The sheep, the wolf and the shepherd: Free Birtukan Midheksa

The controversial re-arrest of Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJP) opposition chair Birtukan Midheksa exposes the efforts of Meles Zenawi’s government to crush its political opponents, writes Etyopian Simbiro. As Ethiopia’s 2010 elections draw ever closer, Midheksa’s role as ‘the darling of the pro-democracy movement’ has seen further damage inflicted on the position of the government. While it remains to be seen whether Midheksa’s inspirational experience can translate into concrete political action, in the meantime, Simbiro contends, it is in everybody’s interests that she be set free by the country’s government. – PAMBAZUKA NEWS

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among human creatures. – Abraham Lincoln

The Wolf and The Sheep

No law-abiding citizen deserves unlawful imprisonment. However, governments have always targeted political activists that question and challenge their system. Such harassment and intimidation was rampant in the United States during the civil rights era. It still happens in many other countries, including Ethiopia.

Civil disobedience naturally arises from the deprivation of freedom. Erich Fromm once said: ‘Human history begins with man’s act of disobedience which is at the very same time the beginning of his freedom and development of his reason.'[1] Dictatorial regimes are well-known for limiting their citizens’ freedom and for inhibiting the development of reason, because these two actions determine how long they can rule unconstitutionally.

Starting from the feudal era until the present day, Ethiopia’s autocratic men have successfully silenced those who disobeyed them. During the monarchy, anyone who threatened the king’s throne was destined to either rot in jail or to be hanged in public. After the end of the monarchy, the military dictatorship openly and zealously terrorised and murdered those that firmly stood against its tyranny. ‘Red terror’ served as the catalyst to strike down protesters. Improved techniques of repression, such as deliberate accusations of subversion and treason, are the norms in today’s Ethiopia. Moreover, Meles Zenawi’s government authorises the direct shooting of bullets at protesters when push comes to shove, as observed both during and before 2005. People still live in fear that they could be arrested or executed if they openly challenge Zenawi’s system.

Many Ethiopians hope that their country will one day break free from the vicious cycle of repression. Nevertheless, Ethiopia still has to witness neutral institutions that safeguard the principles of a democratic system, committed elites that accelerate the democratic process, an organised youth that actively participates in political leadership (or an environment that allows it participate), selfless leaders whose main interest is helping their poor people, and vigilant civil societies that perform their duties with little or no government intrusion.

As we approach the 2010 election, many political prisoners languish in Ethiopia’s crowded jails. Birtukan Midheksa, the chair of Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJP), is one of them.

Birtukan became a leader of the UDJP after her group split from the now defunct Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP). Birtukan, as an executive member of the CUDP, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2005, ‘convicted of overthrowing the government through violence’.[2] Later, in 2007, the government ‘pardoned’ all the imprisoned CUDP leaders, ‘following their plea for pardon.’[3] But Birtukan was rearrested after she confessed to her supporters in Europe that she was ‘cajoled’ into signing the pardon letter.[4]


Birtukan’s supporters strongly doubt that she was re-arrested simply due to her confession. They believe the government used the confession as a pretext to lock her up in order to weaken her party. Because of its controversy, the re-arrest has attracted a lot of media and public attention.

Even though Birtukan remains in prison, she has taken the spotlight from other ‘opposition leaders’. She is now the darling of the pro-democracy movement. For some, she is ‘lady liberty’. The opposition media sensationalises her case. For Zenawi’s party, she is the thorn in the flesh. She has probably done more damage to the government than the psychological and physical pains she endures in the notorious jail Qaliti. Her case amplifies the cries of the ‘voiceless’ political prisoners that still await justice.


Birtukan’s re-arrest has significantly affected her party, as the government expected. The UDJP’s senior executives have already split into two factions.[5] The faction that controls power has dismembered the other. The dismembered faction accuses the one in power of corruption and abuse of authority.

Dr Yackob Hailemariam, former vice president for external relations of the party, told the Reporter newspaper recently, ‘the imprisonment of Birtukan Midheksa has led to splinters, disputes, and the purge continues. The government has the larger share of blame. What else do you want it to do than jailing the party chairman [sic]? It jailed most of the active supporters and members of the party, it harassed them. We are not even allowed to hold meetings.’[6]

Government intimidation and harassment aside, the executive members of the UDJP are also blamed for failing to resolve their internal differences democratically. The fact that they can’t walk their talk has disappointed many supporters and has forced some to give up on the opposition movement. One of the main reasons that led to the disintegration of the CUDP was internal fighting around a ‘hunger for power’.[7] It is a shame that the same problem haunts the UDJP today.

UDJP leaders could have compromised, and united as one voice, they could have challenged the government, requesting the release of their leader resolutely. But instead they chose the opposite. They still have not resolved their issues. They now have to prove to their supporters and the public that they will lead the country better than Zenawi if they get the chance.

Dr Yackob advised his former colleagues, ‘these are times of democracy, of dialogue, and not of purging and squabbles. Young leaders who were not brought up in a culture similar to ours should take over. We all had a Marxist–Leninist orientation. The culture we came from did not allow the resolution of differences through dialogue and differences. If the country is to have peace and is to grow sustainably, then all political leaders with Marxist–Leninist orientation should step down from their positions. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should be the first to step down.’[8]

Birtukan’s party has recently welcomed former government officials – Seye Abraha and Negasso Gidada – as senior party members. Perhaps, their addition might strengthen the party and might reshape its organisational discipline. But many are very suspicious of these former officials. The splinter group has already protested against welcoming the two men.


Birtukan is a young and fresh leader. Despite her party’s current shortcomings, her message has been consistent: free and fair elections, accountability and transparency, and the rule of law. But we know Zenawi has also been using these phrases since he came to power. What makes the two different? One of the obvious differences is that Zenawi thinks his government is ‘democratic’ as long as everyone plays by the rules, but Birtukan agrees to disagree. She thinks genuine democracy has not prevailed in Ethiopia yet; this disagreement has ‘earned’ her life in prison.

An Ethiopian journalist recently wrote, ‘Birtukan is as far removed from Melesian political values and behavior, but in the understanding of the actions and objectives of the West and its diplomats, they share the same hemisphere.’[9] A French diplomat, whom the journalist quoted, said, ‘Birtukan could be a great leader of the country in the future. She has some great qualities. She just needs to be a smart political player.’[10]

Birtukan Midheksa

Birtukan’s supporters liken her to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader, though some argue that her ‘heroine’ status is a mere publicity stunt. One Ethiopian, who felt the opposition parties betrayed him, wrote on his blog after Birtukan’s re-arrest:

‘Who gives a damn if a pseudo government locks you up quite like your previous pseudo opposition party?… This is just another soap opera that is waiting to play itself out… As far as I am concerned, Birtukan and all her current and former colleagues are pseudo opposition parties… The fact is Birtukan had signed a document that is damning. She had admitted wrongdoing. Everything else is irrelevant, whether you or I try to justify it. Let Birtukan sign some sort of paper again and come out, so she can do what she does best – play a hero.’[11]

The blogger, of course, received mixed reactions from his readers. Some readers agreed with his arguments, while others passionately defended Birtukan. One of them wrote:

‘I am hardly an opposition sympathizer but on this one issue I think you need to give Birtukan tremendous credit for the sacrifices she has already made. What [her] arrest should tell us is how backward we are as a nation. It is blatantly shameful for a government to arrest a citizen [and sentence her to life in prison] simply because she [told the truth]. It is ridiculous.’[12]

Arguments aside, Birtukan’s position as a chair of a political party, which still gives some hope to supporters that disapprove Zenawi’s administration, has undeniable significance: it uplifts women and speeds up the democratisation process in the country.

In Ethiopia, as in many other countries, women have been historically marginalised. Except in some households, Ethiopian women still are culturally, economically and politically disadvantaged in both urban and rural areas. Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups (most followers of moderate Islam and orthodox Christianity) are patriarchal in nature; traditionally, men are de facto dictators of their households and society at large. In most cases, women are not allowed to challenge men’s authority; they are least expected to make serious decisions. Influential women who challenge men’s authority, or who are competent leaders, are frequently measured by men’s standards: ‘She is a man!’ is the usual accolade to a courageous, decisive and smart woman.

Many parents expect their boys to study engineering, medicine or law, while they encourage their girls to settle for marriage. Birtukan is a survivor of such a cultural trap. She is an important figure in our national politics. Her story can inspire so many young girls; it can change Ethiopian parents’ attitudes towards their daughters. It can demystify the common stereotype that women are less competent leaders than men.

I admire Birtukan’s courage and determination to stand up for what she believes. She inspires young people like me.

Birtukan’s case will surely challenge the Zenawi regime as long as she remains in jail convicted of ‘trumped-up charges’. Should her popularity worry us? Is it a mere ‘cult of personality’ or there is more to her name? We will see. However, in the mean time, it’s to the government’s advantage to set Birtukan free before the 2010 election. Freeing Birtukan and other political prisoners will not only open the door for national reconciliation, but it will also expedite the democratisation process. Otherwise, the 2010 election will only be seen as a ‘sham election’.

Originally Posted @ PAMBAZUKA NEWS


[1] Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion
[3] See [2]
[7] See [6]
[8] See [6]
[10] See [9]
[12] See [11]


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