Ethiopia: “C’est la Vie? C’est la Vie en Prison!”

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / April 4, 2010
 "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al
When Meles Zenawi, the arch dictator in Ethiopia, was asked about Birtukan’s health in his prison on March 23, 2010, he was comically philosophical about it. He said Birtukan health is in “perfect condition”, except that she may be putting on some weight.

The health situation of Birtukan, the last I heard, is in perfect condition. She may have gained a few kilos, but other than that, and that may be for lack of exercise, I understand she is in perfect health… I am not surprised that they [U.S. State Department] have characterised Birtukan as a political prisoner, because I understand they have also characterised Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Oromia Liberation Front (OLF) terrorists… as political prisoners… But that is life; I think the French say, “C’est la Vie.”

It has now been 461 days since Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman leader of a political party in Ethiopia, was snatched from the streets by Zenawi’s goons and re-imprisoned for allegedly denying a pardon from a bogus political conviction in 2007. On January 9, 2010, Zenawi told a press conference that any discussion of Birtukan’s release was “a dead issue.” On January 15, 2010, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion finding that Birtukan Midekksa is a political prisoner. In its February 25, 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department stated: “On December 29, [2008] Unity for Democracy and Justice Party president Birtukan Mideksa was rearrested for accurately telling European media organizations that she had not requested from the government a pardon leading to her release from jail in July 2007.” On December 5, 2009, Amnesty International declared that Birtukan “is a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression and association.” In its March 24, 2010 report, Human Rights Watch declared, “Ethiopia’s most prominent political prisoner is Birtukan Midekssa, the leader of the UDJ party.” In its March 11, 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department reported that Birtukan was a political prisoner who is being held in “violation of her constitutional rights”:

Opposition UDJ party president Birtukan Mideksa, whose pardon was revoked and life sentence reinstated in December 2008, remained in prison throughout the year. She was held in solitary confinement until June [2009], despite a court ruling that indicated it was a violation of her constitutional rights.She was also denied access to visitors except for a few close family members, despite a court order granting visitor access without restrictions. There were credible reports that Birtukan's mental health deteriorated significantly during the year.

When Zenawi says Birtukan is in “perfect condition” and “may have gained a few kilos”, he is of course mocking her. He is taking a cheap shot. It is his way of distracting attention from the universally accepted fact that she is his personal political prisoner. He gets a kick out of publicly humiliating her. He uses sleazy humor to suggest that she is sitting idly in his prison and getting fat. It is not enough for Zenawi to keep Birtukan in solitary confinement in a filthy dungeon, deprive her of basic human contact for months, deny her the most elementary human rights, torment her day and night and condemn her in public. No, no! That is not enough. Zenawi must mock and heap scorn on her and roll over laughing at the sight of her suffering. The brave young woman who stood up to him in public must be humiliated and slapped in the face in public. “Birtukan Invictus”1 must become “Birtukan the Vanquished”.

Just imagine the caricature of Birtukan getting “fat” at the “Zenawi Akaki Hilton (a/k/a “federal” prison) Spa and Resort” feasting on steak tartare and washing it down with gulps of tej (a local honey wine). But the “fat joke” aimed at Birtukan is not Zenawi’s first. This past December he described her as a “silly chicken” who ultimately did herself in because she did not know the limits of her modest abilities and his overwhelming and boundless might.2 Well! Excuse the hell out of me, but I am not laughing! I am not into sick jokes!

Zenawi is right though in saying that Birtukan suffers “from lack of exercise.” It is absolutely true that after being held in total solitary confinement for six months and semi-solitary confinement for nearly a year after that, Birtukan suffers severely “from lack of exercise.”

Lame and sadistic jokes aside, there is something inane in Dr. Zenawi’s bill of “perfect health” for Birtukan. He has never seen or visited her in prison. He has not allowed her friends, extended family members, colleagues and associates to visit her. He has refused to allow a reputable physician to visit her, at her own cost. He has prohibited diplomats, journalists and representatives of humanitarian organization from visiting her. The only persons he has allowed her to see are her aged mother and her 5 year old daughter for one-half hour or less once a week. But he has heard from Birtukan’s jailors that her health is in “perfect condition” and she is getting fat on the gourmet cuisine at the “Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort”. Such is the arrogance of power!

But Birtukan’s health situation is no joking or laughing matter for us. In fact, as the U.S. State Department has documented, her health has been deteriorating since her re-imprisonment in December, 2009. After she was abducted from the streets, she was thrown straight into solitary confinement for the first six months at the “Akaki Hilton”. She now remains in semi-solitary confinement there. As anyone familiar with the operation of penal institutions knows, solitary confinement is a special form of punishment reserved for the most violent, dangerous and predatory prisoners in an institution. Such prisoners are denied contact with other persons, except limited contact with prison staff, because they have a record of being a serious danger to prison staff, other inmates or themselves. They are kept incommunicado as a preventive security measure. Birtukan was placed in solitary confinement immediately upon arrest. What possible or conceivable threat, danger or violence could the former judge, lawyer and political party leader have presented to deserve solitary confinement straight from the streets?

Those familiar with inmates who have served time in solitary confinement know that prolonged isolation produces extraordinarily stressful experiences for detainees with a whole range of harmful health effects. In solitary confinement, the individual is cut off from virtually all human contact and forced to live in an environment with little stimulation. No radio, books or other materials are allowed. Prison staff are instructed to maintain minimal contact with such prisoners. As I have explained elsewhere3 , there are specific psychiatric symptoms associated with solitary confinement including perceptual distortions, illusions, hallucinations, agitation, self-destructive behavior, pervasive sense of hopelessness and overt psychotic disorganization. Prolonged solitary confinement-induced stress often triggers the onset of mental illnesses and psychological impairments such as hearing voices, severe and extreme panic attacks, loss of impulse control with random violence, difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory and overt paranoia. When the March 11, 2010 State Department report diplomatically states, “There were credible reports that Birtukan's mental health deteriorated significantly during the year”, what it is really saying is that Birtukan has shown many of the solitary confinement-induced “mental” symptoms. In simple terms, Birtukan’s tormentors are doing their best to torment her into madness.

Solitary confinement is a method of subjugation that aims to strip away their pride, honor and dignity of the prisoner. It is a process by which the prisoner is reduced into complete and total helplessness. It is the ultimate demonstration of raw machismo: Those in power seek to psychologically and physically breakdown the prisoner held in isolation, destroy his/her sense of self, well-being and security, instill fear and cause such prisoners to commit self-destructive acts. For political prisoners, the ultimate aim is to drive them mad. Such is the crime that continues to be committed against Birtukan every single day. She is, without a shadow of doubt, a victim of psychological torture.

But why humiliate, mistreat, degrade, mock, dishonor, brutalize, torment and abuse Birtukan?

The answer is simple. For Zenawi, Birtukan’s case is strictly personal. She stood up and opposed him on principle. He mistakes that as stubborn defiance. He has to teach this “uppity” woman a lesson she will never forget. He has to break her down for challenging his power and authority. Birtukan must also be punished for something Zenawi could never have: The love, respect and admiration of the Ethiopian people.

The interdisciplinary scientific literature in the field of political psychology is illuminating in understanding aberrant psychological attributes of political leaders driven by primitive and pent up emotions such as anger, vindictiveness and hatred. For instance, the works of Harold Laswell, Otto Kernberg, Jerrold Post, Eric Fromm and others provide valuable insights in understanding the vindictive personality. Some individuals in positions of power have accumulated deep bottled-up anger and hatred and live in a constant state of rage. They are afflicted by what may be called “pathological anger and loathing”. While healthy anger is a natural reaction to perceived or real injustice, pathological anger and loathing are mechanisms by which some in positions of power lash out at others as a way of restoring to themselves self-esteem, prestige and a sense of power, control and invincibility. They must constantly intimidate, brutalize and terrorize others to gain respect. In the process, they become solipsistic (preoccupied with themselves). They suffer delusions of grandiosity in which they create grossly fantasized self-images and perceptions of their achievements. In pursuit of grandiosity, they become “malignant narcissists” driven by unrestrained aggression, an insatiable need for power and recognition and distrust of others laced with an underlying sadism. Kernberg, for instance, argues that “malignant narcissism” develops as a defense against feelings of inferiority and rejection.

Pathological anger and loathing often leads to a poverty of empathy (the ability to feel for the suffering and pain of others). Those afflicted by this syndrome rationalize their cold-heartedness to themselves by “externalization” (finding outside enemies to blame for their failures) and “splitting” (attempting to hide something in their background that they are ashamed of). In short, such individuals experience an objective sense of “self” only when they are persecuting and inflicting pain and suffering on others and enjoying the havoc they have wreaked on their victims.

In considering Birtukan’s health situation, many are mindful of the fate of Dr. Asrat Woldeyes, the famed surgeon, professor of medicine and Ethiopian patriot who was imprisoned by Zenawi in the late 1990s, and denied medical care until his situation had significantly worsened during detention. His underlying heart condition and diabetes and other complications worsened irreversibly by delays in providing him with adequate medical care. He passed away on May 14, 1999. Many believe Dr. Asrat’s fate is what awaits Birtukan.

Zenawi said the “usual suspects” are spreading lies about Birtukan’s health, namely that she is not in “perfect health”. It is not clear to whom he is referring. Birtukan’s mother? Her 5 year old daughter? The only logical “suspects” are the same people who are telling him that Birtukan is in “perfect health” and “gaining a few kilos.” They are indeed spreading lies because Birtukan is in bad, very bad health. She is suffering. If Mr. Zenawi thinks this is a lie, let him allow the International Red Cross, U.S. Embassy personnel or any other independent international body to visit and report on her.

As I have written before4, the truth about Birtuka is simple: The dictators are not afraid of her, but they are terrified of what she represents: Ethiopia’s bright future. Birtukan stands for the unity of all Ethiopians and stands against ethnic hatred, division and strife. That petrifies her captors. As Mandela “dreamt of an Africa which is in peace with itself,” Birtukan dreams of an Ethiopia at peace and harmony with itself. That sends shivers down the spines of those who have caged her. Birtukan appeals to Ethiopia’s youth, who represent over 70 per cent of the population. As Ethiopia is the country of the future, young Birtukan and the millions in her generation are the shining stars rising over the horizon of that future.

Since we are all dabbling in French, perhaps Ethiopia’s enfant terrible would appreciate the wisdom of an old French saying: “Ceux qui rient le vendredi, pleureront le dimanche.” (Those who laugh on Friday will cry on Sunday.)

Mr. Zenawi, it is “c’est la vie” (that’s life) for you; for Birtukan it is “c’est la vie en prison” (that’s life in prison).



4See footnote 1.

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on,, and other sites.