Why has Ethiopia’s regime locked Birtukan in jail?

By Abiye Teklemariam Megenta

Bertukan Mikdesa

Birtukan Mikdesa

One blazing hot Sunday afternoon in December, I drove my old BMW 316i to Ferensay Legacion, an area in North East Addis Ababa dotted with clusters of shanties. The roads were layered with unevenly carved cobble stones and red sand which made driving nearly impossible. Outside most of the small hovels, which were made of mud walls and corrugated tin roofs, stood people–mostly women, talking to each other and fetching water from public spigots. Most of them were dressed in threadbare clothes and dust-covered sandals. A young woman with a baby tied on her back waved her right hand as I drove by. Birtukan Mideksa, the young, charismatic leader of Ethiopia’s biggest opposition, had lived in the village all her life except when she was in Kaliti, the notorious Ethiopian jail. “This is who I am. Ferensay is not just a village to me. It represents the ethos of solidarity, self-sacrifice and fighting to succeed in spite of adversity,” she told the crowd of adoring villagers, who gathered to celebrate her courage and leadership in late August 2007.

Birtukan, who is 35, lived in a three room house set behind a crumbling tin fence with her three year old daughter, her mom and niece. She met me just outside of the house where I parked my car and led me to her room. She was dressed ordinarily; tight jeans and blue linen shirt. No make-up. Her hair was pulled back tightly, and her high cheek bones and soft facial features were fully exposed. Her eyes were wet and lined in red. “Sleepless nights?” I asked her. She proffered an inscrutable smile in response. A neatly organized shelf lined by books with broad ranging themes occupied the left corner of the room. There were Jean P. Sarte’s “Being and Nothingness,” Messay Kebede’s “Survival and Modernization,” and John Austin’s “The Province of Jurisprudence Determined.” “Most of them were sent to me by friends and people I don’t even know when I was in prison,” she said, pointing to the shelf. The right side of the room was dominated by a big poster of Aung San Suu Kyi, her idol. She directed me to her bed and said, “You can sit there if you don’t mind, or I will ask them to bring you a stool.” She sat on the opposite end of the bed.

This was one day before a re-arrest which would condemn her to life in prison, and she knew what was coming. Did she think they would put her in jail? “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.” She smiled nervously. “I don’t want to go to jail. It is terrible, but defiance is the only way to beat them.” Birtukan has a well-earned reputation of fearlessness, but here she seemed shaken. She folded her arms over her stomach, and disappeared into herself for a few minutes. “I am apprehensive of prison,” she said as her daughter poked her head in and looked playfully at her mother. “I have a daughter who needs me, a mother who is old.” Then her passion flares. Her hands unfold; her face frowns. “They forcefully make people hostage to their family and social commitments. They compel you to choose between freedom and family.”

Over the past 15 years, Ethiopians have become accustomed to politico-criminal arrests and trials. Journalists accused of threatening the national security of the country, opposition politicians put in trial for treason and attempted genocide, regime-opponent artists jailed for crimes petty and serious, and government officials charged of corruption- coincidentally, most of them after they started raising their voices against Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. But no affair has befuddled and stunned as many as the Birtukan case. Why have they imprisoned her?

A month earlier, Birtukan arrived in London in a driving downpour, hustling through umbrella-wielding political friends to reach the car awaiting her. This was the start of her two-week trip to Europe. She would visit supporters of her party, raise funds, explain her party’s political objectives and strategic choices, and meet officials of different countries. She had delayed her trip for weeks because she wanted to follow the US elections from home. “Obama dazzled her. She read his two books, listened to his speeches and, like millions, thought he was the real deal,” said journalist Tamerat Negera. “She saw herself in him. Her political ambition has always been to seek a common ground in a country which is polarized by ethnicity, conflict and ideology.”

The trip to Europe was one of the biggest challenges to this ambition. After the internal feud which rent apart the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), a party to which numerous Ethiopians pinned their hopes, many Diaspora Ethiopians had become frosty and suspicious towards opposition politicians. Her newly- minted party’s claim of the mantle of a CUD successor had serious doubters. In the ten months since the split of the CUD, even her ardent supporters questioned whether she had the necessary leadership skills and toughness to revive the opposition movement. Critics accused her of “surrender” to the EPRDF when she declared that her party had chosen “peaceful struggle”. Ethiopianreview, an influential website published in America, declared that the “Lady Liberty became Lady Surrender.” Europe was experiencing one of its coldest autumns in history; Birtukan hoped her political trip didn’t mirror the weather.

She also knew she had to walk a tightrope. Critics of the Meles government would blow horns in support if she made high-pitched, passionate anti-government remarks. But she cared about the consequences of her actions. She thought she was in a long-term political game and there was no reason to endanger her new party.

Generally, the European trip went well. Her critics were polite; her unenthusiastic supporters were galvanized. There were a few spats with activists, but they were all behind the screen. But a statement she uttered at a meeting in Sweden would trip her up. She told an audience of not more than 30 Ethiopians that the pardon she and other opposition leaders signed as a condition for their release from prison was the result of a political process and had no formal legal force.

On December 12, 2008, Birtukan was summoned by Workneh Gebeyehu, Ethiopia’s Federal Police Commissioner, and asked to issue an apology for the statement she made in Sweden. Workneh, a man of considerable bulk, is regarded by his colleagues as “a small time boss with big title.” The real power behind the curtain at the Federal Police is the lesser known Tesfaye Aberha, the assistant commissioner. Workineh is, however, the force’s public face. “He does all the dirty laundry and the floor-sweeping as Tesfaye makes decisions out of public and media sights,” said one of Workine’s close friends. He also has a reputation for ruthlessness and Byzantine intrigue, so atypical of the place he came from, the swinging Shashemene.

With him was one of the Prime Minister’s trusted men, Hashim Tewfeik, former State Minister of Justice, now working as a legal advisor to the Federal Police. I first met Hashim in December 2005 at his office in the green and white boxy building which housed the Ministry of Justice. The newspaper I edited was closed by the government and I had submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Justice. Hashim’s secretary arranged the meeting. He was skinny with tapered fingers and thin lips. He wore a blue suit and white shirt. Soft-spoken, articulate and with owlish visage, there was nothing to hint about him the EPRDF official who deliberated in decisions to terrorize the press and opposition leaders and supporters.

Hashim, a close relative of former Supreme Court Chief Justice and Election Board President, Kemal Bedri, was a popular lecturer of law at the Civil Service College before he left to Australia to study constitutional law at the Melbourne Law School. His doctoral dissertation, Ethiopia: the challenge of many nationalities, was a rather unabashed defense of EPRDF’s system of ethnic federalism. In 2004, he returned to Ethiopia; a year later, he was appointed State Minister of Justice, and quickly transformed into one of the regime’s most ardent political operatives.

“I am a student of this constitution and I defend it with all my capacities,” he spoke to me in modest whisper. It was a concealed suggestion that my newspaper had gone over the constitutionally prescribed limits of free speech. When I met Hashim again two years later in a barber shop around Sar Bet, he was already on the verge of leaving the Ministry of Justice to the Federal Police. Befitting such transfer, he was reading “At the Center of the Storm: My Ten Years at the CIA,” a book by former CIA boss, George Tenet.

Birtukan sat in the room, listening patiently to the two talking about her transgression of the law as they delivered the ultimatum: retract her Stockholm statement within three days, or she would face life imprisonment. She didn’t interrupt them, but her demeanor suggested that she was unfazed. When she spoke, her statement was a question packaged in mischievous brevity. “By what authority are you giving me this ultimatum?”

Two days later, she wrote her last word on the issue in Addis Neger, a weekly newspaper. This was Birtukan in her defiant and fearless mode. “Lawlessness and arrogance are things that I will never get used to, nor will cooperate with,” she penned. “…For them, a peaceful struggle can only be conducted within the limits the ruling party and individual officials set, and not according to the provisions of the constitution. For me, this is hard to accept.” In less than 72 hours, her pardon was revoked and she was dragged to Kaliti federal prison to serve a life sentence.

Why have they arrested her? For many Ethiopians, the entire Stockholm controversy was a grand ruse. Other opposition politicians, including former CUD leader Hailu Shawel, had questioned the credibility of the process of pardon even more forcefully. But not a finger was raised against them. Her accruing days in prison reinforced that suspicion. Even by Ethiopian standards, her treatment has been harsh. She spent more than two months in solitary confinement; she was denied access to books, newspapers and radio. The only people who are permitted to visit her are her mother and daughter; her lawyers have been refused to see her several times. “She is not a normal political prisoner. I have never seen the prime minister so infuriated as when he is asked about her arrest,” says Tamrat Negera. “The notion that her arrest is related to the pardon stuff was hogwash.”

In mid-January, two lawyers appeared on State TV to defend the decision of the government to re-arrest Birtukan. One of them was Shimeles Kemal, a tall man with a narrow face and long chin. Shimeles is such a complex and contradictory character that if he didn’t exist, someone would be obliged to invent him.

At the end of 1970s, Shimeles was a radical, rebellious teenager who dreamed of the formation of an Ethiopian socialist republic. He distributed propaganda leaflets of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party, a Marxist group which was battling a powerful military junta, and agitated his friends for struggle. But like most of his compatriots, he paid dearly for his views and actions. In 1991, the same year armed rebels toppled the junta, the former teenage idealist added a law degree to a CV which included seven years of prison life. His relationship with the new leaders was a roller coaster. As a judge, Shimeles convicted and sentenced the famous dissident Professor Asrat Woldayes, who died of a debilitating disease he acquired in prison. Then he was disgracefully removed from his judgeship while he was presiding over the case of another prominent dissident, Taye Woldesemait.

At the end of 1990s, he turned himself into a defender of free speech, writing brilliant legal and philosophical articles in the weekly newspaper, The Reporter. His friends claimed that the new image he tried to cultivate was so contrary to the decisions he made while in black robe that people stopped taking him seriously. With no allies, he ran into the embrace of Bereket Simon, the ruling party’s powerful propaganda man, and effortlessly turned back the clock. By 2006, he had already started drafting laws which would unduly constrain free speech and freedom of the press, prosecuted political detractors, journalists and human rights activists and overseen the expulsion of foreign journalists. His victims included his best friends and ex-girlfriends. Commingled in his brilliant mind are the ideas of the law as an instrument of political power and an utter contempt for political opposition. He has turned into the quintessential lawyer who has no moral qualms, the Jacques Vergas of the Ethiopian government.

In the TV appearance, Shimeles shook his fists threateningly and declared that the members of the press who tried to “patriotize and beatify” her would face criminal prosecution. After the interview, he rushed to his office to prepare a propaganda manual for political discussion. The right side of the first page of the manual was marked in black ink with these words: Attn: to all federal civil servants and regional public relations bureaus. The manual served as a document of discussions which were held in government offices, public corporations and regional public relation offices in February and March. The main theme of the discussions was: Why was Birukan rearrested? The answer was unlikely to emerge either from Shimeles’ TV interview or the manual he had prepared. Both doggedly stuck to the official line. In Addis Ababa, a city given to conspiracy theories, the discussions inflamed speculations and questions: why would they force civil servants to discuss Birtukan’s arrest?

Saturday, March 14, 2009, was the day of off-putting tasks. I had to clear my office desk, pack my bags, and call my friends to say goodbye. A day later, I would board an Ethiopian airlines plane leaving to the US. I put my books and some documents in the trunk of my car and went back to the second floor of my newspaper’s building to fetch old newspapers. Before I left the documentation room, my phone rang. It was my informant, Ashu – name changed to protect his security – who had close contacts with people high up in the EPRDF’s power hierarchy. He wanted to meet me before I left Ethiopia. “Can I see you at Chinkelo Butchery in 30 minutes?” he asked.

When I arrived 15 minutes late, Ashu was already half way through his raw meat, cutting the meet systematically with falcate-shaped knives and eating the slices with injera and spicy awaze sauce. When I told him I couldn’t cut meat, he rolled his eyes in disbelief. Ashu is a plump, moon-faced man with a proclivity for sybaritic life. His “business”, never clearly defined, gave him access to many of the country’s corrupt elite, including some of the biggest officials of the ruling party. As he sat in the butchery wearing a brown Aston Nappa leather jacket and track pants, drinking a bottle of Gouder wine and eating raw meat, many people going in and out of the butchery stopped to greet him, or at least waved at him. His reactions revealed that he loved the attention. In January, I asked Ashu to find out the real reason behind Birtukan’s arrest and he was here to tell me what he discovered. “If you want to know why Birtukan was arrested, follow Siye,” he said.

Birtukan had a gibe she used often in her conversations about politics. “Ethiopia,” she would say, “is the country of the future.” Demographically, her statement makes sense. More than 70% of Ethiopians are less than 30 years old. Politically, young Ethiopians wonder when the supposed generational power shift would occur. “Our politics is all the continuation of the psychodrama of the 60s and 70s,” said Dagnenet Mekonnen, a journalist. “Birtukan is one of the very few exceptions.”

Siye Abraha is among those old political elites. Before the split within the ruling party’s core political group, the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), Siye was one of the most powerful Ethiopian politicians, known for his dismissive political statements. In 2001, his opposition to Prime Minister Meles landed him in jail. After six years in jail, he came back to the country’s political scene a changed man, both physically and mentally.

His hair was buzzed to a gray stubble; his forehead speckled with a plethora of lines. He speaks with the calmness and patience of a Scandinavian scholar. Over tea and biscuits in his house in early January 2008, he confided to me that he thought the way forward for Ethiopian politics was consociationalism. A former defense minister and the leader of the military wing of TPLF during its days of armed struggle, talk was cheap for him. He started plotting the creation of a consociational party immediately.

Birtukan was integral to his plans. She was young, energetic, articulate and charismatic. She was the de facto leader of the integrationist movement in Ethiopian politics. But more than anything else, she was regarded as authentic, a person who could rally people. Even after the daily flogging in the headlines, there were few who questioned her integrity. The two started a long political discussion. He wanted to unite all major opposition parties, regardless of their ideologies, based on common minimal principles. She wasn’t entirely convinced of its practicality, but wanted to listen. “I like this guy. Although he may not be telling me all what I want to know, I will patiently listen,” she told me in June 2008. Siye helped create a coalition of some of the major political groups under an umbrella called Medrek, but by the time Birtukan was arrested, the coalition was sorely missing the membership of an important group–Andinet, Birtukan’s party. “It is very close to happening. I don’t know in which form we join Medrek, but we will join them eventually,” she told me a week before her arrest.

“They knew that. They were worried about the two forming a political partnership. He would appeal to members of the EPRDF. She would appeal to a lot of Ethiopians, and with all major groups in it, they thought Medrek would be a formidable coalition,” Ashu said. “I heard that from a top official.” I was skeptical. “So they arrested her just to thwart the formation of a strong political alliance?” His answer was firm. “Yes!”

“But why her? Why not him?” I asked.

He shook his head in irritated disbelief. “You seem to have no clue about the internal dynamics of the TPLF, and I am not going to recite the alphabet with you.”

On April 28, 2009, Washington presented me with a contrary hypothesis. Addis Neger asked me to write about the government’s allegation of a “Ginbot 7” orchestrated attempt to topple it. I rang a Horn of Africa expert whom I met while reporting the 2008 US elections. Sitting at the Thai Coast restaurant near Foggy Bottom, we walked through Ethiopian politics. “Do you think Meles will leave office?” “No.” “What is the perception of Birhanu at Foggy Bottom?” “Mixed, but not enough information.”….And then Birtukan “I think Birtukan grew too big too quickly. She was turning into a darling of foreign diplomats,” he said. “Meles might have wanted to show who was in charge.”

Among the foreign diplomats, nobody loved Birtukan more than Stephane Gompertz, the articulate, ex-French Ambassador in Addis Ababa. Gompertz is an Ethiopia-enthusiast. A skinny man in his late 50s with a retreating hairline, he collected Ethiopian art even before he became his country’s ambassador in Addis. For a person who just served as a Minister Counselor at the French embassy in London, an ambassadorship to Ethiopia might not feel like a promotion, but Gompertz tried hard to get the post. In late 2005, a few months after his arrival in Addis Ababa, he found himself in the middle of one of the country’s worst political problems. Diplomatic efforts to solve the stand-off between the government and the CUD failed, opposition leaders were jailed and the democratic space narrowed significantly. Gompertz continued to push the Meles government to relent. At the same time, he was also making visits to Kaliti prison to meet with Birtukan.. A strong bond developed. “Birtukan could be a great leader of the country in the future. She has some great qualities. She just needs to be a smart political player,” he told me during a lunch at Hotel de Leopol in Kazanchis in April 2008.
And then there was Donald Yamamoto, the diminutive, soft-spoken ex-US ambassador in Addis Ababa who was the classic citizen of the deceptively smooth diplomatic world. But when it came to Birtukan, Yamamoto occasionally meandered off script. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said to politicians in one of the US embassy’s famous cocktail receptions, “I am proud to introduce you to the rock star of Ethiopian politics.” At the time when the media buzz about the rock star appeal of Barack Obama, the ambassador’s statement was interpreted by most guests as a masked comparison of the then Illinois Senator and Birtukan. Similar sentiments were echoing throughout other diplomatic offices in Addis Ababa. Even Vicki Huddelston, the former US charge D’affairs, who had no sympathy for the Ethiopian opposition was said to be in awe of Birtukan.

But Birtukan never let the soft air kisses touch her face. One evening, I watched her talk to a group of young activists from her party at their office in Meshulekiya, a village in South East Addis Ababa. Her clear, distinctive voice flowed at a consistent volume with varying pitch; her hands sliced angular patches through the air. There was no prepared text; rather, a stream of passionate, flowery words gushing from the lips and heart of a politician who was living her life on a dramatic scale.

“When I was at the beginning of my political career,” she began and then paused.
“When did I begin politics? Was it last week?” she said, poking fun at herself and her short political career and provoking laughter from her audience. “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.”

Later in her office, she was drinking strong coffee, one demitasse after another. I asked her about the speech. “We have to stop overemphasizing their value,” she answered. “They like winners. They have strategic objectives which only winners can help them achieve. We should show them that we are winners, not beggars.” If Birtukan had, in talks to activists and private conversations, discounted the role of western countries and their diplomats in Ethiopia, she nonetheless did sometimes flirt with them. They had to be seduced, not trusted.

But are words of affection from diplomats enough to be Birtukan’s ‘La Brea Tar Pits’? In February this year, Meles seemed to lay out the terms. In a characteristic outburst, he contemptuously suggested that Birtukan had thought deliverance would come from “powerful people in powerful positions.” It was a clear finger pointing towards Western diplomats and politicians. “Had we indulged her assumptions, the message that we would have conveyed would be ‘nothing happens to you no matter what you do. If you have friends in higher places, you can ride roughshod with everything. That message I think is a very dangerous political message to convey in an emerging democracy. The rule of law and equality involves everyone.”

Scratch the surface and his statement might not be as significant as it seemed. The Ethiopian prime minister had used explosive accusations against Western nations when he arrested dissidents at home to preempt them from pressuring him to release the jailed. In truth, Meles had given the diplomats an opportunity for that deliverance. Days before her arrest, some asked Birtukan if they could help her escape the country-no doubt on Meles’ nod. Her emphatic “nay” to the offer brought much disappointment. Meles had told them ‘what’ was to come. He had used them as a conduit for communicating his intention to Birtukan, and these actions spoke louder than his calculated outbursts. Birtukan is as far removed from Melesian political values and behavior, but in the understanding of the actions and objectives of the West and its diplomats, they shared the same hemisphere.

“It was never more than ‘she is a decent woman; we like her’ stuff,’ said a political analyst in Addis Ababa, in reference to the statements of the diplomats. “Look, this is about tough-minded realism. No sentiments. While they were blowing kisses to Birtukan, these guys were bedwetting with the thought that Meles was going to resign. Meles knew that. So hopefully did Birtukan. There was no reason for him to arrest her owing to their comments. There must have been other factors. ”

At the beginning of the year, Birtukan’s name was on the lips of many people and the pages of international newspapers. With only days remaining before the first anniversary of her arrest, the outcries have quieted and the ink has dried up. Meanwhile, robbed of Birtukan’s leadership, the opposition coalition is struggling to gain attention and credibility. Western diplomats have also hit the refresh button. The political consequences of her arrest are becoming clearer. The question is: Were they designed?

(Abiye Teklemariam Megenta was the Executive Editor of Addis Neger newspaper which announced its closure owing to harassment last week. He can be reached at [email protected])