dictatorial regimes. Surrounded by basket-case neighbours, the country is a key Western ally in the war on terror; without Zenawi, it would join the rank of anarcho-hellholes like Somalia—or so the argument goes.

In the past five years, Mideksa, a brilliant speaker with a quick, agile mind, has become a symbol for democracy and change: a female leader in a country where, outside Addis, female circumcision remains the norm, and a single mom who staunchly opposes the politics that divide Ethiopia along ethnic lines. Her sacrifice has captivated the country—terrifying its leadership. “I wish everybody hated her,” her 76-year-old mother tells Maclean’s, tears washing down her face. “The only reason she is in jail is because everyone loves her.”

Mideksa’s books, among them works by legal philosopher John Austin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jean-Paul Sartre, and a poster of her idol, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, still line the walls of the family’s tidy green and white house. But hope that Mideksa might be released following Zenawi’s landslide, preordained victory was dashed by the PM. No, he announced on the campaign trail, she won’t be released—“ever. Full stop.”

  1. iReporter
    | #1

    The Movement to Smother Solidarity — From Israel to Ethiopia to Honduras

    “In Ethiopia, the government of Meles Zenawi passed a law last year requiring all human rights groups to receive 90 per cent of their funding from within the country itself. It’s cleverer than a ban – it sounds less authoritarian – but it has the same effect. As I saw earlier this year, the organizations that were rescuing little girls from having their vaginas hacked out, or being kidnapped and forced into life-long servitude to a “husband” they didn’t want, have had to lay off almost all their staff. And there was nobody left to monitor Meles’ claim to have won 99.6 per cent of the vote in the presidential election last week.”

  2. gize lekulu
    | #2

    The most coward person in Ethiopia if not the world is the so-called prime minister of Ethiopia, who has never felt safe among his own people. The people are told to get lost even enter the ditches 2 hrs. prior to his passing on the main roads of the capital. This is the kind of person who has imprisoned a female politician whose only crime is telling it as it is telling the truth!

    As no situation is permanent, he will one day pay for all atrocities he is meting out on Ethiopians including our beloved Judge Birtukan. Ethiopia shall prevail!

  3. kassahun
    | #3

    If anyone unites Ethiopians, it will be Judge Birtukan Mideksa. Meles thrives on the division of Ethiopians. That’s why he is afraid of people like her. No matter what the dictator does, Birtukan Mideksa is the defacto leader of Ethiopia. He can not take that to prison!

  4. aha!
    | #4

    I do not have any qualm about the authors opinion about Birtukan Mideksa, nor condone her unlawfull incarceration, other than to question, one statement by the author in the light of the platform of the newly formed coalition called Medrek, starting from K-5, KILL-6, later on to UDJP, which joined the coalition of loyalist opposition parties with ethnic agenda. From that context, and the layout of the political models being TPLF/eprdf, Medrek, the would be Tigrai-Harena/fdd/efdr, with ethnic agenda and mirror image of TPLF/eprdf, and KAEUP, EDP, EPRP and others with national agenda for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians; where did she get this idea of “a single momwho staunchly opposes the politics that divide Ethiopia along ethnic lines” of Birtukan Mideksa as torch bearer for unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, which also hinges the struggle for the individual freedom and liberty of Ethiopians hinges aroung her arrest. TPLF/eprdf clamping down on all political parties, most heavly on political parties that are in stark contrast to its ethnic politics of divide and rule, ethnic boundries and the rights to secssion in tact in order to remain in power without out being exposed to litigations and maintain its ethnic and secessionst politics and its alliance on the war on terror as long as peace and stability is kept at any cost.

  5. selam
    | #5

    What is he afraid of when 99.6% of Ethiopians voted for him? He can not get out of his presidential ghetto without his security gangs. What an irony?

  6. kassahun
    | #6

    aha, you seem to have missed the point the writer was making. While all the pro unity parties you mentioned are working towards the unity of the country, the perception they project and the the support they draw are important to note. It is in that regard that almost everybody agrees that Birtukan is the single most appealing and univeraslly accepted leader. Her support does not come from a particular region or ethnic group. She does not claim any regions or ethnicities as her constituency like many of pro unity parties you mentioned. Go to the Southern part of Ethiopia and tell them that AEUP will be your savior. They will hurt themselves laughing at the idea. Not that He does not have the unity of Ethiopia at heart, but the perception is distorted about him, and also his past still follows him around. Therefore, he is only viable in certain regions. So goes for EDP, TPLF, Arena, etc. Birtukan does not have that problem. Without a question she is the only political figure who can unite Ethiopians once again. It is amazing in this ethnicity infected era a neutral figure like Birtukan emerged.

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