By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Birtukan Midekssa condemned to life in prison by a vengeful dictator, but unconquered.
Birtukan thrown into the dungeon of wrath and tears, but defiant.
Birtukan beaten, bludgeoned and bloodied, but unbowed.
Birtukan mocked, ridiculed and disrespected, but gracious.
Birtukan denounced, vilified, strong-armed and manhandled, but unafraid.
Ethiopia under the crushing boots of soldiers of fortune.
I remember the 29th of December, 2008. Almost a year ago to the day, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopia’s 3,000-year history was manhandled and abducted to prison. Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, founder and former chairman of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, was an eyewitness to the crime. He told the Voice of America that he was having a conversation with Bitukan and another person outside an office building when four unmarked official vehicles stormed on the scene. Approximately 10 armed men got out and surrounded Birtukan. They grabbed and dragged her into one of the vehicles. One of the thugs savagely assaulted the nearly 80-year old professor with the butt of his rifle. In seconds, Birtukan was snatched away to the infamous Kality prison, and the professor to the hospital.
The facts leading up to the street abduction of Birtukan’s are not in dispute. On December 10, 2008 the “Federal Police Commissioner” sent two District 12 policemen to order Birtukan to come to his office. She went thinking that he probably wanted to talk about her political party. He wanted to talk about her pardon which resulted in her release from prison in 2007. She questioned his authority to interrogate her on the matter. He mocked her and she left. On December 24, 2008, the “commissioner” ordered her to appear in his office and gave her an ultimatum: Retract a statement she made in Sweden allegedly denying receipt of a pardon, or face immediate imprisonment.
Birtukan has never denied receiving a pardon. In Sweden where she allegedly denied the so-called pardon in a talk to a small group of supporters, she merely explained the legal and political circumstances surrounding the grant of pardon. In Q’ale (My Testimony), her last public statement issued a couple of days before her abduction, she made full acknowledgement of the so-called pardon:
I have not denied signing the document which the elders persuaded us to sign on June 22, 2006 for the sake of national reconciliation. How could it be said that I denied a pardon document I signed, and whose content I accepted? How is that a crime? Where is the mistake?
The fact of the matter is that Birtukan was granted a bogus pardon for a bogus crime for which she was convicted in a kangaroo court. As it is said, “any excuse will serve the tyrant”; and for Zenawi to claim that he jailed Birtukan because she denied receiving a pardon is an insult only to his own intelligence. The real reasons have to do with incapacitating her from running in the 2010 elections, and thwarting her efforts to build a broad coalition of political parties to oppose his dictatorship. No doubt, he takes her outright defiance as a personal slight.
But who is Birtukan Midekksa? Dictator Zenawi not long ago proverbially characterized her to his rubberstamp parliament as a faddish hen that hanged herself. If we must indulge in animal metaphors to describe her, she is best characterized as a lioness fighting hordes of hyenas. She has always defined herself as an ordinary woman irrevocably committed to the rule of law, freedom, democracy and human rights. She understands her adversaries well. Days before her abduction, she told journalist Abiye Teklemariam, founding editor of the independent weekly Addis Neger, (which recently folded following the dictatorship’s relentless war on the independent press in Ethiopia):
You have to know that they are paper tigers. They are weak, but want to appear strong. They would think caging a woman with a three year old daughter who lives under their firm surveillance every day demonstrates their toughness…. They forcefully make people hostage to their family and social commitments. They compel you to choose between freedom and family.
So for anyone who wants to know the real Birtukan, the answer is simple. She is the Lioness of Ethiopia who chose, without the slightest hesitation, freedom over family, country over child; and above all, Mother Ethiopia over the mother that gave her birth. She is an Ethiopian woman of integrity, humility, conviction, principle and intellect. It is a special honor and privilege for me to pay tribute to this extraordinary woman and outstanding Ethiopian political leader on the first anniversary of her unjust imprisonment.
I believe every blessed nation is given by Providence an individual that personifies its suffering and its pain, its present predicament and its future grandeur. Such an individual evolves to become a transformative leader guiding a lost and hopeless nation out of the darkness of discord and strife into the sunshine of freedom, equality and democracy. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela sutured the racially and ethnically torn South African body politics and led his people to a successful multiparty democracy. In India, Mahatma Gandhi rid his country of the plague of colonialism with nothing in his hands but love in his heart and nonviolent resistance in every fiber of his body. In the U.S., Martin Luther King seared the conscience of Americans and helped them confront the twin demons of racism and discrimination. In Burma (Myanmar), Aung San Suu Kyi has languished in prison for years, yet for every Burmese she stands as a shining beacon of hope and redemption. Ethiopia is blessed to have Birtukan Midekssa who today languishes in prison for standing up to a ruthless and barbaric dictator. She willingly gave up her personal liberty so that her people could one day live in freedom and enjoy the blessings of democracy.
I first met Birtukan on September 9, 2007, when she arrived at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., leading a delegation of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (Kinijit) party to North America. I had the honor of chairing an informal North American coordinating committee for that delegation which included Dr. Berhanu Nega, Dr. Hailu Araya, Ato Gizachew Shiferraw and Ato Brook Kebede. Their reception at Dulles is now the stuff of legend. Thousands of Ethiopians showed up and filled that cavernous airport. A special airport detail was assigned for crowd control. The motorcade that followed them to their hotel was several miles long. In the nearly one-half century of that airport’s existence, nothing so historic, spectacular and triumphant had ever been witnessed. It was a September to remember.
From the very moment I met Birtukan and the delegation, I was impressed by their humility, simplicity, integrity, matter-of-factness and optimism about Ethiopia’s future. Many Ethiopians were pleasantly surprised to see a woman leading such an important delegation. Many who met Birtukan in the following weeks deepened their respect and appreciation when they saw that she has a “a good head and a good heart [which] are always a formidable combination” in a leader, as Mandela once noted. In private and in her public statements and speeches, she did not dwell on the past but showed intense concern and optimism for Ethiopia’s future. Remarkably, she never showed any bitterness or animosity towards those who had unjustly imprisoned and persecuted her for nearly two years.
Who is afraid of Birtukan Midekssa? Birtukan’s maxim is, “Ethiopia is the country of the future.” The dictators are not afraid of Birtukan, but they are terrified of what she represents: Ethiopia’s bright future. Birtukan stands for the unity of all Ethiopians and stands against ethnic hatred, division and strife. That petrifies her captors. As Mandela “dreamt of an Africa which is in peace with itself, ” Birtukan dreams of an Ethiopia at peace and harmony with itself. That sends shivers down the spines of those who have caged her. Birtukan appeals to Ethiopia’s youth, who represent over 70 per cent of the population. Her universal youth appeal makes the dictators shake in their boots. Birtukan stands resolute in the defense of the rule of law, the “Constitution of Ethiopia”, freedom, democracy, equality, human rights and accountability. That makes her tormentors panic-stricken. As Ethiopia is the country of the future, Birtukan is the shining star rising over the horizon of that future.
Birtukan is in prison, but she is the freest person in all of Ethiopia. She stood up to dictatorship and did not back down. They threw everything at her. They kept her in solitary confinement hoping she would go mad in isolation. They denied her visitation with her lawyers believing she will forget her basic human and constitutional rights. They denied her books, a radio and newspapers thinking she will feel lost in the dark. They would interrupt her family visits before she finished exchanging smiles, hugs and kisses with her mother and daughter hoping to crush her emotionally. They would not allow her friends and colleagues to visit her expecting she will feel abandoned and forgotten. They played every dirty psychological game to humiliate, mistreat and provoke her; and they thought that would break her spirit, weaken her resolve and plunge her into the depths of despair and sorrow. They have spared nothing to make her believe that she will suffer and die alone in prison. But Birtukan survives, and she will survive and prevail. Prison for a true political leader is like fire to steel. Prison makes the political prisoner stronger and steadfastly resolute.
Mandela said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” I shall argue that Birtukan is just doing what is required of all great leaders before they are called for duty in the service of their country. When Mandela was sentenced to life, he did not waste his time in prison crying over his fate; rather, he used his time to prepare himself for his future leadership duties in bringing all South Africans together. It is the natural occupation of all great imprisoned political leaders to use their time in prison to prepare for the solemn duties that await them. I do not doubt that Birtukan is doing that right now. But political prisoners are the ultimate survivors. As Mandela said, it is an essential condition of survival for the political prisoner to believe that good will in the end triumph over evil. Mandela was written off for decades by his tormentors, but his name was at the tip of every freedom-loving South African’s tongue. It was in prison that Mandela learned to understand and even empathize with his hateful persecutors. He honed his negotiating skills in prison and developed infinite patience and perseverance in his pursuit of equality and justice for all in South Africa. Like Mandela, Birtukan is undergoing necessary training in prison before she is called to perform her solemn duties of state.
Birtukan does not see the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights as a short-term effort. She knows in every fiber of her body that it will take time and enormous effort to purge the poison of ethnic politics from Ethiopian society. She knows it will not be easy to establish and practice the principle of the rule of law in a land that has suffered for so long under the immoral creed of might makes right. Birtukan understands that it will take a massive effort to build working coalitions, partnerships and alliances to forge a strong multiparty political system. She knows it will take all of Ethiopia’s youth to build bridges from the north to the south and east to west. But Birtukan also knows that she will be ready for these challenges when she is called to report for duty.
In his recent diatribe on Birtukan, Zenawi said that she became the proverbial faddish hen believing that powerful people in the West would get her out of jail quickly. The dictator apparently believes that Birtukan is “too much of a darling” for the West and stealing the spotlight from him. The fact is that Birtukan never put much stock in diplomats or Western pressure to help her personally or to bring about fundamental change in Ethiopia. Though she understood the need to build support in the international community, she knew very well that all of the heavy lifting has to be done by Ethiopians:
I thought that diplomatic battle was a major part of the non-violent struggle. In politics, as they say, a week is too long. I have learnt my lessons. This is our fight. We ask them to join the fight for freedom and justice. We ask them to live up to their rhetoric and supposed creed. But we don’t beg them. This is our fight, not theirs. They would come running when they think they think that we have won it… We have to stop overemphasizing their value…. They like winners. They have strategic objectives which only winners can help them achieve. We should show them that we are winners, not beggars.
Zenawi becomes apoplectic at the mention of Birtukan’s name. His hackles go up and he could hardly contain his rage and antipathy towards her. Taking a chapter out of the book of Burma’s dictator, Gen. Than Shwe, he recently told a press conference, “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” On this point, he is right. As Mandela said, “Only free men (and free women) can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” Birtukan is a political prisoner and can not negotiate an “agreement” for her freedom. She will also never beg for her freedom. “Ever. Full stop.” Period!
Don’t cry for Birtukan, Ethiopia! “The truth is she never left you. She kept her promise. Don’t keep your distance.” The dictators will do everything to break her spirit, torment her body and make her life in prison a living hell. Mandela told his Apartheid tormentors, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.” The dictators may succeed in jailing Birtukan and thousands of others for however long they want and victimize and dehumanize them; but they will never, never be able to keep Ethiopia ethnically fragmented and its people at war with each other so that they can cling to power. Nor will they be able to permanently stave off the triumph of freedom, democracy and human rights from that ancient land.
On a personal note, I thank Birtukan for inspiring me and many others like myself to be involved in the struggle for human rights and democracy in the country of our birth. The courage of her convictions refreshes us every day like the pure mountain spring water. For all Birtukan Midekssa has done and tried to do, and in the spirit of eternal gratitude, I dedicate to her William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus” (Unconquered). Nelson Mandela had this poem written on a piece of paper which he kept in his cell to uplift his spirit over the long years of incarceration. I trust this poem will uplift Birtukan’s spirit as much as it did Mandela’s.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Birtukan, stay strong! The “night that covers” you will not last forever. Darkness always turns into light.
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.