Open Letter to Birtukan Mideksa

By Eskinder Nega / October 15, 2010
Birtukan - You are our hero.
One of the drawbacks of living in Ethiopia is the limitation it imposes on reading. The New York Time’s bestsellers list is actually further away than the mere eight thousand physical miles that separate the US and Ethiopia. Amazon’s magical kindle? Science-fiction fantasy, as far as we are concerned. But thanks to the Internet, we at least read the great books that hit Western markets with sustained (and enviable) consistency. And what promises to be one of them, Nelson Mandela’s collection of private papers, under the title of “Conversations with Myself,” was released on Tuesday; addressing amongst other subjects, his anguish at becoming hero-worshipped.

The image of Mandela in the popular imagination altered slowly over the long years of his imprisonment. During his trial and the many subsequent years that followed, he was “a radical; a communist who espoused violence.” That he escaped the death sentence was ironically projected as testimony to the independence of South Africa’s judiciary; the prevalence of rule of law even if only within the narrow confines of apartheid. In the poisoned environment of bitter cold-war rivalry, his conviction was trumped as an indictment against the “violent” black liberation movement and an affirmation of the "prudence" of the architects of institutionalized racism. But this is a decade’s long story, and towards the end the image of Mandela changed decisively. It took the persistence of a small minority -- with human rights activists at its core -- to make a difference. And they had no choice but to build an image of the perfect Mandela -- saintly, perfect; almost God-like.

Mandela reflects on this in his new book:

“One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying….As a young man, I combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretion of a country boy, whose range of vision and experience was influenced mainly by events in the area in which I grew up and the colleges to which I was sent. I relied on arrogance to hide my weaknesses.”

Whatever Mandela says though, his idealized image -- made-up persona -- is held so dearly by South Africans, no prospect is dreaded more than its deconstruction; which is what he is now frantically fighting for. But if the experience of the US is anything to go by, he is doomed to fail -- at least in the short run. For the mythologized rendering of George Washington, who led the American War of Independence against the British, as a person incapable of uttering a lie, endured in school textbooks even after it was exposed -- by the original source, no less -- as a made-up story. America refused to let go of the mythologized idol easily. But even if downgraded slightly, hero Washington remains. And real hero he was. Like the rest of us, he just was not perfect. Perfection is really a divine attribute, beyond the reach of us mortals. Mandela treads on the same path. His deconstruction is only a question of time. Still, his hero-status will not falter.

There are multiple parallel stories in Ethiopia. One inevitably evolved with the extraordinary rise of the EPRDF to power, and involved scores of personalities -- Hayelom Araya, Muse Tekle, Gessese Ayele and others. But there is now an overt drive to re-write history around a made-up persona of Meles Zenawi (The theme: Meles as the misunderstood Messiah!) A thousand pages (by Col. Eyasu.) have already been devoted to his perfection. But his inevitable deconstruction will hardly be controversial. It will be an open-and-shut case.

The imprisoned leaders of Kinijit, who disputed a stolen election against the odds, were no less mythologized as the campaign to secure their freedom unraveled. Stricken by the intensity of emotion with which they were welcomed at Washington’s Dulles Airport weeks after their release in 2007, an American police officer famously wondered if they were “a rock band.” Recounting the extraordinary events of that day, Professor Al Mariam had this to say:

“The crowd would not leave them alone. They followed them outside the terminal. They sang for them. They assembled in the parking lot. They sang some more. They followed them on the highways, miles and miles of cars lined up in two lanes. Young people flashing the "V" sign as they sped down the highway, calling out their names and thanking them. "We love you Birtukan. Thanks Bre (Birhanu). Thanks Dr. Hailu, Eng. Gizachew, Ato Brook. They followed them to the Washington Mall. And to the Mayflower Hotel. They just couldn't get enough of them….People hugging, kissing, embracing, singing and congratulating each other, unstoppably.”

Only mythologized leaders, not ordinary politicians, could have been received this way.

While too many of them were to sadly fall from the pedestal prematurely, the elevated images of Birtukan and Birhanu endured. And both were to be reinforced in due course: Birtukan, because of her re-imprisonment; and Birhanu, because of his alleged involvement in a coup attempt.

The world-wide campaign to free Birtukan between 2008 and 2010 is a book-length story. However, in its broad outlines, it mirrors multitude of other campaigns to free famous prisoners around the globe -- South Africa’s Nelson Mandela , Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and now that he is a Noble Prize winner, China’s Liu Xiaobo. Inevitably, an exalted image of the prisoner towered over the substance of the issue in all instances. There is a rational reason for this. People are swayed -- and engaged -- more by simple tales of personal nobility and heroism rather than the mundane details of issues.

And here comes the thrust of this letter: it is only the inflated image of Birtukan -- with its impossibly high standard -- that has been punctured by the vulgarly-worded pardon-request. The real Birtukan remains unscathed. Under the made-for-public veneer, there is the real Birtukan that indeed inspired millions; admittedly, less perfect than the idolized image, but still worthy of the admiration of millions; still endowed with evident leadership qualities; and whose moral and intellectual integrity remains intact. In actual fact, it’s a blessing in disguise that the lofty image is no more.

The standard definition aside, moral bravery in politics amounts to taking unpopular positions despite social disapproval and possible backlash. Practically all the great personalities of history have at one point in their career been forced to take unpopular positions. Their greatness lies in their subsequent success in overcoming this interlude. They did not give up; daunting though their prospects seemed. And they went on -- unwearyingly and doggedly -- to win.

The nation expects nothing less from you.