A former political prisoner exiled in the United States, Birtukan Mideksa now takes center stage in Ethiopia as she oversees the country’s first parliamentary elections since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018, pledging to put end to decades of authoritarian rule.
In recommending Mrs Birtukan, 47, to the very important post of president of the electoral council, the new prime minister described her as someone who “would never surrender, even to the government”.
Many agreed with this sentiment as she had built a reputation for being courageous and independent of mind as a lawyer, judge and politician.
Ms Birtukan contested the 2001 parliamentary elections as an independent, but lost to the ruling coalition candidate, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), conceding her defeat was due to her “limited popularity” rather than a rig.
She went on to become a judge, gaining public attention a year later when she resisted political interference in the justice system by ordering the release of former Defense Minister Siye Abraha. His arrest for corruption was seen as an attempt to neutralize a formidable rival to then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
“Siyes’ case is the most visible. But they [Ms Birtukan and other judges] all of them have been trying to invisibly challenge the system for some time, “said a friend, who requested anonymity.
Worried about change, Ms Birtukan returned to politics, playing a key role in forming the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) to present a united front against the EPRDF in the 2005 parliamentary elections, which took place. been widely regarded as the fiercest contested ballot in Ethiopia’s history, with the opposition claiming it was denied victory.
As a senior CUD official, Ms. Birtukan was an obvious target for the security forces, and she was among thousands of people detained during the post-election crackdown. Nearly 200 people were shot dead by the police.
Chased by a friend
An underground network the CUD had built was crushed, but from prison its leaders – including Ms Birtukan – rebuilt it, calling it the Kinjit International Council (KIC), to mobilize support for the campaign for democracy .
“They usually discussed and made decisions on their way to court,” said a friend of Ms Birtukan, who preferred to remain anonymous.
In 2006, Ms Birtukan was among a large number of detainees – including the current chairman of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission Daniel Bekele – who were charged with various offenses, including treason.
To their shock, one of the prosecutors turned out to be Shimels Kemal – a friend of Ms Birtukan and a roommate of Mr Daniel – who asked the judge to sentence them to death.
“The scene was so dramatic,” recalls a colleague, who knew them, in an interview with BBC Amharic.
“Shimels doesn’t let things go easy. He mixes politics with the personal. He felt betrayed when his friends took another line of ideology.”
The judge denied the prosecutor’s request and imposed a life sentence instead.
Forced to leave her little girl in the care of her elderly mother, Ms Birtukan began serving her sentence in the infamous Kaliti Prison, where she acted as a peacemaker between rival CUD factions after major disputes. appeared in their ranks.
“She didn’t fix the problem, but then they rebuilt an underground network from scratch, successfully,” Ms. Birtukan’s friend said.
While in prison, she was one of the prisoners who started talks with a group of elders who brokered a deal between them and the government.
This led to his release in 2007 after 18 months in prison, Ms Birtukan being among those who signed a document lamenting “mistakes” and asking for the pardon of Prime Minister Meles.
The decision sparked controversy in opposition circles and she tried to downplay the document’s importance in a speech she gave during a visit abroad.
The then police chief Wokneh Gebeyehu – now executive secretary of the Igad regional body – ordered him to apologize, accusing him of violating the terms of his pardon.
Ms. Birtukan refused and over the Christmas period in 2008 she was returned to prison to serve the remainder of her life sentence.
Learn more about the elections in Ethiopia:
In an article published in the Ethiopian newspaper Addis Neger shortly before her re-arrest, she wrote: “This may be my last word”, and in an important comment amid the controversy over her decision to seek a pardon, she wrote: “I signed on this document. It is a fact that I cannot change, even if I want to. “
Her new conditions of detention were harsher and she was held in solidarity detention for two months, when she was denied the right to see her daughter.
Exile in the USA
This increased public sympathy for her, with Amnesty International calling her a prisoner of conscience and the South African Mail & Guardian newspaper describing her as Ethiopia’s most notorious political prisoner.
In October 2010, Ms. Birtukan was released again after negotiating a new pardon.
After her release, she and her daughter went into exile in the United States, where she studied at Harvard Kennedy School and then worked for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an American agency that claims to support democracy around the world. .
She returned to Ethiopia after Mr. Abiy took power, promising to end years of repression.
But the euphoria around his appointment has somewhat faded.
After repeated delays, the ballot is now held on Monday, although some major opposition parties are boycotting it, saying the conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist.
Among Ms Birtukan’s criticisms is Professor Merera Gudina, who has known her for 21 years. He heads the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), which boycotted the election.
“We had not seen illegal polling stations or the inability to register a candidate in their constituency in previous elections,” he said.
With OFC and another party boycotting the poll in Oromia, the war in the northern Tigray region and a postponement in parts of the Somali region, “the election is being held mainly in the Amhara region and in [the capital] Addis Ababa “, he added.
But for Addis Ababa University scholar Mesenbet Assefa, Ms Birtukan did a good job.
“The problems are not the manufacture of [election] board of directors or government. Political parties have a responsibility to do what democracy demands – disciplined speech – without using arms to overthrow the government. “
Ms Birtukan herself has sought to manage expectations regarding the elections. In a letter to the US Senate in May, she warned that “shortfalls are inevitable given factors such as … an emerging democratic culture and an increasingly crowded political and security environment.”