Birtukan Mideksa: The leader we have been waiting for

By Abebe Gellaw / October 7, 2010
She was accorded a hero’s welcome by family, relatives, friends and supporters
The unjust incarceration of Birtukan Mideksa was cruel, inhuman and purposeless to say the least. Despite his best effort, dictator Meles Zenawi miserably failed to break the resilience and spirit of the heroine who refused to kneel down, to budge and surrender. He waited for nearly two years in vain to break her indomitable spirit. Here she comes out again without losing her disarming charisma that the tyrant and his cronies can only dream of in a nation that holds them in utter disdain.

“She has a Zero chance of being freed. Her case is a dead issue. No second chance…,” he mocked and derided every serious question regarding the well-publicized injustice against her. But deep in his heart he knew that he cannot hold a popular leader a hostage for long in the face of growing local and international outrage.

To his dismay, the tyrant could not escape the shadow of Birtukan wherever he went. Ethiopians and freedom loving members of the international community practically hunted, haunted and hounded him wherever he appeared. Until he realized the fact that the world is watching, deriding, condemning and cursing him, he tried to pretend that he was resolute to keep her in jail forever. After all, “Life in jail!” was the verdict he had passed against her via his Kangaroo courts.

During his recent appearance at Columbia University, Birtukan’s case was prominently featured as students took turns to corner and grill him on the gaps between what he was preaching and the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. He was forced to be on the defensive and painfully detailed the fake legal process of locking up an innocent woman whose only crime was telling the truth in front of a small group of her supporters in Sweden. He twisted her honest words and accused her of violating the terms of her first release. “She obtained pardon under false pretence!” he declared in spite of the fact that nobody believed his cheap and frivolous charges. As it turns out, she was locked up until the fraudulent electoral horseplay was over. That is still the only plausible explanation why such a principled advocate of nonviolent struggle was condemned to suffer in the dungeons of injustice.

The lawless tyrant made every effort to build a case against the innocent Ethiopian leader whom he must have been afraid of contemplating to oust him in spite of the fact that he has been living in a fortress guarded by his loyalist army, which is totally under the control of his TPLF generals. It was obviously his own paranoia that has been playing in his head and haunting him more than the power of an unarmed defenceless woman to bring about his demise by some magic wand.

In violation of his own constitution, he denied her medical care; no visitors were allowed to see her except her ailing mum and six-year old daughter. She had no access to legal counsel. She was forbidden from having access to books, newspapers and radios. As purposeless an act as it was, she was held in solitary confinement for nearly six months. Fortunately, all the injustice committed against this fearless leader backfired as it helped mobilize Ethiopians and freedom loving people across the world against himself, whose lifelong dream is silencing every critic and dissident in the entire world. But in the end, he reaped what he saw; more curse, ridicule and disdain was his reward for his evil deeds.

International human rights groups, democratic governments, legislators, students, professors and ordinary people have marched hand in hand in all corners of the world to demand the unconditional release of Birtukan Mideksa. In January 2009, four US Senators, Russell Feingold, Johnny Isakson, Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin wrote sent a strongly worded letter to the tyrant. “As you know, a political opposition with the right to freedom of speech, press and association is essential to any vibrant democracy,” they said.

“We worry that Birtukan’s re-arrest signals your government’s waning commitment to those democratic principles. This is a disappointing signal in advance of your country’s elections next year, which we believe have great potential,” they noted. He never bothered to reply.

In December 2009, Amnesty International reiterated that the trial and tribulation of Birtukan was “unjust and politically motivated.” The tyrant played deaf and blind. He feigned that he never heard and listened.

Foreign correspondents took every chance to raise Birtukan’s case whenever he convened a press conference. They wanted to know when he was planning to free Birtukan, whom he often referred to disdainfully as “that woman” as if he did not know her name. "There will never be an agreement with anybody to release her,” he said. “Ever! Full stop! That’s a dead issue!" According to the petulant despot, whose myopic judgment has always been dubious, Birtukan had a “zero chance” of getting out of his dungeon again.

"Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al
He had said so many things that have further exposed his heartless, cruel, bestial and sadistic nature as he seemed to take delight in the suffering this innocent woman. So much has been said, so much done, but the tyrant remained the same.

In the final minutes of the poorly scripted drama, the despot suddenly turned into a magnanimous statesman full of concern and compassion. He has sent out his well-known witnesses and mediators to tell bedtime stories about his compassion. In reality, Meles Zenawi had no choice under intense pressures from every direction but to release her under a pretext of a “second pardon.” We know this for a fact. But he has already started blowing his trumpet that the heroine Birtukan was released after she appealed for pardon. In reality, nobody will seriously take Zenawi’s game of pardon obtained under duress.

“President Girma Woldegiorgis granted pardon to Birtukan Mediksa today,” according to Walta. But the poor man, who should have been given a more dignified life in a nursing home than being the tyrant’s palace poodle in the last laps of his life, has no power to pardon anyone. We know all the capriciousness and the travesty which is inherently embedded in the tyrannical system. The truth is self-evident and there is no need for breaking old news by internationally-recognized cone artists waiting the next rendition to justice.

As the drama unfolds and the new and old horses lining up around Zenawi’s political stables in Arat Kilo are ready for a ride, the tyrant needed a diversion. Meles Zenawi, the horseman with the spear, is going to gallop his horses for another term. That is a more interesting story than the tale of a despot’s sudden outpour of compassion and magnanimity.

Birtukan is nobody’s horse or puppet. Her compelling story will be written on the shinny pages of history while tyrants, opportunists, blood suckers and sorts are only waiting for their turn to go down the drains and dustbins of history. Last year, US President Barack Obama travelled to Ghana with a message that resonated well with the heartbeats of Ethiopians and other oppressed Africans. “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy. That is tyranny!

“Even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there, now is the time for that style of governance to end," he said. What is happening in our country is also well-known. The immeasurable sacrifice of Birtukan is only a reminder that freedom can only be won and earned at a huge price. It never matters how Birtukan was freed. What is more important is the fact that single-handedly, she has challenged, exposed and dented one of the most brutal dictatorships in the African continent. Birtukan deserves nothing but our admiration and respect.

Whatever the tyrants and their paid agents may say, Birtukan is a leader we have been waiting for. She has won the love, admiration, respect and honor of the oppressed people of Ethiopia through her untold suffering and sacrifice for the sake of freedom and justice. Make no mistake about this. Birtukan is by far the most powerful political leader we have ever known at any time in our history. No leader has won the trust and respect of millions of Ethiopians. If, by some miracle, there will come a day when Ethiopians elect their leaders freely and fairly, no body can beat Birtukan.

We should, however, realise the fact that the challenges awaiting her are too many and complicated. The worst problem comes from those who should have rallied around her as one. Some of her own comrades are only more skilful at pointing figures at each other than winning the freedom and dignity of the oppressed people of Ethiopia. Birtukan must lead and act decisively in order to make a significant comeback. She needs to ignore and distance those who are only wasting time and resources spreading trivia and clueless agenda. She can make use of the enviable leverage and clout she has as a beloved, respected and trusted leader only if the internal time wasters and bickerers are cleared out.

Ethiopia is a country that has been waiting for real leaders for far too long. Many have come and gone. They have risen and fallen in the face of challenges. Some have surrendered to tyranny, some have given up out of frustration, some have sold out their own souls and others have been wavering with no vision and direction. But the heroine is an exception. She has proven to be a real Iron Lady.

The release of Birtukan Mideksa is only the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one in the terrible political history of a nation in great pains. There is no doubt that Birtukan can play a key role in shaping the future Ethiopia as long as she leads wisely, decisively and carefully in a treacherous and dangerous land like ours. Whatever the case is, Birtukan Mideksa is making history that no one before her has tried to.

We have our own Aung San Suu Kyi! We must be careful not to let her down once again. After all, she is the one we have been waiting for.

The writer, Abebe Gellaw, is an award-winning Ethiopian journalist and editor of