Open Letter to Birtukan Mideksa – Eskinder Nega, Addis Ababa

October 15th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

One of the drawbacks of living in Ethiopia is the limitation it imposes on reading. (more…)

One of the drawbacks of living in Ethiopia is the limitation it imposes on reading. The New York Time’s bestsellers list is actually further away than the mere eight thousand physical miles that separate the US and Ethiopia. Amazon’s magical kindle? Science-fiction fantasy, as far as we are concerned. But thanks to the internet, we at least read of the great books that hit Western markets with sustained (and enviable) consistency. And what promises to be one of them, Nelson Mandela’s collection of private papers, under the title of “Conversations with Myself,” was released on Tuesday; addressing amongst other subjects, his anguish at becoming hero-worshiped.

The image of Mandela in the popular imagination altered slowly over the long years of his imprisonment. During his trial and the many subsequent years that followed, he was “a radical; a communist who espoused violence.” That he escaped the death sentence was ironically projected as testimony to the independence of South Africa’s judiciary; the prevalence of rule of law even if only within the narrow confines of apartheid. In the poisoned environment of bitter cold-war rivalry, his conviction was trumped as an indictment against the “violent” black liberation movement and an affirmation of the “prudence” of the architects of institutionalized racism. But this is a decade’s long story, and towards the end the image of Mandela changed decisively. It took the persistence of a small minority—with human rights activists at its core—to make a difference. And they had no choice but to build an image of the perfect Mandela—saintly,

perfect; almost God-like. Mandela reflects on this in his new book: “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying….As a young man, I combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretion of a country boy, whose range of vision and experience was influenced mainly by events in the area in which I grew up and the colleges to which I was sent. I relied on arrogance to hide my
weaknesses.”(End of quotation.)

Whatever Mandela says though, his idealized image—made-up persona—is held so dearly by South Africans, no prospect is dreaded more than its deconstruction ; which is what he is now frantically fighting for. But if the experience of the US is anything to go by, he is doomed to fail—at least in the short run. For the mythologized rendering of George Washington, who led the American war of independence against the British, as a person incapable of uttering a lie, endured in school textbooks even after it was exposed—by the original source, no less—as a made-up story. America refused to let go of the mythologized idol easily. But even if downgraded slightly, hero Washington remains. And real hero he was. Like the rest of us, he just was not perfect. Perfection is really a divine attribute, beyond the reach of us mortals. Mandela treads on the same path. His deconstruction is only a question of time. Still, his hero-status will
not falter.

There are multiple parallel stories in Ethiopia. One inevitably evolved with the extraordinary rise of the EPRDF to power, and involved scores of personalities—Haylom Arya, Muse Tekle,Gessese Ayele and others. But there is now an overt drive to re-write history around
a made-up persona of Meles Zenawi.( The theme: Meles as the misunderstood Messiah!) A thousand pages (by Col. Eyasu.) have already been devoted to his perfection. But his inevitable deconstruction will hardly be controversial. It will be an open-and-shut case.

The imprisoned leaders of Kinjit, who disputed a stolen election against the odds, were no less mythologized as the campaign to secure their freedom unraveled. Stricken by the intensity of emotion with which they were welcomed at Washington’s Dulles Airport weeks after their release in 2007, an American police officer famously wondered if they were “a rock- band.” Recounting the extraordinary events of that day, Professor Al Mariam had this to say: “The crowd would not leave them alone. They followed them outside the terminal. They sang for them. They assembled in the parking lot. They sang some more. They followed them on the highways, miles and miles of cars lined up in two lanes. Young people flashing the “V” sign as they sped down the highway, calling out their names and thanking them. “We love you Birtukan. Thanks Bre( Birhanu). Thanks Dr. Hailu, Eng. Gizachew, Ato Brook. They followed them to the Washington Mall. And to the Mayflower Hotel. They just couldn’t get enough of them….People hugging, kissing, embracing, singing and congratulating each other, unstoppably.”(End of quotation) Only mythologized leaders, not ordinary politicians, could have been received this way.

While too many of them were to sadly fall from the pedestal prematurely, the elevated images of Birtukan and Birhanu endured. And both were to be reinforced in due course: Birtukan, because of her re-imprisonment; and Birhanu, because of his alleged involvement in a coup-attempt.

The world-wide campaign to free Birtukan between 2008 and 2010 is a book-length story. However, in its broad outlines, it mirrors multitude of other campaigns to free famous prisoners around the globe— South Africa’s Nelson Mandela , Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and now that he is a Noble prize winner, China’s Liu Xiabo. Inevitably, an exalted image of the prisoner towered over the substance of the issue in all instances. There is a rational reason for this. People are swayed—and engaged— more by simple tales of personal nobility and heroism rather than the mundane details of issues.

And here comes the thrust of this letter: it is only the inflated image of Birtukan—with its impossibly high standard—that has been punctured by the vulgarly worded pardon-request. The real Birtukan remains unscathed. Under the made-for- public veneer, there is the real Birtukan that indeed inspired millions; admittedly, less perfect than the idolized image, but still worthy of the admiration of millions; still endowed with evident leadership qualities; and whose moral and intellectual integrity remains intact. In actual fact, it’s a blessing in disguise that the lofty image is no more.

The standard definition aside, moral bravery in politics amounts to taking unpopular positions despite social disapproval and possible backlash. Practically all the great personalities of history have at one point in their career been forced to take unpopular positions. Their greatness lies in their subsequent success in overcoming this interlude. They did not give up; daunting though their prospects seemed. And they went on—unwearyingly and doggedly— to win.

The nation expects nothing less from you.

  1. Alelign Belachew
    | #1

    Thank you very much Eskindir. It is your and other collogues struggle which ripened with such victory even if they (EPDRF?TPLF?Meles +) tried to pain it with soot. You described the thing nicely. Yes, our feeling to Birtukan should not rely on the so called “pardon” by EPDRF. Rather we should increase our moral and other support to lift up her situation which is tried to make it zero by EPDRF.


  2. BIRU
    | #2

    Currently the signing agreement between Ethiopian government & Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is being conducted in, Sheraton Addis Lalibela Hall. ONLF now decided to be governed by the constitution and to follows the peaceful path. This is a glorious day for Ethiopia & a sad day for Shabia. (

  3. Ittu Aba Farda
    | #3

    I am glad she is out of prison to look after her daughter and mother. So she should be left alone. If she decides just to work and go apolitical, May God Bless Her for doing that. We should thank her for what she has done so far and support her if she decides to go back to be a career person of law. Madame Birtukan, We all remain ever grateful to you and May God Speed!!!!

  4. Jaarso
    | #4

    BIRU stop joking don’t tell us your propaganda. your master Meles Zenawi
    is the one who break the constitution 1440 x in 24 hours ! as far as
    this genocider in power is no chance for the constitution to be respected. no chance for rule of law.

  5. የ ቕራው
    | #5


    Not a single Ethiopian is shaken by the story of ONLF and TPLF fabricated alliance news. For the record i dont personally care for any political organ wiht LF for they are nothing but tribal political machines created to weaken ethiopian as a nation

    Long Live Lady Liberty -Birtukan

  6. Aleen 7
    | #6

    Ato Biru Please don’t tell us about any peace agreement between zenawi and the ONLF Party about the Ogaden region. There will be no peace and reconcilitation with the Ethiopian people with the presence of zenawi. Meles zenawi is the cause for every problem and he will burn in hell fire for thousands of years.
    Finally I would like to forward my appreciation to Birtukan Medeksa for her perserverance and loyalty to the Ethiopian People.

  7. Anonymous
    | #7

    Do not forget. The one who signed agreement is only a fraction of ONLF. The other leading by the Guy in the Britain is still fighting

  8. gedefaw
    | #8

    thanks for our prime minester meles zenawi to take a positive response even if it was not neccessary to you after this you shoiud have to protect your son and mother.god blesses you,if you come back again to p[olitics

  9. Tulu Oda
    | #9


    Go to hell. You are one of the lackeys of tyrant genocidal Meles!

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