By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / May 17, 2010
Note: Except for
elements inserted in the nature of narrative license, syntax and independently
established facts, this “interview” is based on English or Amharic
translations of public statements,
hearing testimony, speeches and other declarations[] of Birtukan
Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and that
country’s most famous
political prisoner. Her re-imprisonment in December 2008 on allegations of
denying a pardon was a tactical move by dictator Meles Zenawi to incapacitate
and eliminate his only serious and formidable challenger in the May 2010 “elections”.
In March 2010, the U.S. State
Department declared Birtukan a political prisoner. In January 2010, the United
Nations Human Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention. Amnesty
International named Birtukan a prisoner of conscience in 2009.
“interview” is done partly for the benefit of Western governments
and their diplomatic representatives in Ethiopia in light of the May 2010
“elections”. It seems
that Western governments in general have taken a solemn vow to say nothing, see
nothing and hear nothing about Birtukan. As they hide behind a diplomatic shield
of shame and give lip service to democratic ideals while coddling a dictator, I
hope with this “interview” they will at least begin to appreciate
this extraordinarily brilliant, thoughtful, enlightened, perceptive, humorous, cultured,
humble and compassionate Ethiopian woman political leader.
I had the great honor
and privilege to meet Birtukan in the Fall of 2007 when she led a delegation of
Coalition for Unity and Democracy (Kinijit) party leaders visiting the United
States. On numerous occasions, I have publicly expressed my highest respect,
greatest admiration, deepest gratitude and boundless appreciation for Birtukan’s
sacrifices in the cause of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law
Q. Let’s start
by talking about your situation in Akaki federal prison over the past year and
half. We are told that your “health is in perfect condition”, you have
picked up a “few kilos” and could use some physical exercise. How is life in prison?
Birtukan: Correction! You mean life at the Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort?
Well, the food here is excellent and so are the accommodations. I have my own special room. I like to call
it my boudoir. They call it
“Solitary Confinement”. It is true that I have “gained a few
kilos”, but that is because I spend all of my time in my room. “C’est
la vie” at the Akaki Hilton, as they say in French.
Q. The reason you
were returned to prison to serve out a life term is that you allegedly denied
receiving a pardon when you were released in July, 2007. Did you deny receiving
Birtukan: I have never denied signing the pardon document as an
individual prisoner. I, along with
the other opposition political prisoners, asked for pardon through the elders
according to the document that was written on June 18, 2007. This is a fact I can not change
even if I wanted to. In my opinion the reason why all these illegal
intimidations and warnings were aimed at me have nothing to do with playing with
words, inaccurate statements I made or any violations of law. The message is
clear and this message is not only for me but for all who are active in the
peaceful struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be
conducted only within the limits the ruling party has set and not according to
what the country’s Constitution allows. And for me it is extremely
difficult to accept this.
Q. As you know,
elections are scheduled for May 23, 2010. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Birtukan: It is hard for me to say much locked up at the Akaki
Hilton. I get no newspapers, magazines or books. I have no radio or television.
But I can tell you how it was in 2005 and you can judge for yourself what the
situation is like today.
In 2005, public interest and
participation in the electoral process was massive. The European Union Observer
team estimated voter registration at no less than 85% of all eligible voters, based
on lists containing 25,605,851 names of registered persons. The total number of
candidates for the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 1,847. A total
of 3,762 candidates ran for Regional Councils. The total number of women
candidates to the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 253, and 700 in
the Regional Councils.
To its credit the government in
2005 allowed limited media access, established a Joint Political Party Forum at
national and constituency levels, regular consultations with electoral
authorities to resolve problems in campaign and election administration,
special elections-related training programs for the police and the judiciary,
pledges of non-violence between the ruling and opposition parties for election
day and invitation of international election observers and so on.
As election day approached, the
government started to use its power to influence the outcome of the election. There
was widespread interference by local authorities in the conduct of public
gatherings and opposition party rallies, threats and intimidations by some
local public officials. In some instances, force was used to disrupt public
gatherings and detain opposition supporters throughout the country. In the days
preceding the elections, there was a spike in negative campaigns on radio and
television using images and messages designed to intimidate by associating the
genocide in Rwanda with
Even though the Election Board was
required to announce the official results on June 8, that requirement was
superseded when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency,
outlawed any public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces,
and replaced the capital city police with federal police and special military units.
The Elections Board simultaneously ordered the vote tallying process to stop,
and on May 27, the Board released its determination that the ruling party, the
Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front had won 209 seats, and
affiliated parties 12 more. The report indicated opposition parties had won 142
seats. Our party filed complaints in 139 constituencies, the UEDF
lodged 89 complaints, while the EPRDF raised concerns over irregularities in
more than 50 seats.
That’s how it was back in
Q. The ruling regime
continues to make public accusations that the opposition in the current
“election” is inciting violence as it did in 2005. Recent public
statements from the highest levels of the ruling regime indicate that any
attempts by opposition parties to boycott the election, complaints of
harassment and intimidations and agitations of youth to engage in violence will
be dealt with harshly after the elections. How do you assess the situation?
Birtukan: As the 2005 elections have shown, if there is any
violence to occur in the current election it is not going to come from the
opposition. The Inquiry Commission established by the government in 2005 to
look into the killings and excessive use of force against demonstrators decided
that there was not a
single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as alleged by the government.
The shots fired by government forces were not intended to disperse the crowd of
protesters but to kill them by targeting their heads and chests. The
historical facts speak for themselves. If there is election related violence
today, one need look no further than the usual suspects.
Q. The ruling regime likes
to trumpet to the world that Ethiopia
is governed democratically, human rights are fully protected and the rule of
law observed. Do you agree with these claims?
Birtukan: Dictatorship and democracy are not the same thing. There
is no democracy in Ethiopia today,
despite empty claims of “recent bold democratic initiatives taken by our
government, the immense progress in creating a competitive, pluralistic system
of government and a more open civil society.” The fact of the matter is
that there is neither pluralism nor commitment to democratic principles and
practices in Ethiopia.
The government’s claim of political pluralism has not gone beyond the
stage of political sloganeering. If pluralism involves widespread participation
and a greater feeling of commitment from citizens, it does not exist today
If pluralism means increased and diverse participation in the political decision-making
process and giving everyone a stake in the political process, it does not exist
If pluralism means a process where every voice is heard, conflict is resolved
by dialogue and compromise and an atmosphere of tolerance, understanding and
respect is nurtured, that does not exist either. But democracy in Ethiopia today
must not only reflect the values of pluralism, it must also be genuinely participatory,
transparent, accountable, equitable and based on the rule of law. We
are all aware that democracy in Ethiopia will
not be accomplished overnight. But we must start the process now in earnest by
installing its critical pillars of support.
Q. What are the
pillars you believe are important in establishing democracy in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: The are many. Let me start by mentioning the need for an
independent judiciary. I know a thing or two about that having served as a
judge and also being a victim of a judicial system that has me imprisoned for
life. In 2005, I and the various opposition leaders were prosecuted for various
state crimes including genocide, treason, incitement to violence, leading armed
rebellion and other charges. Our prosecution occurred in a court
system that has little institutional independence, and one subject to
political influence and manipulation from the ruling regime. It is
a judiciary that is used as a tool of political harassment, intimidation
and persecution. Judges are selected not for professionalism or legal knowledge
but for their loyalty to the government.
It is universally accepted that an
independent and professional judiciary is a key element in the
institutionalization of the rule of law, the promotion and protection of human
rights and even in implementing social and economic reform in society. The U.N.
Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents recognize
the central importance of an independent judiciary as the guarantors of due
process and justice. Judicial independence is guaranteed by Article 78 of the
Ethiopian Constitution but it does not exist in reality. Although judges are supposed to be free of
party politics, many are under the direct control of the party in power, if not
outright members. With the judiciary under effective political control, there
is little confidence in its institutional powers or the legitimacy of its
rulings. If we can not have serious judicial reforms, not only will we be
unable to protect the rights of citizens, we will always live under the rule of
the gun instead of the rule of law.
Q. What other pillars
of democracy do you believe are missing in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: Press freedom is another essential requirement necessary for
building democracy in Ethiopia.
Without a free press, there can be no meaningful democracy. People in Ethiopia,
particularly in the rural areas, do not have access to important political
information because of exclusive government control of the media. Political
parties need to have equal access to media controlled by the government so that
they can effectively communicate with the people. Various international human
organizations have ranked Ethiopia at
the top of the list of countries where there is little freedom of press. The U.S. and other
Western governments can help by promoting private electronic media and
supporting the emergence of private newspapers, weeklies and magazines to help
develop a well-informed public.
Q. What are your
views on the electoral process, and what improvements to that process do you
believe are needed?
Birtukan: First, all elections must be free and fair in order for
citizens to meaningfully participate in shaping the political makeup and future
policy direction of government. People must be free to register to vote or run
for public office. Candidates and parties must be free to engage the voters
without intimidation or harassment. There must be an independent free press to
provide information to the voters. The freedom to assemble for political
rallies and campaigns must be guaranteed. There must also be an impartial system
of conducting elections and verifying election results. It was the lack of independence,
impartiality and transparency of the Ethiopian National Electoral Board that
was one of the factors that complicated the resolution of the dispute in the
2005 elections. We need an elections board that is representative of all the
political parties and enjoys the public trust. People need to have confidence
that their votes are counted properly and there is no elections
Q. How do you assess
the human rights situation in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to
which all humans are entitled. Many of these rights are secured under
international law and the Ethiopian Constitution. The ruling regime has sought
to put up a façade of commitment to human and democratic rights. But its
practices contravene all of its obligations under the Ethiopian constitution
and the human rights conventions that bind Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Constitution
under Art. 14 enumerates all of the “human rights” enjoyed by
Ethiopian citizens. Arts. 14-28 enumerate these rights and include basic protections
against arbitrary government actions and guarantees of due process. Art. 13,
sec. 2 states “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this
Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and
conventions ratified by Ethiopia.”
The fact is that the ruling regime
observes neither its own constitution nor the requirements of well-established
international human rights conventions. The regime’s own Inquiry Commission
in 2005 has documented widespread excessive use of force by government
security forces. The human rights violations committed by the ruling
regime are so numerous and egregious that it would be too difficult to list
them all here. But I wish to cite a few examples documented in the U.S. State
Department Human Rights Report for 2006.
That report stated that
“Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit the use of
torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security
officials often beat or mistreated detainees.” Massive arrests and
detentions are common, and the Report concluded, “Although the
[Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the
government frequently did not observe these provisions in practice….
Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to
counsel and family members, particularly in outlying regions... The independent
commission of inquiry… found that security officials held over 30,000
civilians incommunicado for up to three months in detention centers located in
remote areas… Other estimates placed the number of such detainees at over
Q. Do you think
Western governments, particularly the U.S., can play a role in improving the
overall situation in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: As the largest donor country, the U.S is in the best
position to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. In
general, Western governments must insist on the release of all political
prisoners and the immediate restoration of democratic rights. They must insist
on accountability and transparency since they provide substantial aid to keep
the government afloat. They must promote human rights by supporting civic
society organizations and implementing other mechanisms that can facilitate adequate
monitoring and reporting of human rights violations. The West must insist on the
functioning of a free press without censorship and restrictive press laws, and help
strengthen private media in Ethiopia.
The West can also play a central
role in the electoral process by ensuring fraud-free elections, helping political
parties build more effective organizations and campaigns, strengthening civil
society groups to function as facilitators in the democratic process and
professionalization of the National Election Board to help it become fair and
balanced. On the other hand, we want to make sure that U.S. security
assistance to Ethiopia
be used for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and never against
the civilian population.
Q. What are your
views on the future of Ethiopia?
Birtukan: I believe Ethiopia
is the country of the future. Ethiopia has
many problems, including a legacy of repression, ethnic division, corruption, mismanagement,
lack of accountability and transparency. It will not be easy for us to confront
the past and move on with lessons learned. The most important task now is to
build the future country of Ethiopia
by fully embracing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only through
dialogue, negotiation and compromise can justice, stability and peace be
guaranteed in Ethiopia.
Thank you Birtukan for this “interview”. Stay