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What now for Ethiopia’s “Aung San Suu Kyi”?


ethiopiaThe first time I interviewed Birtukan Mideksa I was struck by how careful she was not to say the wrong thing. It was 2007 and we were standing in the garden of a community centre in the part of Addis Ababa where she was raised. She had just been released from prison and the locals — many of whom struggle to feed themselves — had each given about a dollar to throw her the party-cum-political rally we had just attended and to buy her an old Toyota Corolla car to help her back on her feet again.

Such was her care when talking to me that, after less than five minutes, I discreetly switched
off my recorder knowing the interview would never make a story, and continued the conversation only out of politeness and professional interest in Ethiopian politics.

It seems her caution was well-placed. The 36-year-old opposition leader and mother of one is back behind bars, accused by the government of speaking out of turn. It has been almost exactly one year since a group of policemen snatched her as she walked to her car with  political ally Mesfin Woldemariam. Mesfin — a large, grey-haired man in his 70s — was bitten by a police officer in a scuffle when he tried to intervene.

Now her supporters in the Horn of Africa country are calling her “Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi” in what analysts see as a move aimed at attracting international attention to her detention. Government officials often smirk when when what they see as an overblown comparison is made.