African business, politics and lifestyle
Ethiopia’s Birtukan free: Why now? What now?
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