Election rigging in Birtukan Mideksa's woreda

By Eskinder Nega / June 18, 2010
Perhaps the crudest claim by the EPRDF in its bungled-rigged-election saga this year is its “triumph” in Birtukan Mideksa’s wereda where she was born, raised and resided until she was imprisoned in 2009. Popularly known as Ferencay Legasion, the area was first settled by two prominent nobles of Haile Selasie’s era -- Ras Seyoum and Ras Kassa -- and the French embassy; which is said to sprawl on over eighty acres of land allotted to it by a jubilant Menelik who had just overwhelmed the Italians at Adwa in 1896.

Few people had ever heard of Birtukan Mideksa in 2000, the year of Ethiopia’s second illusory experiment with multi-party elections, when, after resigning from her position as a federal judge, as was then required by law, she sought public support in her bid for a seat in federal parliament as an independent candidate. “ I first heard her speak at a town-hall meeting a few months before the elections,” told me Nebeyou Bazezew, who was to later serve as her de-facto campaign manager. More than 1,300 residents had bizarrely turned out for usually sparingly attended town-hall meetings summoned thrice a year to review police conduct. “Police brutality and corruption had become unbearable. The people had lodged their complaint, and they had come out in large numbers to hear the results,” says Nebeyou.

But the authorities had other ideas. Suspecting that police issues were being manipulated by the opposition, they showed up geared for a showdown. “The complaints about police brutality are unsubstantiated,” said one of them ominously. “Only known criminals have been beaten up.” Birtukan’s hand shot up. An anonymous and innocent face poised in-front of him, an official mockingly pointed towards her, beckoning her to speak. She stood up to speak; her words flowed out clearly and calmly, and people suddenly peered pryingly towards the young woman that was speaking. “I am fully acquainted with the law,” said Birtukan with censorious tone, surprising the officials amongst whom was not a single female. “And the law clearly stipulates that even suspected criminals are protected from physical harm while under custody. They should not be beaten up.” The applause was instantaneous and vociferous. The officials were furious. They glared at her for a few seconds, not sure what their next move should be. The very law they had prolifically used to silence the public was being used against them. And worse, by a young woman that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. “Ah,” one of them finally shrieked. “What does she know about the law? The law we know has no qualms about how criminals should be handled. It teaches them a lesson in no uncertain terms,” he said dismissively, his head held up; staring smugly into her eyes. “ I don’t know what law she speaks of,” he winded down mischievously. She rose up from her seat, flushed and demanding to be heard. “I won’t let you speak,” told her the presiding official defiantly. He could see that the crowd was captivated by her, and he wanted to deny them a leader. “Then this is not a democratic forum. I have no reason to be here,” she countered irately; and walked out. To the utter amazement of the officials, almost everyone else rose up spontaneously and walked out with her. The officials sat frozen in their seats, humiliated and no doubt in serious trouble with their superiors. Thus was born Birtukan the politician: hero to thousands in her wereda long taken for granted by snooty local officials.

Almost overnight she was catapulted into a serious rival of established political parties. Freed from the daily routine of a 9 to 5 job, she became an assiduous campaigner. “Ours became the only campaign run almost exclusively by the youth,” recounts Nebeyou. “We were swamped by volunteers. They came to us. We did not go to them.” The campaign took off quickly, and her name recognition amongst voters rose phenomenally; but for the crucial break, her volunteers were soon to realize, money was indispensable. And this is where an anomalous supporter in the person of a half-brother of the Minister of Education, Genet Zewede, stepped into the scene with a cartload of promises. “He promised us almost everything under the sun,” says the source of Genene Asefa, who now fervently supports her imprisonment, and is the butt of jokes amongst returnees from the US (where he once lived) for his embellished -- and patently faked -- praise of Meles Zenawi. (Meles tolerates but also disdains sycophants, say those who know him.)

“Genene said -- and I quote -- 'these people (the EPRDF) are animals (awreh, in Amharic) and uncivilized (yalseletenu, in Amharic).’ He told us that there is hope only in young people organizing and fighting them,” says a source who was part of Birtukan’s campaign. But by then a threatened EPRDF felt that it was time to contain a growing threat. Key members of her young volunteers were summoned by officials and threatened with imprisonment. They left in droves, propped by the urging of Birtukan herself who told them that it was best to pull back. Few weeks short of the election, the grassroots network was suddenly undone, curbing the momentum that was building up. “She was not bitter,” says Nebeyou. Her experience only confirmed what she had long suspected: an EPRDF that is by disposition and calculated design authoritarian. But even then, she went on to secure more votes than could be reasonably expected in lieu of the limited budget and narrowed political space.

Five years later, Birtukan, who was tenaciously courted by political parties save the EPRDF, which she politely rebuffed, was not to contest again in the 2005 elections as many of her supporters had hoped and expected she would as CUD’s candidate. Instead, Mulualem Tarekegn, wife of a prominent opposition politician, Admasu Gebeyehu, and herself an emerging political personality, represented CUD and went on to win by a huge landslide.

Fast forward another five years to 2010, and Birtukan, by now affectionately dubbed the “indomitable lion” by friend and foe alike, had mustered the enthusiasm of not only her core supporters but even those who had not voted for her in 2000. For most residents of the wereda, one of the Addis’ many low income enclaves, the rise to national prominence of one of them resonated with their deepest aspiration: their pride in her achievement is palpable to outsiders. And as she sat in Kaliti Prison this year, victim of EPRDF’s malaise and conceit, few doubted the resolve of her wereda’s residents to send her a message by according her party, the eight parties’ coalition Medrek, a resounding victory in the election. The EPRDF, on the other hand, acutely cognizant of both the domestic and international implication of the election’s outcome in the wereda, was no less determined to prevent such an outcome. Defeat at the polls was perceived as no less than a personal affront to Meles Zenawi, panicking his cadres. Birtukan’s party was to be “defeated” at any cost. The alternative was not even contemplated.

Medrek fielded Baheta Tadesse, a popular high school teacher in a prestigious high school in Addis, for the seat that Birtukan would have run for if not for her incarceration. “Everyone knew that a vote for him meant a vote for her,” says a pundit who lives in the wereda. Few weeks before Election Day, wereda streets were inundated with posters dominated by her picture urging voters to cast their votes for Baheta. “You couldn’t miss it,” says the pundit. Baheta, it seemed, was set to win with his hands down.

For its part, the EPRDF relegated more resource, time and energy in Wereda 12 than anywhere else in the country. Every household was carefully scrutinized, each member profiled and for every five people a party member was assigned to garner their support. “A group of EPRDF members, usually led by a kebele official you know, will knock on your door and ask if you registered to vote,” says a resident. They will then ask to see the registration card, and without asking for permission, silently proceed to register its contents. “That had tremendous effect,” says the resident. People were terrified. “Many of those who live in Kebele houses felt that they could lose their house.” And few weeks before Election Day they returned with a form in hand. “In most cases, they refused to leave unless the form was filled and signed, committing the person to vote for the EPRDF,” told me the resident. Most people thought their signature was legally binding, potentially landing them in trouble if they voted otherwise. To cap it all, they were everywhere on Election Day, reminding residents of their promises as they went to polling stations. “We couldn’t avoid them on election day,” says the resident. A climate of fear had ingeniously been set up.

But this is only part of the story. Detailing what happened on Election Day requires a whole new article. I will save that for a future date.

The writer, Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years in the limbo, Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com