POLITICS-ETHIOPIA: A Career In Dissent – Michael Chebsi (ADDIS ABABA, IPS)

October 29th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Frozen in disbelief on the steps of the courthouse where she presided as a federal judge, Bertukan Mideksa watched as a man she had just ordered released on bail was detained by plain-clothes police with no warrant and no apparent regard for the law. (more…)

Frozen in disbelief on the steps of the courthouse where she presided as a federal judge, Bertukan Mideksa watched as a man she had just ordered released on bail was detained by plain-clothes police with no warrant and no apparent regard for the law.

That was in 2001. She next saw that man when she became a fellow inmate at Kaliti Federal Prison in 2004, charged with crimes serious enough to have her imprisoned for life: treason, outrage against the constitution, inciting, organising or leading armed rebellion, obstruction of the exercise of constitutional powers, impairing the defensive power of the state and attempted genocide.

She claims her only true transgression was dissent.

“I couldn’t stand the lack of human dignity,” said Mideksa, seated behind her desk at her poorly furnished office in central Addis Ababa.

Mideksa is unique among Ethiopia’s politicians. At 34 years old, she is exceptionally young; she was still in high school when rebels toppled the country’s brutal military regime in 1991. And she is a woman, the first ever to head a political party in this notoriously patriarchal country.

Fewer than 22 percent of the country’s 547 lawmakers are women. The only female cabinet member — predictably — is in charge of women’s affairs. Mideksa became the exception to the rule in September, when she was elected to head Ethiopia’s newest political party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party. She has since become the leading spokesperson for the opposition.

At a press conference on Oct. 10, Mideksa, flanked by her fellow party leaders, announced her party’s plan to open 117 regional offices in a bid to mobilise the public across the country. Her party has also joined a forum of other opposition parties to forge a joint platform ahead of the 2010 elections, where the coalition hopes it will fare better than in the past.

In November 2004, leaders of two long-standing opposition groups and two newly-formed political parties formed an electoral coalition. The strategy helped the opposition to win significant gains in the parliament, but fell short of a majority.

Pointing to reports by international observers of irregularities at the polls, the opposition claimed that there were significant instances of expulsion and harassment of poll workers, incidents of intimidation, multiple voting and ballot stuffing.

The political conflict turned into violent clashes on the streets, and when some of the coalition members refused to assume their elected posts, the coalition fractured acrimoniously.

The newly-constituted administration of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi detained over 100 leaders of the opposition and jailed tens of thousands of their supporters in the ensuing crackdown. Mideksa, then vice president of the coalition, was among the detainees. She was convicted on July 16, 2007 by the Federal High Court.

Mideksa and 34 others were sentenced to life imprisonment while three others were handed jail sentences that range 18 months to 18 years. The same day, they appealed for amnesty, which was later accepted by the pardon board and endorsed by President Girma W. Giorgis.

“It was the greatest challenge of my life,” Mideksa told IPS. “It’s strengthened me though.”

Mideksa was not discouraged by the experience. She cites as one of her inspirations the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma (Myanmar). “I marvel at her courage and determination,” she says.

Her party, however, will need more than mere determination to prevail.

In the April local elections, the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) scored an overwhelming victory, with pro-government candidates outnumbering opposition candidates by 500 to 1. Irregularities in voter registration and difficulties in the result and complaints processes combined to reduce the legitimacy of the election. Recent legislation affecting political parties, the press and civil societies threatens to narrow the political space even more.

Mideksa believes she can help broaden the political space through a series of public dialogues with the media. Her party has also announced that it has allocated close to 750,000 dollars to mobilise supporters from the four corners of the country in the run-up to the election.

But observers doubt that Mideksa has the leadership skills to bring together the fractious opposition.

Born in Addis Ababa in 1974, Mideksa went to public schools for her primary and secondary educations. She joined the law school at Addis Ababa University, and graduated with an LLB degree in 1996.

Prior to her entry into politics, she served as a Judge at the Federal First Instance Court for close to seven years, before she resigned, claiming that there is government interference in the judiciary.

“The values that guide me are truth and fairness,” she says.

She first entered politics running as an independent parliamentary candidate back in 2000. Neither her friends nor her mother supported the decision, warning her against the dangers of politics. After eight years, however, she is content with her decision.

“It is a great success for me personally,” says Mideksa, adding with a shrug and a smile, “and I guess for Ethiopian women too.”

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