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Ethiopia’s Birtukan free: Why now? What now?

October 22, 2010


It’s now been 15 days since Ethiopia’s most popular opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa, was released from prison and she still hasn’t said much at all.

Sure, she was “happy”, “elated” even. Prison was “horrible, really horrible.”

But talk of her political future is “for another time.”

The former judge is leader of Ethiopia’s biggest opposition party, the Unity for Democracy and Justice. The country’s 2005 elections ended in disaster when the opposition disputed a government victory and riots killed 193 protestors and seven policemen. Birtukan and other opposition leaders were jailed accused of sparking the trouble and then pardoned in 2007.

But she was sent back to prison in December 2008 for allegedly violating that pardon with a defiant speech in Sweden, which probably explains her caution now.

Ethiopia’s chattering classes, debating her release and the contents of the new pardon that secured it, have enthusiastically filled  the vacuum created by her tight-lipped stance with their theories.

And Addis Ababa’s newspapers, without any detailed interviews to publish, were initially forced to report various sightings of the 36-year-old mother.

“Birtukan goes shopping!” trumpeted one.

“Birtukan picks daughter up from school!” another.

Analysis also filled the pages, though, and it continues to.  The two main questions on everybody’s lips?

Why was she released?

And what will she do next?

As to the why, the newspapers have mixed opinions.  Some are saying she was forced to sign the pardon and that the text was needlessly humiliating.

“I apologise for deceiving the Ethiopian people and government. I will not involve myself in such deceptive acts in the future,” part of it read.

A philosophy lecturer at Addis Ababa university theorised that a mention in the pardon of Birtukan’s “ageing mother and young daughter”, and her desire to “attend to them”, was a warning to other oppositions politicians that they should focus on their families rather than on butting heads with the government – an emotive contention in such a traditional society.

For some, the government, overwhelmingly reliant on foreign aid, released her under pressure from the West. Others say Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, hot on the heels of his controversial but overwhelming May election win, felt safe to release her now, having thrown her in prison to neutralise her as a poll threat.

As to the what next, Birtukan told state television, in a painfully careful and stilted interview recorded in prison before her release, that she would now concentrate on her legal career.

And, really, that’s the most anyone has on that question so far.  Some whisper she will re-enter politics when the time is right and others say she has decided to turn her back on it. But few, publicly at least, can point to any clear evidence.

Perhaps the only thing everyone agrees on is that her release is a good thing.

So what do you think? Why now? What now?

PHOTO CREDIT: Birtukan Mideksa speaks to reporters from the window of a prison van after being freed from prison in Addis Ababa, October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer


What about this ridiculous phrase in her letter, “I made this mistake on the assumption that the Ethiopian gov’t would budge to the west pressure. Even if the gov’t dared to put me in jail, they would be forced to release me sooner or later”. For Ethiopians it is clear that the letter is written by meles and signed by Mideksa, ofcourse under duress.
One more important thing that the author didn’t see is the fact that Mideksa has been completely cut off from the world. She had no clue that people were crying for her release outside, she had no clue that the gov’t had threatened, harassed and killed all her party members. She had no clue that her party had apparently ceased to exist due to gov’t harassment, she had no clue about what is going on outside. She was knocked into surprise when people went out in masses to welcome her during her release. Yes she needs a lot of time to figure out what has been happening and what she should do in the future. My advice for her, as far as the west stands on Meles side, is to fled the country.

Posted by Robel | Report as abusive

It was embarrasingly clear to all Ethiopians as the content of the ‘pardon letter’ was put in to her mouth by Meles. Every word was uttered by Meles repeatedly when he was answering for journalists in one of his famous ‘press conference parties’. It was very dishonorable act in view of the traditional reconcillation process (the mediators claimed to follow the traditional way). As Meles was bent on breaking her spirit and her supporters stamina(particularly the youth inspired by her determination) he went as far as keeping her in seclusion incommunicado for five months. He also deprived her of getting any information from the outside world for the rest of her imprisonment time. He even made sure that her chat with her aging mother was monitored so that she will not have any information concerning the activities undertaken by her supporters and human rights activists concerning her imprisonment. Literally, Meles buried her alive (in my opinion imprisonment is understatement). The most interesting part was Meles was try to communicate to her in all his interviews about his stand through the broadcasts of government owned TV as that was the only information access she had (obviously, the TV did say nothing to let her know that the eyes of all Ethiopians were on her through out her imprisonment time).She was made to feel abandoned and at the mercy of Meles (you can imagine what kind of person he is). She was such a great personality to persevere all this time. I would understand if she takes sometime to adjust to the new environment as she lagged two years behind.

Posted by Menelik | Report as abusive

I will what I think is true.

1. Zenawi thought by imprisoning her well until past the election, he can avoid a real challenger.
2. By releasing her after the election, he can lesson uproar from diaspora Ethiopians and growing anger at home(I believe he believes the west is never serious about the prospect of Ethiopia becoming democratic(at least by other African country standard…he has said this time and again).) and Ethiopians deserving basic human rights
3. By releasing her after signing her the most ridiculous so called apology letter, he thinks he can break her moral and send a message to others who dare rare their head.

The by product of all this.
1. Zenawi once more showed to the world that he is just another bully of new breed.
2. Bertukan is a leader with humility who takes flak for the moment to advance her goal of moving the struggle forward. We all know she signed the paper under duress. So the so called apology letter doesn’t register with us.
3. He unwittingly made her famous internationally. This really counts. She can bring a lot of international support from people who in earnest believe Ethiopians are not less of a human to deserve a chance to have a shot at democracy and peace.

Every body knows the release of her term. She hopefully will return soon to game with a new vigor and a huge international fame.

Go Bertukan….you are the hope of the nation!!!!

Posted by 3000Hope | Report as abusive

The deafening silence in the (international) media about the conditions of her imprisonment is surprising. Sure, neither the government (obviously, they wouldn’t incriminate themselves) nor Birtukan (obviously, she doesn’t want to go straight back to Kaliti) offered the media on a silver platter information about what was being done to her during the two years. But what happened to investigative journalism on such a critical issue relating to Ethiopia’s No. 1 pro-democracy political leader? Well, the online paper Addis Neger provides some clues in their piece “Forget Abuse; Birtukan was Tortured” at et-abuse-birtukan-was-tortured/ So for those who only speak of mere “imprisonment”, being cut off from information, and wanting to be with family, as reasons that forced Birtukan to sign Meles’ letter–think again. And for the media: Please do your homework above and beyond what’s offered you up on press conferences.

Posted by Eliz | Report as abusive

The following are the reasons why Meles released Birtukan now:

1. First of all, Meles imprisoned Birtukan in prison just to win the election without any possible threat from the opposition parties. Birtukan was the one who could easily mobilize Ethiopians against Meles for she has the full trust of Ethiopians. So Meles was able to pass the election season peacefully. The election was over and he did not need her in prison.
2. Birtukan was nominated for the Sakharov prize. She had the possibility of winning this prize. This would have meant a popularity buildup for Birtukan which Meles does not want. It would have also brought unwanted attention to Meles since it would reveal the true dictatorial nature of his.

In general, by the time time he sent her to prison, her being in prison was far more advantageous to Meles than her being free and able to mobilize the opposition camp. After he won the election, the disadvantages of her imprisonment outweighed the advantages. He was faced with fierce opposition demonstrations asking for her release wherever he went for a visit. That was damaging his image.

Posted by Christian7000 | Report as abusive

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